Tattoo and the Culture of Bionics

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Ever since the Han and the Tang Dynasties, in the ancient documents of the middle plains, there were always descriptions about the "tattoo" of the "uncivilized tribes" in Xishuangbanna. Among all the nations in Xishuangbanna, the men of the Dai People and the Bulang People have the custom of punctuating tattoos. They will punctuate various patterns on their legs, backs, and bottoms, then paint them with indigo or choler, and the color will not fade away for all their life. But it is really a bitter feeling. According to the summery in a book named "Che Li", the patterns for tattoos are generally divided into four types: the first type mainly includes animals, such as elephants, tigers, leopard, and monkeys etc.; the second type includes cloud pattern, square, round and flower patterns etc.; the third type covers characters, such as the Buddhist scriptures etc.; and the fourth type includes curves, straight lines, and geometric patterns etc. 

As to why these folks punctuate tattoos on their bodies, not only the scholars have different opinions, the people who bear tattoos on their bodies also have different explanations. As a matter of fact, as a kind of custom, tattoo has a historical process for its development and evolvement. Before Tang Dynasty, the Chinese documents recorded that the "uncivilized tribes" respected witches and gods. The reason for them to punctuate tattoos might be like the records in "Huai Nan Zi": "most activities there take place in waters, and very few events take place on land; they try to punctuate tattoos on their bodies because they want themselves look like animals that have scales"; i.e. "preen themselves as crocodiles; so that crocodiles dare not to attack them when they are in water". This is a kind of simple bionic practice, and it reflects their views to stay in harmony with nature. According to the legend, a young man of the Dai people, with the help of the dragon's daughter, punctuated many scale-like patterns on his body; when he swam in water, the water before him would split apart, and the monsters in the water dared not harm him either. Therefore, the people of the later generation use tattoos as witchcraft to defend the attack of evil spirits. 

In the ancient documents after Tang and Song Dynasties, tattoos were divided into "tattoo on feet", "tattoo on the face" and "tattoo on the body". According to the records in "the Records of Uncivilized Tribes": "those who do not punctuate tattoos on their feet will be looked down upon by others in his tribe; and other people will curse them as women, not the offspring of the same tribe". This shows that they have entered the patrilineal society, and they punctuate tattoos to indicate the difference between men and women. Among the patterns of tattoos, there are also Dai characters and Buddhist scriptures; this might be something occurred after the introduction of Buddhism into this region. The story goes: the Buddha, in order to let the young monks listen to his preaching carefully, punctuates some patterns on their faces. It probably means that the man has been educated in temples, and has changed from "a stupid guy into a learned fellow". Some people say that men punctuate tattoos to win the love of women, and this also sounds reasonable. 

As a cultural phenomenon, tattoo might come from the ancestors' fear for some "monsters" in hunting, fishing and other activities. Afterwards, the ancestors who believed in totem worshipping and witchcrafts might think that: "though the dragons are bad, the tigers are fierce, they do not harm their own babies; if they punctuate the patterns of fierce animals and other patterns on their bodies, the fierce animals may take them as the "sons of dragons" or the "children of tigers"; therefore, they will not be harmed by such animals or will have the bless of god or Buddha.