The practice of tattooing in China has always been a topic of little interest, and rarely represents an object of academic discussion.

Since ancient times, tattooing in China was subject to the laws and prohibitions of Confucianism, that supports the inviolability of the body linked to the filial piety. The only two types of tattoos that were allowed by the governament were: tattoos meant as punishment and tattoos used to mark slaves or concubines.

Lady Yue tattooing Yue Fei's back, beam Decoration located in the Summer Palace depicted in the typical Suzhou style, Beijing, China
Lady Yue tattooing Yue Fei’s back, beam Decoration located in the Summer Palace depicted in the typical Suzhou style, Beijing, China

However, there are many historical testimonies, novels and oral stories that demonstrate a deep-rooted tradition of decorative, figurative and military tattoos.

The most celebrated example of military tattoo is proved by the official biography of Yue Fei, a famous general of the Song Dinasty.

Yue Fei 岳飛 (1103-1142) was a famous general in the Song Dynasty and a national hero. He was best known for defending the Southern Song against the Jin invaders. He was also a noted strategist, but it’s not his military talent that made the most profound impact on the Chinese society. His loyalty and devotion to the country became a model for Chinese youth.

In 1140, Yue was about to drive all the Jin invaders out of the Han region, and regain all the lost ground. The Emperor Zhao Gou and the corrupt minister Qin Hui, fearing Yue’s victory would bring back the previous emperor and threaten their stranglehold on the throne, gave orders forcing Yue to retreat and go back to Lin’an, the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty. After Yue returned to Lin’an, he was arrested, locked up in Dali Temple, and tortured. On New Year’s eve of 1142, Yue was executed at the age of 39, along with his son, Yue Yun, and another general, who was also his son-in-law.

While extolled as a national hero throughout China’s history, the most widely told story about Yue is how his mother placed a tattoo on his back. On account of this story, the idea of devotion to one’s country has become firmly incorporated into the genes of the Chinese people.

The common story of Yue receiving the tattoo from his mother first appeared in Shuo Yue Quanzhuan 說岳全傳. In chapter 21 titled “By a pretext Wang Zuo swore brotherhood, by tattoos Lady Yue instructed her son”, Yue denounces the pirate chief Yang Yao and passes on a chance to become a general in his army. Yue Fei’s mother then tells her son, “I, your mother, saw that you did not accept recruitment of the rebellious traitor, and that you willingly endure poverty and are not tempted by wealth and status. But I fear that after my death, there may be some unworthy creature who will entice you… For these reason… I want to tattoo on your back the four characters ‘Utmost’, ‘Loyalty’, ‘Serve’ and ‘Nation’. The Lady picked up the brush and wrote out on his spine the four characters for ‘Serving the Nation with the Utmost Loyalty: jin zhong bao guo 盡忠報國… [So] she bit her teeth, and started pricking. Having finished, she painted the characters with ink mixed with vinegar so that the colour would never fade.”

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