Wen Shen: The Vanishing Art of Chinese Tribal Culture
Article © 2009 Lars Krutak
A Tattoo Journey Through China
Throughout the four-thousand-year journey
into what is China's indelible past,
tattooing has traveled and evolved in myriad
forms to convey highly spiritual, personal,
and cultural information across time.
Tattooing reflected concepts of ancestry,
identity, and religion and was central to
the cosmologies and life ways of the peoples
who practiced it.
But for the Chinese chroniclers and leaders who opposed it, tattoo
represented threatening Otherness and was part of a negative vocabulary
that symbolized how far from civilization the tattooed tribespeople of
China had actually fallen off the evolutionary ladder.
Sadly, once these ancient indelible practices vanish from worldview,
so too will one of China's greatest and most unrecognized forms of
indigenous art. An art form that not only speaks volumes about the
country's cultural diversity and rich artistic heritage, but one that is
also deserving of the title "National Treasure".
nomadic Pazyryk people ruled the
Siberian steppes just 120 miles
north of the Caucasian homelands
from the sixth through the second
centuries B.C. A 2500-year-old mummy
of a tribal chieftain sported
elaborate zoomorphic tattoos that
are believed to be imbued with
power. He also wore medicinal
tattoos on his spine and ankle that
were probably applied to cure
rheumatism. Archaeological evidence
supports that the Pazyryk employed
methods of skin-stitching and
pricking to create their beautiful
tattoos. Because Chinese silk has
been found in several Pazyryk
burials, direct or indirect contact
occurred between the two cultures
over two-thousand years ago.
Chinese chronicles from the 9th
century A.D. also indicate that the
ancient Kyrgyz practiced tattooing:
"Males tattoo the hands as a mark of
valor and women tattoo the nape of
the neck as a sign of marital
status." Today, the Kyrgyz inhabit
Kyrgyzstan but their original
ancestors, the Jiankun, were
documented as early as 100 B.C. in
Chinese texts. They were said to
have red hair, fair faces, and green
irises, as do many Kyrgyz today. But
the question remains: Were the
Jiankun descendents of the ancient
tattooed Caucasians or northwest
China? Interestingly, 63% of modern
Kyrgyz men share the same genetic
marker as the Caucasian mummies of
Gros, S. (2005). La part manquante:
échanges et pouvoirs aux confins du Yunnan
(Chine). Ethnologie des Drung dans leurs
relations ā leur voisins. Unpublished Ph.D.
dissertation, University of Paris -
Krutak, L. (2007). The Tattooing Arts of Tribal Women. London:
Bennett & Bloom.
Laukien, M. (2007). "Letter from Drung." Skin and Ink Magazine (7):
Liu, H. (1939). "Hainan: The Island and the People." The China
Journal 29(5-6): 236-246; 302-314.
McCabe, M. [and Q.Y. Wang] (2008). "Tattooed Women of Yunnan, China."
Skin and Ink Magazine (11): 64-74.
Pringle, H. (2001). "The Curse of the Red-Headed Mummy." Saturday
Night 116(18): 32-39. May 12.
Reed, C.E. (2000). "Early Chinese Tattoo." Sino-Platonic Papers 103:
Stϋbel, H. (1937). Die Li Stämme der Insel Hainan: Ein Betrag zur
Volkskunde Sϋdchinas. Berlin: Klinkhardt & Bierman.
Back to Starting Page