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China’s Good Girls Want Tattoos

“It seems that Chinese men don’t want to marry a girl with tattoos,” complained one such girl on the Chinese online discussion platform Douban. She posted a picture of her body art, an abstract design on her lower back. “In East Asian cultural circles, normal people wouldn’t get tattoos,” responded one user. “After all, this isn’t America.” In another chat forum, someone asked, “Would a woman with tattoos make a good wife?” A male participant replied, “That depends on where the tattoo is.”

This is what women’s lib looks like in China, circa 2015: self-expression via discreet body art easily hidden under a T-shirt or work pumps. A new kind of unobtrusive and artsy tattoo, known as xiao qingxin (pronounced shao ching-sheen, and roughly meaning “delicate and refreshing”), offers a generation of young Chinese women a way to be expressive and socially acceptable at the same time. It could be a line of text, etched in elegant English cursive, along the outer edge of a young Chinese woman’s foot, or a French phrase inscribed on an ankle. Some of the messages are profound, some silly, but they are all part of an emerging trend among young Chinese women, a perfect fit for a generation of only children who want to express themselves without violating their parents’ social taboos.

Tattoos are a relative newcomer to China, where body art is still often associated with burly gangsters dabbling in various forms of criminality. Those norms have been changing; in the capital city, Beijing, for example, tattoo parlors were rare as recently as 1999, but hundreds have popped up since as rockers, punks, and others willing to push the envelope on socially acceptable behavior get themselves inked. Dianping, a local review site, lists more than 280 tattoo parlors in Beijing.

In one parlor called Big House Café Tattoo, a customer can get a tattoo along with a vanilla smoothie.

Ma Sa—Xinhua/Zuma Press
Zhang Xiaobai, an award-winning animator, shows a tattoo on her thigh in Beijing, 2011.

The trend is now migrating to Chinese women. Chinese society still prizes “good girls” who study hard in school, have stable jobs, and marry their first loves—unmarried women over the age of 27 are sometimes called “leftover women”—and tattoos haven’t seemed to fit in with this picture of appropriate (read: husband-seeking) feminine behavior. But for a generation of emerging hipsters, an artistic tattoo allows them to express their identity and spirituality.

It may be hip, but from the thousands of online postings from women eager to share their body art in an environment free of parental wrath, it’s clear there’s nothing particularly subversive about this body art. One web user shared her new acquisition: four tiny birds beneath a cursive sentence placed just beneath her collar bone reading, “Always make the right call.” (Readers can view the images to determine for themselves whether the user did, in fact, follow her own advice.) Another young woman had a bright pink bow tattooed under her left armpit. One shared images of a band-aid tattooed on her inner wrist, which she said she got only “after thinking it over for six months.”

It’s a trend that tattoo parlors are happy to encourage. One in the western Chinese city of Xining told Foreign Policy via Weibo that it charges $80 for a small tattoo. Tattoo Space, a parlor in the northern city of Shijiazhuang, told FP via Weibo that artists there are asked to sketch an “especially large number” of feminine tattoos. And Meichuan Tattoo, a tattoo and piercing shop in Beijing, told FP via Weibo that “nowadays, tons of girls” patronize Meichuan. Small wonder a search for “xiao qingxin” tattoos yielded over 500,000 Weibo search results.

Delicate as they may be, these tattoos often speak to the courage, even grit, that life as a woman in China sometimes requires. Some new mothers use colorful body art to disguise the large scar left after a Caesarean section. Others view the tattoos as a confidence-booster. On February 25, one women posted to Weibo a photo of a bare back with a long line of connected English text running down the backbone. “Whenever someone tells me I can’t do something,” reads the tattoo, “I prove them wrong.” Still others may opt to get a tattoo to mark a tragedy. One woman wrote on a web forum in July 2013 that she has a tiny tattoo of a flame on her ankle. “I got it after the earthquake,” she wrote, referring to the Great Sichuan Earthquake of May 2008, in which more than 69,000 Chinese perished. “It has special commemorative significance. And my husband doesn’t mind it,” she continued. “He actually thinks it looks nice.”

For many young Chinese women, however, getting inked is still seen as unconventional behavior, frowned upon by their seniors at home and at the workplace. China registered only 87th in the World Economic Forum’s 2014 ranking of countries by gender equality; although workplace gender discrimination is common, legal protections for women are so vague as to sometimes be unenforceable. That all may explain why Chinese women appear to take workplace restrictions on body art more seriously than men. “I want to get a tattoo,” one woman confessed on Weibo. “But I don’t dare.”

Nonetheless, Chinese society is becoming more open to alternative lifestyles and forms of expression. Dai Leichen, a Shanghai native who recently came to the United States for graduate school, told FP that she would not personally choose to get inked, since her family wouldn’t be able to accept it. “From a traditional perspective,” she said, “people with tattoos are usually seen as delinquents.” But that’s starting to change, she has noticed. “Nowadays, Chinese people are more willing to accept [people with] tattoos,” said Dai. Even, Dai added, if they’re girls.

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Media, Society