Asian Ethnology 80-2 Fertile Tattoos Play, Embodiment, and the Transition to Womanhood in Drung Female Facial Tattooing

Stéphane Gros

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Drung (Dulong/T’rung) tattoo body femininity fertility reproduction

This article examines the tradition of facial tattooing among Drung women in Yunnan province, China. Now obsolete, the practice of female tattooing—by puncturing the skin, causing bleeding and pain—used to enable and mark the social and physiological time of the transition to nubility, thus preparing women for their fertile becoming. The analysis focuses on the gradual, quasi-initiatory transition to womanhood established by tattoos, both during girls’ playful trial tattoo sessions or on the occasion of the formal execution of the facial tattoo by a fully experienced woman. The article shows that tattooing should be understood as a processual construction of womanhood that builds on preparatory play and is inseparable from the specific relationships between women involving fertility, which is transmitted, “revealed,” and represented by tattooing. Passed down exclusively by women, regardless of their relationships of consanguinity or affinity, tattooing exposes a form of transversal relatedness beyond any descent and alliance relationships. The embodiment of this mystical influence is vital if a woman is to be assigned her destiny, her social role as perpetuator of life.