A few years ago I was part of a China Exploration & Research Society team of researchers who got the opportunity to go to the last traditional Li village of Hainan Island, China’s largest island.
The thatched-roof houses of Hongshui, that’s the name of the village, were about to be destroyed by the local government and replaced by brick houses. Our main task in Hongshui was to document local architecture, customary practices, people’s way of life and gather some artifacts and traditional costumes.
We wanted to understand the traditional way of life of the Li ethnic group before their village was “modernized” by local authorities.
The most interesting and challenging part of our ethnographic work was to document an outdated customary practice : the tattooing of every female tribe member’s face, ankles and wrists.
It was challenging for three reasons. First, all of our informants were 80 years old and above women whose dwindling memory made the interview process difficult. Then, we had to find a translator between the local Li dialect and Chinese Mandarin. Finally, just a few of the ten elder women with tattooed-face agreed to be interviewed.
A practice of the past
The practice was abolished in the late 1920s and early 1930s. None of the informants younger below the 70-80 age group had their face tattooed.
The tattooing process started when girls were aged between 8 and 12. The first year, they had their ankles tattooed, the following year their wrists and finally their face. The process marked the passage of the from childhood to puberty and her inclusion in the community of women and society.
Different tribes, different patterns
Hainan is a mountainous tropical island and different Li tribes are disseminated across this landscape of hills and jungle. Although the Li share a common language and culture, differences exist among tribes.
When it comes down to tattoos, each tribe had its own pattern. Therefore, the patterns of the tattoos marked the belonging to a specific tribe. When a woman was married to a man of another tribe, the patterns of her tattoo would remind her of what tribe she is from.
Identity in the after-life
According to Hans Stubel, a German anthropologist who surveyed the Li tribes of Hainan island during the late 1920s, the tattoos also marked the belonging to a specific Li tribe in the after-life. The patterns made them the women recognizable by the ancestors, specially if a woman had been married outside their own tribe.
During WWII, the Japanese took control of Hainan. The women they kidnapped were used to ‘comfort’ the soldiers of the Kingdom of the Rising Sun. Our informants told us that when the Japanese arrived in the region, they were hiding in a cave just a few hours walk north of the village. They also told us that the Japanese thought the Li women’s tattooed faces were ugly.