Penal tattooing (mo 墨) was one of the five capital punishments (wuxing 五刑) in ancient China. It is mentioned in oracle bone inscripions. The Western Zhou 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE) differed between miewu 幭𪑱 and chuwu 黜𪑱 (𪑱 being the same as 墨), the latter meaning that the delinquents were tattooed (cike 刺刻) on their zygomatic bone (the upper part of the cheeks), and the former, that the delinquents had, in addition, to wear a black scarf around their heads, to signify that they were convicted slaves (zuili 罪隸, see penal servitude). The feudal state of Qin 秦 used the expression qing 黥 for penal tattooing, and with the foundation of the empire, the word as used in all Qin China 秦 (221-206 BCE). Tattoing was often used concurrently with other penalties. In later ages, the term for penal tattooing was cizi 刺字, also cimian 刺面, if applied on the face.
The most famous victim of this kind of punishment was perhaps the philosopher Mozi 墨子.
Emperor Wen 漢文帝 (r. 180-157 BCE) of the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) abolished mutilations (rouxing 肉刑) as punishment, but tattooing was still used occasionally (te ci qing yue 特賜黥刖) during the Southern and Northern Dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600) for heavy crimes and as a commutation of the death penalty, and in combination with exile. Delinquents were, for instance, tattooed the character "robber" jie 劫 on their faces (danmian 黵面), their hair shaven and an iron ring laid around their neck (kunqian 髡鉗). In 515 Emperor Wu 梁武帝 (r. 502-549) of the Liang dynasty 梁 (502-557) abolished it, but the Later Jin 後晉 (936-946), one of the Five Dynasties 五代 (907-960), still used it, although with the name cizi 刺字, and in combination with exile (liu 流, see tattooing and exile, cipei 刺配).
Tattooing of delinquents was common until the end of imperial times. The Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279), for instance, had convicted bandits tattooed a circle (huan 環) behind the ear, while those condemned to do penal servitude or sent into lifelong exile, were tattooed a square form (fang 方), and even criminals punished by beating with the heavy stick (zhang 杖) were marked with a circle (yuan 圓形) with a size of no larger than half an inch (5 fen 分, see weights and measures). Redicivists were tattooed on the face. During the Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279), delinquents having committed minor crimes were spared tattooing.
The Liao dynasty 遼 (907-1125) fixed the punishment of tattooing in combination with penal servitude as three years for three crimes, and five years for five crimes. After 1033, delinquents convicted to lifelong servitude were spared tattooing. Tattooing on the face was a prerequisite of the authorities. It was therefore forbidden for private persons to mark flown slaves with a tattoo on the face, but they were allowed to have recaptures slaved tattooed on the arm or the neck. Robbers were tattooed on the right arm, repeaters also on the left one, if arrested for a third and fourth time, on the right and left side of the neck, respectively, and a fifth condemnation for robbing was the death penalty. Generally spoken, tattooing on the face was more or less abolished during the Liao period. The Jin dynasty 金 (1115-1234) fixed the punishment for robbery at tattooing and three years of military servitude (chongjun 充軍), five years, when the value of the booty passed 10 strings (guan 貫) of money, for robbing money or commodities worth more than 30 strings, lifelong servitude and tattooing on the face was due, and for 50 strings or more, the death penalty. The Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) preferred to tattoo on the left or right arm, or on the neck. Mongols and females were not disgraced by tattooing.
The founder of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644), known for his tyrannic character, ordered to use tattooing on the face only for members of court factions and for rebels (dang ni 黨逆). Yet robbers were tattooed on their wrists, first on the right one, then on the left one, and when arrested a third time for robbing, strangulated (jiao 絞). Robbing in broad daylight was punished with tattoing the characters qiangduo 搶奪.
The Manchus finally condeded that for heavy crimes, even Bannermen could be marked on their arm, yet Chinese were tattooed in any case. In the beginning, only robbers were marked with tattoos, but later on also murder (xiongfan 兇犯), deserters from the army (taojun 逃軍) or from exile (taoliu 逃流), criminals sent to exile (waiqian 外遣) or sent into exile instead of condemned to servitude (gaiqian 改遣, gaifa 改發). Sometimes the crime was tattooed (on the left side), and sometimes the place of exile (on the right), and tattooing in Manchu language was also known (for Bannermen?). The use of tattooing as collective punishment (yuanzuo 緣坐, lianzuo 連坐) was also known. Bannermen were tattooed on the arm, slaves on their faces. Those condemned to penal servitude were tattooed on their faces, but for punishment by beating with the heavy stick (zhang 杖), no tattooing was applied, if the criminal was a first offender. Deserters were tattoed on their left limbs, all other criminals on the right side of the body.
Through all ages, the mark was applied above the wrist, below the knee, and outside the hairy zones of the face. The seize of the mark was about 1.5 inches (cun 寸). Exiled convicts had marks on both cheeks, on the one side the designation of their crime, and on the other the place where they served in penal servitude. During the judicial reform of the late Qing period 清 (1644-1911), the penalty of tattooing was abolished.