2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

Body and Design: Preliminary Exploration of Tang and Song Period Wen-shen Practices

Yüan-p’eng Ch’en

Ph.D.Candidate, Department of History, National  Taiwan  University

Given the limited nature of relevant historical records, this piece will attempt to avoid unnecessary textual analysis, instead favoring a behaviorally oriented interpretation of the wen-shen practices of traditional Chinese society.  In reality, despite its negative perceptions in society and main stream culture, the practice of engraving images on the body’s surface has persisted throughout all periods since the Tang.  This piece will argue that the crux of such behavior is expression of the tattooed parties’ body-consciousness. Though wen-shen never became a widespread custom in Han (ethnic Chinese) society, it still managed to provide an outlet for the communication of certain minority groups’ experiences.  As records attest, soldiers and drifters often used wen-shen as a means of expressing their most heartfelt concerns.  From their perspective, the body was just a tool for the expression of personal nature, and the images displayed on its surface nothing more than a manifestation of such self-awareness. Still, behavior is not born without reason.  The motivations behind the development of wen-shen practices are thus deserving of some consideration.  It is this author’s opinion that wen-shen appeared most often among persons living under extreme conditions, or with urgent needs for self-expression.  Obviously, the definition of “extreme conditions” is highly dependent upon the individual involved.  For example, whereas impending national crises often served as the stimulus for wen-shen among members of the military, those groups living on the margins of legal society usually chose tattooing as a means to define themselves in opposition to any mainstream social order.  In other words, casting aside any moral discussion of the connection between “body” and “design,” the use of this practice by certain groups in traditional society can actually be explained as a form of resistance against environmental pressure. The pain involved in wen-shen is not only intense, but also prolonged.  Thus, from a sensory perspective, it imparts a fundamental degree of added value, in the form of increased body consciousness.  Such value is seen in the prodigious endurance that must be displayed by those resolved to undergo tattooing before they can attain such superficial markings.  Therefore, the wen-shen practice, in traditional society, may also have contained a degree of “ritual significance,” paying testament to the strength of certain commitments held by the tattooed person.


Key Words:  Tang, Song, custom, wen-shen, ts’u-ch’ing, tattoo, body