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Loyalist Tattoos and Tattooed Generals in the Song Dynasty

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According to Yue Fei’s biography, when the legendary general was slandered and interrogated for treason, he tore the shirt off his body, exposing four characters tattooed on his back: “Exhaust one’s loyalty in service of the state.” This study looks at two components of the Yue Fei story—patriotic tattoos, and tattooed generals—and examines their meaning in the broader stretch of Song dynasty history. Yue Fei was not the Song dynasty’s only tattooed general who came to a tragic end. The Northern Song’s Di Qing was a tattooed soldier whose military merit allowed him to rise to the highest levels of power in the empire. Di Qing’s story makes it clear that tattooed generals were objects of suspicion and ridicule at court due to their military tattoos, a trait that linked them to the criminals and lower class men that manned the Song armies. Though military tattoos sometimes had a loyalist ring to them, they were carried out on a mass scale, and were a characteristic of coercion rather than fervent loyalism. This study shows that underneath the nationalist historical narrative of the Song dynasty, of which Yue Fei is a famous example, there lies a different story of social conflict within the Song state. Rather than a story of Chinese fighting non-Chinese and of traitorous and cowardly officials struggling with loyal patriots, this study offers a narrative of a social conflict between high-born clear-skinned officials and low-born tattooed military men.

Affiliations: 1: Department of History, University of California at Davis


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