Nowadays tattoos are an expression of self; a piece of art people choose to get permanently displayed on their body. Not all ink has the same story, however, as the last generation of Chinese women with face tattoos explain the dark meaning behind the marks.
There are only a handful of women left on the island of Hainan with telltale lines covering their faces and to find them you would have to embark on a five-hour bus journey from the biggest city before driving by car to their communities located deep in the mountains.
Photographer and teacher Cameron Hack decided to make this journey in order to share the extraordinary stories of the women for the page Humans of China, a site dedicated to sharing living history.
Speaking to UNILAD, the 27-year-old explained there are three minorities in China which are famous for tattooing, each for their own reasons. The minorities include Du Long Minority and Dai Minority found in Yunnan as well as Li Minority, which Cameron focused on.
The Li Minority is broken down into sub-minorities and only five of those inked their skin. Despite the dwindling numbers, Cameron tracked down the last living women with face tattoos after learning about them online.
Initially tattoos in the Li culture signified adulthood, highlighting a young girl was old enough to marry as well as showing social statues within a community. Each village had their own style and even families had their own styles, allowing the women to be identified by their ink.
Over time, however, the meaning changed.
One of the women Cameron spoke to (pictured below) explained how Japanese soldiers in Hainan ‘did some terrible things’ to women and girls in the communities, however ‘the Japanese were not so keen on girls with tattoos on their skin’.
Girls with tattoos were also less likely to be stolen and sold. As a result, the markings weren’t so much a status symbol any more but a way of staying safe.
The Chinese woman, who is one of just two ladies left in her village with tattoos, went on to describe the procedure, explaining her and her friends dipped spikes from trees into ink and used a hammer to gently tap the liquid into their skin, creating the permanent lines.
Although it was ‘really painful’, she has no regrets and said she had wanted the tattoos at the time.
The mother, who is 90 this year, explained:
It took around half a day to finish my face and half a day for each leg. I have a small tattoo on my finger which was one I did myself. It was really painful and I cried but I didn’t stop. I carried on because I wanted to have tattoos. I thought that they would make me more beautiful especially in old age.
After around seven days the pain had gone and the tattoos had healed.
Not only did most girls around me want tattoos, we also needed them to stay safe. When I was a little girl, around 12 years old, I first saw Japanese soldiers here in Hainan. They stayed here for quite some time and did some terrible things.
I was young and fit and whenever I saw them I ran into the mountains to hide with my family and friends. The Japanese were not so keen on girls with tattoos on their skin so they didn’t bother us as much but not all, some soldiers didn’t care.
Similarly another woman, pictured below, wanted to get the ink in order to fit in with the females in her community despite it being so painful she wet herself at one point during the ordeal.
My face took a day to finish. We started in the morning and just before lunch we stopped to clean it. It also gave me some time to recover a little.
In the afternoon we started again over the same lines we had tattooed in the morning. After, my face was really swollen and painful, I found it hard to smile and open my mouth to eat and drink.
Not every woman shared their desire to get tattoos, however, as the other ladies Cameron interviewed explained they didn’t like the look of the artwork but had no choice when it came to making it a permanent part of their body.
One member of the Li community, pictured below, received her ink when she was 17 under the instruction of her mother. Similarly she had to suffer through the pain of having tree thorns dug into her skin to create the lines but she had to try and refrain from crying to avoid angering her mother.
At 73 years old, she is the only lady left in her village with the tattoos.
Recalling the awful experience, the mother said:
She’d dig [the thorn] in deep so the ink would stay but digging it deep meant it bled a lot. It took three days in total and she went over the same lines four times.
She told me to sit on a chair and to place my hands between my legs and then sat on my lap. It was hard for me to move. I was scared and in pain. Around seven days later the lines had started to heal, there was no more blood and no more pain.
More than 50 years later the lines are still very visible on my face. I always thought girls without tattoos are much prettier. My mother was scared that if I didn’t have these lines on my face then someone would steal me and then sell me in a different city somewhere in China. These lines made a girl ugly.
A tradition turned necessity, the young women had to accept having permanent ‘ugly’ traits in order to protect their livelihood.
When telling her story, a third tattooed woman, pictured below, explained it was less common for men to have tattoos. She married at the age of 25, a decade after she and her friends used the black from the bottom of a cooking pot to decorate their skin.
The 87-year-old said neither she nor her husband thought the tattoos were beautiful but she reiterated the part they played in keeping her safe, saying ‘with tattoos it meant that we were ugly and being ugly meant no one would want us so no one would steal us’.
Her husband didn’t have any tattoos, and although he didn’t like them on his wife the Chinese woman explained anyone her age would have had similar marks.
Devastatingly, although the permanent lines were created with the hope of protecting the women against being sold, the plan was not a guarantee.
Cameron spoke to one woman who spent time with three different families throughout her childhood after being sold by her uncle without her parents’ permission at the age of 12, in exchange for two cows and a bag of rice.
Just before being sold, the girl’s auntie spent the day tattooing her face:
The poor girl was then sold again when she was 14, this time for just one cow. Thankfully the teen felt her new ‘father’ really cared for her, and when he fell sick he told the then-21-year-old she could go and find her real family when he died.
She was eventually reunited with her rightful parents and married at the age of 24 before giving birth to three children, but even with her difficult childhood the mother was one of the lucky ones.
The tattooed woman told the story of another lady whose marked face wasn’t enough to dissuade the Japanese soldiers, saying:
Tattoos meant that you were ugly. Back then there were a lot of bad people in Hainan who would want to steal young girls to be sold. Some also wanted rape young girls for their own pleasure and these included Japanese soldiers.
Having tattoos didn’t always mean you were safe, though. There was a lady here who also had lines tattooed on her face. She was raped, killed and then buried by a Japanese soldier.
The Japanese were here for quite some time and they were pretty scary. Their long guns had long knifes on the end and their planes would often fly above us. When we saw the soldiers or heard the planes we’d run and hide.
Though it’s horrific the practice was ever necessary, thankfully by the time these women had children the need was gone. Each of the five Li ladies gave birth to multiple children and thanks to the development of China and a change in ruling by the government, none of their daughters are marked with the face tattoos.
The youngest lady Cameron came across with face tattoos was 70 years old. In around 30 years, the practice will officially exist only in the past.