The Girls with the Protective Tattoos: Stories from Humans of China, Hainan

WildChina > WildChina > The Girls with the Protective Tattoos: Stories from Humans of China, Hainan

True travelers, those curious world wanderers, know that part of the joy in a journey – beyond the moments of wonder and the sensory overload caused by the swirl of new flavors, sights, and sounds – is the characters you meet along the way. After all, it’s the people who make the place, connecting you on a deeper level to its culture and history. That’s why we decided to share the Humans of China with all of you.

Collected by Cameron Hack, an English teacher from the UK living in Beijing, each story is a window into China and her people. It is our hope that by sharing these snapshots into the lives of some of its citizens, you’ll be able to understand China better (and maybe be tempted to come and visit this beautiful country somewhere along the way). 

On the island province of Hainan, the southernmost point of China which has come to be known as the ‘Tail of the Dragon,’ our latest stories introduce you to the women of the Li ethnic minority. For generations, the island’s women would cover themselves with an intricate network of tattoos that spanned from their faces to their legs. While some women considered the tattoos to be beautiful and important in the afterlife, they also held a more practical purpose: as a method of protection against potential assault. Today, the practice has largely died out.



“I was first sold at the age of 12, shortly after my face was tattooed. My uncle sold me without the permission of my parents for two cows and a bag of rice. I was then later sold to another family at the age of 14 for just one cow.”

Meet the humans of Hainan, China.Hainan

I had a pretty tough childhood, and as a little girl, I spent time with three different families. I was first sold at the age of 12, shortly after my face was tattooed. My uncle sold me without the permission of my parents for two cows and a bag of rice. I was then later sold to another family at the age of 14 for just one cow. The second family I lived with wasn’t bad, and I felt as though the father really loved me. When I was 21, he fell sick. Before he died, he told me that when I am dead, I can go find my real family and live with them again. After he died, I did leave and went back to find my parents. When I went back and I saw my mom, we both started to cry. She was trying to wipe the tears away with her sleeve, but she was also trying to hug me with both of her arms at the same time.

Just before I was sold, my auntie tattooed my face. It was really painful and bled, but I remember I didn’t cry. It took a day – we started in the morning. Come lunchtime, we took a break and then continued in the afternoon. Back then, every lady I knew had tattoos. My mother and auntie had a lot more than I have, but my sisters didn’t. Apart from my face, I also have tattoos on my hands and two snake shapes on my legs which I did myself when I was a little older. I don’t think my face looks good, but we needed the tattoos to keep us safe. Tattoos meant that you were ugly.

Back then, there were a lot of bad people in Hainan who would want to steal young girls to be sold. Some also wanted to rape young girls for their own pleasure, including Japanese soldiers. Having tattoos didn’t always mean you were safe though. There was a lady here who also had lines tattooed on her face. She was raped, killed, and then buried by a Japanese soldier. The Japanese were here for quite some time, and they were pretty scary. Their long guns had long knives on the end, and their planes would often fly above us. When we saw the soldiers or heard the planes, we’d run and hide.

Meet the humans of Hainan, China.I married at the age of 24, and that’s when I moved to the village I live in now. After marriage, I wouldn’t often visit home, maybe once every couple of years. It took me about a day to walk home – I’d pack a lunch, and at nighttime, I’d sleep on the roadside. When I went home and saw my mother, we’d both cry again. I knew she missed me a lot and I missed her too. I also had the chance to see other members of my family, like my older brother who wasn’t nice to me when I was a child. It would be our job to collect firewood for us to cook with and, as a little girl, sometimes I wouldn’t want to go and refused. If I refused, he would use some rope to tie my ankles together. He would then throw the rope over a tree branch, pull me up, and dangle me there. He would also let the rope go, which meant I banged my head on the floor as the rope become loose. He would do this until I agreed to go with him and collect the wood. It was very painful. In 1958, my brother died due to a lack of water and food. We were farmers, which wasn’t easy, and sometimes there wasn’t enough for us to eat.

I and my husband had three children and none of them have tattoos. I now live with my son and my grandchildren and, apart from suffering from arthritis in my legs and ankles, I am quite happy.

“When I was a little girl, around 12 years old, I first saw Japanese soldiers here in Hainan. They stayed here for quite some time and did some terrible things. I was young and fit and whenever I saw them, I ran into the mountains to hide with my family and friends. The Japanese were not so keen on girls with tattoos on their skin, so they didn’t bother us as much. But not all – some soldiers didn’t care.”

Meet the humans of Hainan, China.Hainan

I have no regrets about tattooing my face, arms, and hands, but I am glad this tradition has since stopped. My mom had around the same number of tattoos as I have, and she never once tried to stop me from having them myself. I started my tattoos at around the age of 18. I began with my face, then went down to my neck, and lastly my legs and hands. My friends helped me, and I helped my friends, but some of the tattooing I did do myself. We would first use ink to draw the patterns on our skin. Then, we used spikes from the trees that grew in the forests around us. We dipped the spike into ink and then used a hammer to gently tap the spike into the skin, leaving these black lines behind. It took around half a day to finish my face and half a day for each leg. I have a small tattoo on my finger, which was one I did myself. It was really painful and I cried, but I didn’t stop. I carried on because I wanted to have tattoos.

I thought that they would make me more beautiful, especially in old age. No one place was more painful – they all were, as I remember around the same amount of pain. After around seven days, the pain had gone and the tattoos had healed. Not only did most girls around me want tattoos, but we also needed them to stay safe.

Meet the humans of Hainan, China.When I was a little girl, around 12 years old, I first saw Japanese soldiers here in Hainan. They stayed here for quite some time and did some terrible things. I was young and fit and whenever I saw them, I ran into the mountains to hide with my family and friends. The Japanese were not so keen on girls with tattoos on their skin, so they didn’t bother us as much. But not all – some soldiers didn’t care.

When I was younger, I wore more traditional clothes, like my mother, that I made myself. I had quite a few outfits. One day, some people from the local government visited and wanted to hire the costumes to put them on display. They gave me 20 yuan and told me they would return the clothes once they had finished using them. They didn’t. Luckily, I still have one set, but I don’t wear them anymore. I can no longer make clothes because I am now blind. This year I am 90 years old, and I’ve been blind for around 30 years now.

I married when I was 19 years old, arranged by my family to a local man who worked for the local government and was also a farmer. I had no job, only to grow rice. He had no tattoos, and he died when he was just 44. I gave birth to 10 children – four of them were girls. They don’t have tattoos. They didn’t want tattoos, and at the time, they were born when the government didn’t allow these types of tattoos. Three of my children died when they were very young, just babies. It was tough for me, as I myself was still pretty young. We didn’t have access to doctors or medicine, so you survived or died.

Because I am blind, my family takes very good care of me. I live in my own bedroom which I like to keep nice and clean, even though I can’t see it. I am only one of two ladies left in my village with tattoos. Soon, ladies like me won’t exist anymore.


About Humans of China

Cameron Hack, an English teacher from England, has made it his mission to collect the stories of China’s people since arriving in Beijing in 2014. By leveraging the online community, he’s been able to connect with members from some of the Middle Kingdom’s most fascinating – and in many cases, disappearing – communities. Almost 200 stories later (and counting), Cameron has recorded such diverse narratives as the women with bound feet and what life is like in Guizhou.