Taiwan is populated by various tribes. Due to its rich history, the island has seen many cultural and religious changes that have affected old traditions, tattoo customs included. Taiwan’s customs are closely linked to Chinese, Japanese and Philippine traditions, since the island is surrounded by these territories and migrations are common practice.
The islands of Taiwan and Hainan were eyes of China, guarding it from attacks for ages, until the end of the Sino-Japanese war in 1895. Taiwan was then ceded to Japan and was restored to China after the WWII. During various phases of Taiwan’s history as a part of China, the aborigines often had conflicts with the Chinese people. This, and the fact that Taiwan was under Japanese rule, has had grave consequences in regards to aboriginal tattoo customs. Both China and Japan saw tattooing as a savage act. The two countries had customs to tattoo their criminals: the Chinese practiced “Ci Pei” (Tattoo Exile) – the custom of face tattooing, followed by exile of the criminal. Japanese tattoos (“Irezumi”) were long associated with the Yakuza (Gokudo), infamous members of criminal groups.
Moreover, the long-standing Chinese policy that tattoos were reserved for “minorities” had its effects as well. As a result, many aboriginal tattoo customs are lost or vanishing on the island of Taiwan. Among the peoples to suffer the loss of identity are the Atayal, the second largest group of Taiwanese aborigines (the biggest one being the Paiwan). The Atayal populate northern regions of Taiwan and are (or rather – were) widely recognized for their facial tattoos. They were nicknamed “the barbarians with tattooed faces.” As with all other indigenous cultures, the basic symbolism of facial tattoos was to differentiate the group from other tribes, the postulate that would later evolve into a more profound philosophy.
In November 2008, the oldest tattooed Atayal woman (aged 110) died in Taian, Taiwan. According to statistics, with the death of this woman, the number of tattooed Atayal women in the Taiwan region shrank to four – the youngest is 85 and the oldest – 91 years old.
The Tattoo Myth and Headhunters’ Tattoos
The tattoo tradition among the Atayal is believed to originate from an old legend. The first man and woman – brother and sister, who were born from a rock, lived together for a long time. The sister was worried about reproduction of the human race. Therefore she suggested to her brother that they should be married. The brother refused, citing incest. Then she told him that a woman, his future wife, would be waiting for him the following day. He believed her and went to the appointed meeting. The next day, the sister disguised her face with black ashes and waited for her brother at the appointed place. The brother didn’t recognize her, and thus the human race was able to multiply. From that day, it was the custom that a woman couldn’t marry before getting a facial tattoo.
As an extension to this custom, unmarried boys also wore tattoo markings. Both boys and girls had tattooed foreheads. In order for a girl/woman to earn a cheek tattoo, she had to be an extraordinary weaver. The same held true for tattoos on other body parts.
Probably the most interesting aspect of the Atayal tattoos is that of the tribal “headhunters”. In truth, many Eastern tribes had that tradition, as did most of the tribes worldwide (e.g. the Maori). The headhunter got a tattoo to mark his success. Those who acquired five or more heads got the right to tattoo their chests. Others were allowed tattoos on the torso, the forehead and the chin.
Shamanesses and the Tattoo Process
When a child was of age for tattooing (5 to 15), his/her parents would arrange the date for the process to take place. They would invite a patasan (tattoo artist). All patasans were women. The sacred art was passed from mother to daughter and not every woman could do it.
Before the tattooing took place, the artist would ask the child if he/she was a virgin. If the child lied, the patasan would curse the tattoo, which would later fester. The first phase of the tattooing was the appliance of patterns. Linen threads pressed into the charcoal ashes were used for drawing. Patasan would then use the hammer (adut) and iron needles to insert the color. Charcoal ashes were then applied to the wound. The healing process would last half a month. In order to prevent infections, the child was forbidden to leave the house during that period.
Japanese Rule and the Demise of Tattoos
As already mentioned, Taiwan passed to Japanese rule in 1895. Due to the reasons mentioned above, the Japanese forbid the Atayal to apply tattoos. Moreover, those wearing one were forced to remove it. After the WWII, when Taiwan was given back to China, no official ban took place, but Taiwanese tribes, the Atayal included, had been abandoning the tradition of their own. Namely, Christianity had been introduced during the Japanese rule. By the 1950s, the old animism-based religion was largely replaced by Christianity. Thus the tattoos lost their symbolism, and the Atayal completely stopped tattooing themselves.
The Atayal Tattoos in Modern Times
The art is all but extinguished, since all that is left of the old customs is seen in elderly women alone. Nevertheless, there are some unique cases of young people wishing to revive the tradition. In 2008 (the same year when the oldest tattooed Atayal woman died), 33-year-old Atayal woman Shayun Foudu and her husband revealed their tattoos to “Taipei Times”. This was the first case of tattooing among the Atayal people in almost a century. “Facial tattooing is an old cultural tradition of the Atayal tribe. I feel very proud to have a tattoo on my face,” Foudu told reporters.
Foudu and her husband explained that, according to the old tribal tradition, a couple that is to be married must be tattooed beforehand. That act ensures an everlasting and joyful marriage.
Foudu was tattooed during a ceremony in a tourist resort in Taroko National Park, Hualien County, Taiwan. The artist used modern techniques to apply the tattoo.