We've always been taught to never judge a book by its cover.  But in fact its often very easy to judge a book by its cover in China.  There is little subtlety in Chinese culture, especially when it comes to people.  In China, one usually looks the part they are playing.  If you look like a bad boy, you are a bad boy.  If you look like a shy, conservative girl, that's most likely what you are.  Of course there are always people who break the mold, but more often than not, people's outward appearance is indicative of their job, their personality, and their behavior.

The same holds true with tattoos.  Around the world, tattoos are usually equated with gangsters, convicts, and rock stars, but in the West it is becoming increasingly common to see people with tattoos, and even numerous tattoos, in places and positions you wouldn't expect.  A meek librarian might have a large backpiece, a CPA might have an intricate tribal shoulder design.  In films, someone with heavy tattoos is usually a thug or prison inmate, and someone with one or two is usually a tough guy or girl, though they could be either good or bad depending on the film.  Yet in every day life, tattoos are trickling into all corners of Western society.

Not so in China.  Chinese people often get a tattoo for the purpose of displaying it to the world, not as a personal memento or commemoration.  In fact, you will rarely see a Chinese tattoo that has been exclusively designed for that person.  Nearly all tattoos are chosen from flash books, and this illustrates a key difference between Chinese and Western thinking about tattoos: in the West, a tattoo is meant to express rebellion, individuality, or strength, and the more unique and personal the tattoo is, the better.  In China, there is usually little or no meaning behind the actual design; what is important is the size, placement, and the fact that this person actually has a tattoo.  Tattoos are usually viewed negatively, so the wearer will receive some form of judgement and/or condemnation, regardless of the design.

Chinese people often get tattooed for a handful of reasons, which I will try and explain.  Of course I know that these labels don't apply to everyone, and I'm not trying to condescend or anything, but anyone who knows China knows that when it comes to people's appearance, what you see is usually what you get.

First, let's start with the dudes.  If a Chinese guy has:

-A large amount of intricate, traditional Chinese designs, such as dragons, tigers, or warriors- he's probably got a lot of money, and he's probably involved in criminal enterprise.  If he has a crew cut or shaved head, and is going out of his way to display his tattoos in public, such as rolling up his shirt or wearing black wifebeaters even if it's a little chilly, these tattoos are a statement that this guy is not to be messed with, because he has unfriendly friends.
-a small tattoo on the upper arm or shoulder- he's trying to look like a player.  His tattoo says "I'm not a thug, but I'm hardcore enough to dip my foot in the bad boy pool, and I know that girls like bad boys."  His tattoo will usually be very generic flash, such as a dragon, wolf, or tribal, and he will often wear sleeveless shirts and aviator glasses.
-a small tattoo on the hand- he's probably involved in fashion somehow, such as a photographer or hairstylist.  He will usually have Japanese anime-inspired hair and fashion sense, and will only be seen in the company of other such divas.
-a faded, unintelligible hand-poked tattoo- it means he and his buddies were feeling rebellious in high school and decided to give the world the finger and express their teenage angst.  Guaranteed he regrets it now.
Now for the ladies.  If a Chinese girl has:

-a small feminine design on her ankle or upper arm- it means she's confident in her beauty and style, and wants people to know that she is liberated and independent, and she knows she's hotter than you so screw what you think.
-a small tattoo on her hand- she's involved in the fashion or beauty industry, such as hairstyling, mani/pedi, or modeling.
-lower back, aka. "tramp stamp"- she's a modern, open-minded girl who isn't bound by traditional feminine restraints, and since she's modern and open-minded, so is her fashion sense, which means she isn't afraid to show a lot of skin. 
-arm sleeves, backpiece, or other heavy tattooing- her boyfriend is a tattoo artist.
Most Chinese people would never consider getting a tattoo, because of the pain, the expense, the social perceptions, and the belief that one's body is a gift from one's parents, and shouldn't be altered or abused.  If a Chinese person chooses to get a tattoo, it's usually to express that they are open-minded and progressive.  This is a big committment, especially for girls, because China traditionally prefers chaste, conservative sunshine girls (though dreams and reality are rarely aligned) and a tattoo makes a girl edgy and independent, changing a girl into a grrrl, and that doesn't fly with most parents.  For a boy, he will unequivocally be perceived as a bad boy or playboy if he chooses to go under the needle, but China is more accepting of bad boys than bad girls.  There is hope though...my wife didn't have any tattoos before we met, and now she has two. Just yesterday, my school's foreign teacher liason, a single woman in her twenties, asked me about a good place to get a tattoo.  She was inspired by my ring tattoo and also wants to get a tattoo on her finger.  She's not super traditional but she's definitely not a bad girl.  The tide is turning one convert at a time....

People are often surprised when they find out that I've been a teacher for five years, and that I'm not a playboy, and that I don't play in a rock band.  Of course I would also get labeled in America, but the shock is much greater in China.  I'm a bit of a curiosity at the university where I teach but I take my job seriously and I think this helps people around me rethink their perceptions of tattooed people.  After all, it's just pictures on skin.

And for the record, a Chinese girl with a tattoo--magnifique!

04/10/2010 02:00

Cool site! I stumbled upon it by chance, and added it to my blogroll. I love the humorous way you describe life in China. Ya gotta have a sense of humor to live in this country! Also, congrats on the upcoming birth of your child!

04/12/2010 22:59

Thanks! Yeah China can be great and it can be a drag, but it's all a matter of perception, just like any place. And with such a huge population, there's no shortage of ammunition for humor :-P

09/12/2010 01:26

You just helped me understand why i was given "the look" when i just got to china because i was tattooed..I wont mind getting the look anymore..great piece and cool blog

10/10/2010 09:44

Amazing info on tattoos. I'm very interested in tattoo designs myself!

03/19/2012 16:57

This page was super helpful, thank you! Im going to Beijing this summer and I have lots of visible tattoos. I was concerned that I would have to cover them all up but now I don't think I will :)

04/12/2012 00:25

Hey man. I have a sleeve and quite a few others including a neck piece. I am college educated, and have toured in a band for a while now. However, this September 12' I am going to go teach in China. I was trying to identify the culture of tattoos in China and more specifically how it would reflect on me as a teacher, who will take the job seriously. I have the typical rockstar look so maybe in public they will just assume that I am one!~ Thanks for the article.

04/12/2012 07:27

@CJ- congrats on the new gig. You will certainly get some quizzical and even suspicious stares from a lot of people when you come to China, but if you're friendly and jovial, people will let it go pretty quickly.

I would suggest that you make sure that your employer knows that you have tattoos, and clarify that you are willing to wear long sleeves to cover them if they want. They probably won't but it shows that you're culturally sensitive and not trying to flaunt your "foreign-ness" in their faces. It also makes a difference where you teach. I've taught primarily at colleges and universities and they're a bit more open-minded about tattoos, since these schools have a larger inflow of foreigners and all of their bizarre antics. If it's a middle or high school, you may have to work to charm the higher-ups a bit, but China as a whole is pretty accepting of foreigners and their "quirks." And I've found that the "rock star" vibe makes one stand out at a school in a good way, since students' perceptions of foreign teachers is pretty narrow, and it helps keep their attention. Good luck!


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