Chinese Shadows

Ha Jin
Ha Jin; drawing by David Levine

There are many reasons for getting tattooed. But a sense of belonging—to a group, a faith, or a person—is key. As a mark of identification a tattoo is more lasting than a passport. This is not always voluntary. In Japan, criminals used to have the word for “bad” or “dog” needled into their foreheads. Later, members of the raffish underworld in Edo and Osaka took pride in their outlaw status and sported ever more elaborate tattoos, sometimes covering the entire body, depicting Buddhist deities or folk heroes. Tattoos, in Africa and elsewhere, can denote the passing into adulthood. It can be a tribal mark, as with English football hooligans with the Cross of St. George branded on their foreheads. Or it can be a sign of devotion, to gods or people: prostitutes in Edo had the names of their lovers tattooed on their inner thighs.

Most tattooed people have been from criminal, military, or working classes, but in certain periods tattoos were popular among an upper class mimicking the lower, thus expressing its disdain for the boring middle: the Duke of Clarence, brother of George V, allegedly had a fox hunt running down his spine, with the quarry disappearing into its hole. The thing about tattooing is that unlike a club tie, an armband, or a lapel pin, it cannot easily be erased. It is part of you. You are branded. It is only recently that tattooing has become a classless, democratic form of decoration, especially in Europe and the US, without any tribal, professional, or social connotations.

Ha Jin’s novel about a Chinese soldier who was captured during the Korean War involves a tattoo that is loaded with significance. The story begins like this:

Below my navel stretches a long tattoo that says “FUCK… U…S…” “The skin above those dots has shriveled as though scarred by burns. Like a talisman, the tattoo has protected me in China for almost five decades. Before coming to the States, I wondered whether I should have it removed. I decided not to, not because I cherished it or was nervous about the surgery, but because if I had done that, word would have spread and the authorities, suspecting I wouldn’t return, might have revoked my passport.

The narrator is a member of Chairman Mao’s so-called China People’s Volunteers. His tattoo belongs to the involuntary kind; it was inflicted on him after he was knocked unconscious in a US-run POW camp by soldiers who had gone over to Chiang Kai-shek’s side. The Chinese Nationalists, or ChiNats, as they were called by the Americans, wanted to stop the ChiComs from going back to mainland China. Tattooing “FUCK COMMUNISM” on his belly seemed an effective way of stopping this particular ChiCom, named Yu Yuan, from returning to his mother and fiancée in Sichuan province.

In the end, Yu Yuan does in fact go back to his…

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