Dulong Women Facial Tattoos Tradition Dying Out

December 6, 2013
By Hu Hongjiang, Yang WenmingEditor: Leo Yin

Dulong Women Facial Tattoos Tradition Dying Out
There are now only 28 living Dulong women with the facial tattoos unique to the ethnic minority group and experts say that this aspect of their culture may disappear very soon. [chinatouradvisors]
The Dulong ethnic group mainly live in the Dulong River Valley in the Gongshan Dulong and Nu Autonomous County in southwest China's Yunnan Province. Widely known as 'the face-tattooed tribe', the group is well-known for the facial tattoos of its women.

Dulong women traditionally tattooed their faces when they reached 12 or 13 years of age. However, the custom was abolished after the People's Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949. There are now only 28 living Dulong women with facial tattoos and experts say that this aspect of their culture may disappear very soon.

Great Changes

The Dulong ethnic group were first referred to as 'Qiao' during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and then later as 'Qiu' or 'Qu' during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1912). After the founding of new China in 1949, the name 'Dulong' was adopted according to the wishes of the Dulong people.

In the past, the Dulong were mainly engaged in primitive agricultural production with simple production tools made of wood and bamboo. The greater part of the Dulong area consists of mountainous forests with abundant rains. These lands of little fertility have turned them into one of the poorest peoples in China.

In 2010, the Yunnan government initiated six aid programs to help Dulong people shake off poverty, including building new houses and strengthening communication among various isolated villages.

"Our living conditions have been greatly improved" said the head of the Dulongjiang Town, Li Yongxiang. "Heavy snows sometimes seal the mountain passes for up to half a year."

"The highway to Dulongjiang Town is scheduled to be completed next year, and then more tourists are expected to come here and learn about our culture," Li added.

The History of Dulong Facial Tattoos

Dulong facial tattoos often took the form of butterflies, in accordance with their belief that the souls of the dead turn into butterflies. The tattoos were etched onto the faces of the girls using bamboo needles and an ink made out of ashes from the bottoms of cooking pans.

The process lasted seven or eight hours, and the girls were not allowed to wash their faces for at least five days after the ordeal in order to keep the pattern intact.

Many face-tattooed women do not remember when, or why, they had their faces tattooed.

"It was very painful and my face was swollen after it was tattooed," recalled Bing Xiufang, a Dulong woman in her 80s and one of the few remaining Dulong women with facial tattoos. "Both my mother and older sister had their faces tattooed, so I did as well."

The exact history of facial tattoos in the Dulong ethnic group is still open to debate, with many scholars saying that the minority was recorded as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

As for the reasons for the facial tattoos, there are various explanations. Some experts have posited that the tattoos were to make the women less attractive, lest they be taken as slaves or raped by enemies during conflicts between the Dulong and other ethnic tribes.

Some say that it marked a girl's transition to womanhood, while still others believe that it was a sign to differentiate various clans or families. Others hold that the Dulong people regarded tattooing as a beauty enhancer and a way to exorcise evil spirits.

Born in 1953, Dong Chunlian is the youngest Dulong woman with facial tattoos. Unlike most of her fellow Dulong people, she has traveled around to raise the profile of the Dulong people. She attended the Ethnic Expo held in Taiwan in 2000, and once visited Japan.

The local government now attaches great importance to the health conditions of the remaining women with facial tattoos and has established electronic health archives for each of them.

"There are so few written, photo and video materials of the history of these women and the work of recording oral history has not been carried out," said a historian.

"Although the living face-tattooed women do not suffer from serious illness, most of them are plagued by various minor illnesses such as rheumatism," said one doctor who regularly attends to the women. "The medical conditions here are not so advanced so we should pay close attention to their health."

"The year before last there were 38 living face-tattooed women, but the number was then reduced to 31," said Li. "This year there are only 28 still alive and I am so sad when the family of the dead come to cancel their residence registration."

Local authorities are planning to publish picture books of 66 face-tattooed women. The books are slated for publication in January 2014.

Scholars have said that the Dulong facial tattoos are a symbol of local tradition and should be respected as part of the Dulong customs. The government should improve the living conditions of the Dulong people and focus more on their health.

(Source: People's Daily/Translated and edited by womenofchina.cn)

Please understand that womenofchina.cn,a non-profit, information-communication website, cannot reach every writer before using articles and images. For copyright issues, please contact us by emailing: website@womenofchina.cn. The articles published and opinions expressed on this website represent the opinions of writers and are not necessarily shared by womenofchina.cn.