Words by Núria, 25 VIC
Back in the village, Lin Shwe is the first tattooed woman I meet, and the one who makes the strongest impression on me. I don’t know if it’s because of her hypnotic deep voice or the way she smokes her pipe – slowly, without rush. It’s after meeting more Chin women and hearing each of their stories that I start to understand more about this peculiar tradition.
Photo credit: Núria (Author)
Each Chin tribe has a different tattoo pattern, and this is why 67-year-old Ning Shen shares Lin Shwe’s tattoo. I’m surprised to see how clear the marks on her face are, compared to the rest of the women we have met. I learn this is because she got the tattoo when she was 35. She waited until her parents had passed away, as they didn’t want her to get tattooed. All her female friends and villagers had face tattoos, and she wanted them, too. She didn’t want to be different, she wanted to be beautiful like the rest.
To get her tattoo, Ning Shen had to give away two chickens and two blankets. After getting it, her face was swollen for a week, and she didn’t let anyone outside of her family see her. Five years later, she got married. Now she has 9 children and several grandchildren and continues to work as a farmer.
The tradition of facial tattoos in Myanmar is very old, and its origin is unclear. A widely believed story tells us that, in a time when Myanmar had kings, they used to travel around the country to look for wives-to-be. They would choose the most beautiful girls and take them to their personal harem, far away from their home and families. Since Chin women were renowned for their beauty and their families didn’t want to see them taken away, they came up with a solution: tattooing the girls’ faces, so the king wouldn’t find them beautiful anymore.
In contrast, to Ning Shen, a tattoo- less face was not pretty, and she didn’t marry until after she marked her face. Now to her daughters and granddaughters, facial tattoos are old-fashioned, something of the past.
Facial tattoos have been banned for some time. In 1960, in an attempt to “modernise” the country, the government declared this practice illegal. However, it hasn’t been until recently that it has become less and less common, not because of the law but because of a change in the mentality of community?
Today, the youngest tattooed woman of the Mun tribe is 27 years old and hasn’t continued the tradition. Parents don’t want their daughters to go through the painful process, and girls, having received an education and been in contact with the outside world, thanks to phone and better internet reception, don’t find face tattoos appealing anymore.
Inside their villages what was once the norm, it is now slowly disappearing. Some elders are worried about this tradition dying with them and complain that now they cannot differentiate the original Chin inhabitants from the Burmese who have moved there from other regions.
I finish the tour back where it started, in Mindat. At the local school, I encounter one of the oldest women with face tattoos. Yun Eian, 92, from the Magan tribe. She has become popular by playing the flute with her nose, something her mum taught her many years ago.
Photo credit: Núria (Author)
After playing a song, she complains at her age, she cannot blow the flute like before. With the background noise of the students, the melody is especially soft. It doesn’t matter. It’s just like her face tattoos: the ink faded over the years, but she is still beautiful. The tradition might be slowly dying, but these Chin women still wear their facial tattoos with pride and dignity.
I am always saddened to hear about cultures or traditions dying. I feel like a part of history is getting lost, forever. However, it seems at the same time, somehow inevitable. The world is changing rapidly and with it, people’s minds and ideals. Like beauty, which is by itself a very malleable concept, defined by the society and time we live in. But, are all traditions worth preserving? Even when they involve a very painful practice, inflicted on very young girls?
It’s not up to me to judge which traditions deserve to continue and which don’t. Still, I am glad I had the chance to meet these strong and proud women and visit the Chin villages.
I am happy I got to witness this meaningful tradition to so many before it becomes forever extinct.
Illustration by Aileen, You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc