Tattooed hands used to be how Paiwan and Rukai women showed their nobility, how much they were liked and their purity. During the Japanese era, however, the tradition was looked down upon, fines were issued and it was forbidden. It became very rare that women wanted to have their hands covered with beautiful tattoos. The old tradition now lives on in only three old women in the Nanhui tribe of the eastern Paiwan, and this is cause of concern for old tribal culture.
Kao Cheng-chih, a Paiwan tribal chief and director of the Paiwan health center in Chinfeng Township, Taitung County, has studied the hand tattoo tradition. He says hand tattoos are a Paiwan and Rukai sign of nobility and privilege, and that it was restricted to daughters of tribal chiefs and nobility. Any common tribal member who wanted to gain this right had to pay a high price and also invite all tribal members to a banquet to gain their approval. The tattoos, however, would still be different from the nobility’s.
The pain suffered by the girls during the tattooing highlights their nobility and honor, and it also emphasizes their pre-marriage purity and their ability to work hard and suffer hardship after getting married. In addition, the girls also hoped it would improve their marriage prospects. Kao says the process involves many taboos. Before it begins, the shaman must pray for luck and ask for the gods’ blessing. Pregnant women are not allowed to watch the ritual, and anyone present is not allowed to sneeze or pass wind. If any of the taboos are broken, the ritual must come to a temporary stop and another day will have to be chosen for its continuation.
“Clothes can be changed and you may die, but hand tattoos stay with you for a lifetime and even in death.” Ninety-six-year old Wen Chin-niao is the oldest member of the Baomuli tribe in Chenghsing Township and the only one there with tattooed hands. The beautiful tattoos were given to her when she was married into the Baomuli clan at age 14 because, following tradition, her parents wanted to congratulate her on reaching adulthood.
Although the tattoos on the back of her hands have faded with time, Wen still clearly remembers the pain and the significance of the tattoo. Lightly stroking the back of her hands, she says it was a painful procedure. She recalls that the needle was made from thorns off the trunk of an orange tree and that the tattoo was made by hitting on the needle with a wooden club. The blood was then wiped off the hand, and soot from the bottom of a pot was spread over the tattoo. The whole process took two days, and it then took more than two weeks for the swollen hands to return to normal.
Wen says the tattoos are the mark of a chieftain, and that in the past, all young girls had to have their hands tattooed. The shaman making the tattoo would apply different patterns depending on the girl’s background. Hand tattoos are a witness to tradition and history. These tattoos have followed Wen through her long life, and although they have faded over time, they remain her most beautiful memory.
(LIBERTY TIMES, TRANSLATED BY PERRY SVENSSON)