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Therapeutic Tattoos In China: An Ancient Tradition In Modern Times

I was walking through an uber-modern part of a uber-modern city and saw something truly ancient.

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I was walking down the street beneath towering high-rises near a Walmart, Starbucks, and KFC in an uber-modern district of Xiamen when I caught sight of something incredibly interesting:

An older man was strolling down the street, his elbows, wrists, hands, and the base of his neck were dotted with tattoo.

These tattoos were of the hand-poked variety — which means that the pigment was inserted beneath the skin via needle by hand rather than a machine or another mechanic implement — and they were of a traditional style. I initially took these tattoos to be the spotted, leopard-like patterns that the Dai minority culture of southern Yunnan sometimes wear.

I walked up to the guy and asked if he was part of the Dai minority group. He looked at me like I was cracked.

“Are you from Xixuangbanna?”

He appeared exasperated, confused, his mouth opened a couple of times but no sound came out. But he was smiling and laughing nervously, apparently amused rather than offended by my questions, so I kept at it.

“Are you from Yunnan province?”

He stared at me like I was insane but managed to indicate that I provenience of his origins incorrectly.

“Your tattoos are attractive,” I then said. At the very least I wanted him to know why I was asking him these questions.

A wave of realization swept over him and he began laughing heartily. He understood what I was talking about now.

“No, these are not tattoos (纹身),” he said, “they are for pain in my joints.”

They were tattoos, but I used the word Wénshēn (纹身) which implies decorative tattooing and not really the basic practice itself. His tattoos were not decorative, they were therapeutic.

I was looking at a modern example of one of the most ancient documented traditions in human history. Therapeutic tattooing is so old that the Tyrolean iceman, a 5300-year-old mummy, even displayed an abundance of them over arthritic joints and on specific acupuncture points, and the archaeological record is dotted with other similar examples. I had no idea that this tradition was practiced in the context modern China at a late enough date that a 60 or 70 year old man could evidence it.

I took out my phone and began photographing his tattoos. He obliged my interest completely, and seemed to find it amusing that I was giving so much attention to something he seemed to find unflattering.

“They are not beautiful,” he said.

I had to disagree.

It was no joke when he said that these tattoos were to relieve pain in his joints. The knuckles on his hands were swollen up in arthritic mounds, and his elbows and wrists were also inflamed.

He told me that the tattooing was done in Quanzhou, a city neighboring Xiamen, that has a tattoo tradition so old that even Marco Polo had the opportunity to comment on it:

“Many come hither from Upper India to have their bodies painted with the needle in the way we have elsewhere described, there being many adepts at this craft in the city.”

I do not know if there is any correlation between this tradition and the one that lead to an array of dots being placed over the joints of the older guy in Xiamen, but I will look into it further.

This is one of the things that I find most interesting about China:

You can be walking in one of the most modern parts of one of the country’s most modern cities and see something that’s completely ancient.


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Filed under: Art and Music, China, Culture and Society, Tattooing

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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