An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

mo 墨, penal tattooing

Aug 26, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald

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 on their heads, to signify that they were convicted slaves (zuili 罪隸). The feudal state of Qin 秦 used the expression qing 黥, 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.

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 during the Southern and Northern Dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600). 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 together with exile (liu 流).

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 in this way (yuan 圓形). The Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) preferred to tattoo on the left or right arm, or on the neck. Mongols were not disgraced by tattooing.

The founder of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644), known for his tyrannic character, ordered to use tattooing only for members court factions and for rebels (dang ni 黨逆). The Manchus finally condeded that for heavy crimes, even Bannermen could be marked on their arm, yet Chinese were tattooed in any case. 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. Exiled convicts had marks on both cheeks, one the one side the designation of their crime, and one the other the place of penal service. During the judicial reform of the late Qing period 清 (1644-1911), the penalty of tattooing was abolished.

Pu Jian 蒲堅 (1992). "Mo 墨", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中国大百科全书, Faxue 法学 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 429.