Ask the Yangxifu: Are Chinese Men with Tattoos Bad?

Dragon tattoo on a man's arm
Are Chinese men with tattoos bad people? Should they be branded forever out of your social circle?

D asks:

Hi I have a Chinese classmate and he has always been very friendly with me, and he talks to me and sends me texts almost everyday. When he heard I was interested in learning Chinese, (even though I am still at the beginner stage.) He straight away offered to give me his skype address so that we could practice together online because he is also interested in improving his English pronunciation. He also invited me to go to a bbq at his house so that he could introduce me to his friends. Things seem to be going quite well.

However even though that all sounds great, there is one problem, he has a tattoo on his arm. I know normally this isn’t a big deal in European countries and USA lots of men have a tattoos. When I introduced him to some other Chinese friends of mine. They were shocked and told me don’t get to close to him, this type of man is not normal. Have you had any experience dealing with Chinese men or women with tattoos?


I don’t really know if this man is normal or not, but I can tell you one thing — tattoos are traditionally NOT considered normal in China. And that has historical roots, as this scholarly paper on Tattoo in China shows:

All of the types of tattoo are usually described [in a Tang dynasty text] as opprobrious; people bearing them are stigmatized as impure, deviant, and uncivilized. There does not ever seem to have been a wide-spread acceptance of tattoo of any type by the “mainstream” society; this was inevitable, partly due to the early and long-lasting association of body marking with peoples perceived as barbaric, or with punishment and the inevitably subsequent ostracism from the society of law-abiding people [Jocelyn’s note — prisoners were tattooed as punishment for thousands of years]. Another reason, of course, is the belief that the body of a filial person is meant to be maintained as it was given to him by his parents.

Tattoos were, literally, the mark of an outsider — someone who existed outside “proper” society. Counterculture types, barbarians, thugs, criminals. Not exactly the kind of person you’d want to bring home to meet mom and dad.

But can a tattoo really brand someone right out of your social circle?

Look, these are generalizations, handed down from generation to generation. That means even if they are true for a lot of people, they’re not true for everyone. I’ve known only a handful of Chinese men with tattoos — all artists, and all pretty nice guys. As tattoos go global — to the point where even one of my very Mormon aerobic teachers with kids has one on her lower back — it’s inevitable more and more young Chinese might choose to go against tradition, just because they want to express themselves.

Instead, ask yourself this: How does this man treat you, overall? What crowd of people does he spend his time with? You’re better off judging this Chinese man by his behavior and friends, and not just the tattoo on his arm.

What do you think?


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20 Replies to “Ask the Yangxifu: Are Chinese Men with Tattoos Bad?”

  1. I would say there are three issues at play here.

    1: Traditionally, tattooing depends very much on which culture you grow up in. “Western” cultures and most of China traditionally see tattoos as a sign of something bad about the tattooed. In Polynesia, traditional tattoos carry a lot of very positive information about who you are and where you come from. Cultural background is the key here.

    2: Because tattoos are traditionally seen as a sign of something bad (criminal history, barbarian, etc) in most of China, Chinese people, like most of the more conservative/traditionally minded “Westerners” have a hard time accepting somebody tattooed as not necessarily being a bad person.

    3: All cultures are in a constant state of change. Over my lifetime, short as it is, I have seen tattooing on my home islands go from a dual traditional Maori (and to a lesser extent wider Polynesia) unusual but positive/traditional European rebellious, criminal, not good situation through a revival of Maori (and to a lesser extent wider Polynesian) culture, including traditional taMoko to a more general acceptance of tattooing in all its traditional and modern forms. I see here in China, especially amongst my students, a growing acceptance of modern “Western” style tattooing as being something ‘cool’ and desirable among the younger generation.

    The abundance of “scare” “quotes” and general vagueness in this comment are down to the fact it is very hard to discuss something as general, amorphous, and so widely open to cultural difference as tattooing. I will be happy to continue to try and explain myself.

    But what I’m saying, as it applies to this particular question, is don’t judge a book by its cover. Take a look at the tattoo and assess its meaning and/or significance for the tattooed. And take a good, hard look at the guy who bares the tattoo and do your best to figure out whether this guy is worth getting closer to. Ink on skin is no longer a sound basis on which to judge a person, and depending on his particular cultural or ethnic background, may well be a reason to respect him even more.

  2. AHHH! A subject I deal with EVERY DAY!!!! When I was a teen(almost 13 years ago), I was one of those kids who was brought up to think a tattoo was nothing bad and most people I knew had them. SO OBVIOUSLY at 18 I ran out and got tattooed- FIVE TIMES!!! Now I have been dating my Taiwanese American guy for almost 5 years – What do you think stays a CONSTANT issue in our relationship? “When are you going to save enough money to get your tattoos removed”? It is funny, because I know the Chinese stance on tattooing, but I thought over time he would get used to them. We literally JUST had this conversation the other day! I do have big plans to have 4 out of 5 of them removed….He does truly wish I would remove the fifth but since it is in an inconspicuous area, I am keeping it. This also leads me to mention the issues I have had with Asian men and tattoos….MOST of them assume I am a “certain type” of women if they catch a glimpse of a tattoo. There are a few who realize I am NOT that way, but still the thought crosses their minds……And to think recently I thought of covering one of my ugly tattoos with a cute tattoo – Seriously, this ACTUALLY crossed my mind!!!

  3. Living here, I see more and more Chinese (men AND women) with tattoos, even in our small city. It surprises me a bit (especially the women) because it still seems like a taboo thing to do here, especially a large or visible tattoo.
    I sort of think that in the West, tattoos have become more mainstream, whereas here in China, the view is lagging behind and a lot more like the thinking in the West was a few decades ago (those with tattoos are “bad” so if you get one, you’ll be “bad” too).
    I know several people with tattoos – one of our friends has loads. My general impression would be that these folks tend to think they are “bad” but really, they are pretty harmless!

  4. I see lots of guys with tattoos in Beijing – I think it’s becoming fairly common nowadays. I wouldn’t discount the guy just because of the ink.

    I love Rebekah’s story above because I can totally relate to it. I offered to have my Chinese husband’s name tattooed across my wrist and he freaked out. Didn’t see it as a sweet gesture at all! He just asked me to please please not do that.

  5. @ Melanie…I did that too! I said I would put his & my sons names on either side of the tattoo I am keeping(a Dragon, which they both are) and he said “NO WAY, TATTOOS ARE UGLY!”
    I don’t know what bothers him more – the tattoos I already have or the ones I want to improve/add to!

  6. I agree with Kelly. Although not a mainstream, tattoos are not that rare and extreme in today’s China (both for men and women).
    However, it can sometimes pose problems for those looking for serious office jobs: they will either hide their tattoos (under clothes) or in some cases even remove.
    I personally don’t have tattoo/s, but for some period was considering to make one. Somehow I changed my mind later…

  7. My husband has a few tattoos (he got them done before it became more…hip?) My husband is an interior designer who grew up in Taipei; he’s amazing.

    I’m fascinated the history of tattoos and how it became what it is today. Now you have shows like, “LA INK,” on television. All waks of life getting tattoos. An older woman have a tattoo of her daughter or cat. A very young woman have some cutsey butterfly/flower tattoo on your ankle. Many people have tattoos that have a lot of meaning behind their tattoo.

    I, for one, would never get a tattoo. I am always changing my mind. I like one thing and before you know it, I like something completely different. haha. =o)

    “Instead, ask yourself this: How does this man treat you, overall? What crowd of people does he spend his time with? You’re better off judging this Chinese man by his behavior and friends, and not just the tattoo on his arm.”

    Couldn’t agree more.

  8. At one time in Malaysia, having a tattoo used to mark one as belonging to a traid because traid members usually tattooed theselves to mark the gang they belonged to like the gin, gang 21, ang tong or the 18 immortals. Nowadays, spotting a tattoo, though still not so quite common, doen’t necessarily carry the same stigma. In the case of the reader, it all depends on whether the boyfriend’s tattoo was done for fun or really a symbol of something more sinister. She just need to find out.

  9. “How does this man treat you, overall? What crowd of people does he spend his time with? You’re better off judging this Chinese man by his behavior and friends, and not just the tattoo on his arm.”

    I do love this part of the original post. And I agree with her. It is not about what a person looks like, but who a person IS that matters.

    I’ve fifteen tattoos and all of them are on my feet. Thank goodness I have huge feet. I get some slack from Chinese people about it, but when they hear why I picked my feet to be tattooed they are usually awed. I have nine Chinese/Mongolian style tattoos on my feet for each year I have been in China. They have become a permanent reminder of my time here, the size represents how much I enjoyed that year. The rest of them are reminders of where I came from. I know. Like one really needs a reminder of where you came from!!!!

    The second reason I picked my feet, is simple. I love my feet. And your feet are connected to each and every part of your body.

    I love talking to people and learning why they picked that tattoo over another and why they picked that part of their body to be inked.

    Even though China is changing and becoming more modern, it is still very much stuck within tradition and its roots. What I cannot seem to grasp is why do some Chinese people choose to get tattoos in very visible locations on their bodies then complain why they do not get the job.

    OR why do women pluck their whole eyebrow off them get new eyebrows in non natural colours inked on? ANd these women are not seen any differently than a woman who just pencils them in. I do not get the double standard on this one.

  10. I know, someone I care about, didn’t want me to get a tattoo (I’m American Caucasian, but using my Chinese name that’s given to me.)

    I told him, “Why?” and he simply replied with, “You will regret it!”
    Well, who knows? Probably will. Then again, my gege, Jiawen, regrets getting a tattoo of one of his ex-girl friend’s alphabetized initials on his upper left back…
    This was at 15 years old too, in China….
    hm, I know in Vietnamese culture, if you have a tattoo, usually that is not a good thing, especially for your family. It shows that you are a rebel, or apart of a gang.

    Might be the same as for most Asian cultures.

  11. I thiink it could be a simple case of the guy is young its his first time overseas so he wanted to do some sort of rebellion or else he’s just into western culture like rap music or something and thought it would be something cool to get. To be honest I don’t think you should be scared of a guy with a tattoo. I think it shows he could be open minded. Not too many gangster type guys are going to study in college.

  12. I think tattoos are much more globally accepted now, although more so in cosmopolitan areas and by younger generations. My Chinese guy thought my tattoo was hot, and he commented on it at our first meeting. He mentioned getting one too; he just didn’t know what image he wanted or where to put it.

    It seems like a lot of what were traditional Chinese taboos are now perfectly normal, at least with more westernized Chinese people. I always thought one should never give a clock or watch to a Chinese person, as it symbolized time for death. While I would still never give a timepiece to someone I didn’t know well, I would have no problem giving one to my guy, who recently effused about his brother giving him an expensive watch as a gift. Clearly not as taboo as I thought…

  13. Please do not let other peoples prejudicial opinions about tattooing stop you from meeting a wonderful man. I am a 41 year old Caucasian woman who has tattoos and piercings. I am an artist and have used many media through the years, tattooing included. I have had much difficulty meeting a Chinese man, of my age, that accepts them. But I have spoken to the younger American born Chinese and the stigma is not the same as in the mainland with older generations. True there was tattooing done to Chinese as punishment/labeling similar to the Jews in concentration camps during WWII. I can completely understand why mainland Chinese would have issues or incorrect assumptions about tattooing. It is up to you to educate your friends in that tattooing doesn’t equal a bad person. See in America things are not like mainland China and the younger generations here are embracing their ability to be unique and follow their own drummer and tattooing can be a part of that, just like skinny jeans, dying hair and even having surgery to make the eyes less almond shape and more round. Body modification is prolific here and it is bound to attract the Chinese born here. The beauty of American freedoms. Please embrace him for what he is inside,and do not ostracize him for what he looks like. You will be greatly surprised by us tattooed folks we can be so very nice and kind.

  14. I love this post! I had a good friend in Hong Kong who had been in the triads when he was younger. Actually, I had a couple of friends like that. Anyway, they left that life and found honest jobs and were very decent people. I found a lot of HK men to be very traditional and kind of shy away from associating too much with me (because if they did, people might think we were together in more than just a friendly way). But these two friends with tattoos didn’t seem to care what others thought and were always very kind to me.

  15. It’s so weird how tattoos are so popular in Japan, and in Korea it’s not such a taboo either. But in China I have never seen a man with a tattoo of any kind.. so I’m waiting for that day 🙂

  16. Are her chinese friends peasants from the rural villages? This isn’t the view of Chinese in any city, and this concept of demonzing tattos comes from our parents generation, not ours.

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