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Most of the time, the Chinese tattoo designs that I see depict big, red dragons soaring on clouds drawn along the back of men (nowadays even on women) and Chinese mafia or gangs. You’d rarely see “good” Chinese guys sporting fierce tattoos. In the movies, it’s always the bad guy with that stiff upper lip and piercings on every pierce-able body part who, before a big one-on-one fight with the good guy, takes off his shirt and then the camera zooms in on his huge tattoo. The good guy gets distracted; bad guy grunts, and the fight is on.
If you knew how the Chinese perceived tattoos, you’d understand why you only see Chinese tattoo designs on the bad guys. See, way back during ancient Chinese times, Tattoos were only seen on the bad guys. The Chinese word for tattoo is ci shen, which literally means “to puncture the body” -an act contrary to Confucian ideas of filial piety that discourages any kind of permanent bodily modification, making this offensive to the parents, who gave the child his or her body. Criminals or exiles were marked with tattoos on their faces. Taiwanese inhabitants who wore tattoos of snakes and insects during the seventh century AD were also considered uncultured by the Chinese.
However, things have changed over the years, and Chinese tattoo designs have come to be very symbolic for the Chinese and non-Chinese alike. Tattoos of animals, whether real or mythical, are now considered art by a large population of the globe, so much so that tattoo conventions are held yearly in different countries. These conventions show both men and women who have transformed their bodies into canvases of indelible art, made by the hands of the world-famous tattoo artists.
There are quite a number of Chinese-inspired tattoos, mostly of animals or flowers that have meaning and relevance in Chinese culture. The more popular Chinese tattoo designs are different versions of the dragon, which symbolizes the benevolent helper of mankind. The dragon is a magical and enormous serpent, possessing spiritual and magical powers, symbolizing the union of heaven and earth. One will not be surprised why this design is the most popular of all.

Other designs include: the phoenix, a symbol of high virtue and grace; the koi fish (of Chinese origin but now popular among the Japanese), a symbol of masculinity and positive characteristics such as courage, the ability to reach high goals and overcoming the difficulties of life; and Chinese cherry blossoms, which represent power, feminine beauty and sexuality, female dominance, and love. The characters of the Chinese calendar each represent a year, with those born in a specific year believed to posses the qualities of the animal of that year.

Chinese tattoo designs are more often seen in non-Chinese, mostly in Westerners – the former due to the dark history of tattooing among the ancient Chinese, and the latter due to their attraction to things exotically beautiful. These popular designs reflect Chinese culture as well as the result of the changing times.

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