"Frogs' legs are decorated, men's legs should be decorated if they want to be called men," is an ancient proverb among the Dai ethnic group of Xishuangbanna, in Southwest China's Yunnan Province.
For them, especially the elderly men, a tattoo is not a special way to show contemporary fashion but a centuries-old practice.
A tattoo is called sangmen in Dai language and most local men have tattoos on their bodies.
Only days before the most important and traditional Dai event, the Water-Splashing Festival, I waited under the scorching sun in a little village called Manbian, east of Jinghong County.
A group of middle-aged men, carrying a dragon-boat, passed by.
Watching them, I spotted Yan Yong, who had extraordinary tattoo patterns on his chest, featuring two Buddhism towers.
I did not have much time to talk with him because the boat he and the others were carrying, the village boat, was going to be used in the coming dragon-boat competition, which is heavily associated with honor.
A man preparing for a race would not allow himself to be disturbed for long but after obtaining Yan's consent, I took some photos of his tattoos and left.
Several days later, I took the photos to Yan in the village.
"Your tattoo patterns are very beautiful," I said.
"Beautiful or not beautiful, it doesn't matter," he replied.
"What's the meaning of the words tattooed on your back?" I asked.
"Just something the elderly people made," he said.
Later, I met an elderly man in the village and asked about Yan's tattoo patterns. Addressed as botao, a respectful way to call an elderly man in the Dai language, the man was conversant in both old and modern Dai languages. He told me the Buddhism towers on Yan's chest means "Buddha is in my heart."
The words on his shoulder-blades means "I love my girl, my girl loves me." He explained that such a tattoo, combined with a certain incantation, has the power to enchant a girl who does not like the man.
After getting more familiar with the locals, I came to learn that the Dais use tattoos as a system of symbols, each of which signifies a certain meaning and has a special function.
They also have a group of taboos concerning tattoos - that is why Yan did not want to explain the meaning of the tattoos on his body.
Tattoos are not merely used as a decoration to display the pride and beauty of men but to reminisce Dai history.
Trials for Men
Traditional tattooing is a very painful experience.
Many people cannot stand the pain during the process and quit half way.
As a result, they have to conceal the unfinished tattoo from other people, afraid to be considered as a coward.
However, the worst part about traditional tattooing is the following two or three days, when the inflamed skin begins to swell.
I met a local man who tattooed himself from the edge of his forehead to the instep of his foot. He practiced Buddhism in a temple for six years.
The villagers respectfully called him "Kanglang" which means man with learning.
The tattoo designs on his body included incantations, animals and people.
He was extremely respected in the village with the tattoos proving he was a man with fortitude and courage.
A Dying Custom
In the beautiful resort of Galang Ba, I met more elderly men covered in tattoos.
In this area, several villages were designated by the government as traditional Dai tourism spots.
Developers had arranged many singing and dancing performances to attract travelers - Yan Tan was one of the performers.
He played the King of Dai in a local drama and during the performance, when he took off his costume to wrestle with his rival, I saw the extremely elaborate tattoo patterns on his body.
"What is the animal tattooed on your ribs?" I asked.
"Oh, it's a monkey. They are as clever as men and can climb trees fast, you know," Yan said.
"Is this a peacock?" I pointed at his abdomen.
"Yes, the peacock is very beautiful, isn't it?"
His legs are almost entirely covered by what looked to be a fish-scale pattern. However, he told me the tattoo was not a fish, but a na, a dragon.
"When I go down into water, crabs and water-snakes will be scared away," he said.
During several years of traveling, I have noticed that most Dai people between 30 and 50 years of age have little understanding about tattooing and can hardly describe the meanings of the ink-work.
As for the younger generation, they only view tattoos as a fashion statement and have added many tokens, such as dragons, roses and knifes, into their designs, if they get tattooed at all.
(China Daily October 9, 2002)