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Understanding the ban on tattoos in Chinese football

Written by Ili Hyseni

Written by Ili Hyseni


In Chinese culture a stigma has been attached to tattoos - in the past they were used to brand criminals and the tattoo still has links to organised crime groups in east Asia. Tattoos among ethnic groups were often seen as a mark of the uncivilised.


When the communists came to power in China after World War Two, tattoos were outright banned by Mao Tse-tung’s government. With the tattoo practise outlawed, studios had to go underground and serve those who existed outside government constraints. This would mean most clients at parlours were gang members and other criminals. 


It wasn’t until 2008 when Beijing hosted the Olympics, with the influx of foreigners, that tattoos became part of the public conscience. While the increase in Western arts and culture has made tattoos more acceptable societally, tattoo artists continue to carry out their work underground. Speaking to the LA Times in 2018, Gabe Shum a prominent tattoo artist who owns parlours in Beijing and Hong Kong explained the context in which his art form exists: “There’s no license for a tattoo shop.” If the government wants to stop it, they can. The government could close it down tomorrow. It’s still a subculture.”


Government disapproval has led to a tightening of regulation in recent years. Since 2018, broadcasting authorities have implemented controls on what is shown on TV with tattoos and piercings being blurred out. It is part of a wider shift being implemented by the Communist Party as it tries to bring more people in line with the national vision. 


Government interference has now permeated football in China. The process to ban tattoos outright within the sport began in 2018, when players were told to cover up. When China played in the Asian Cup in 2019, national team players with body art were told to wear long sleeve clothing while playing. Now in recent weeks, the General Sports Authority (GAS) has issued a directive that places a blanket ban on tattoos for players. National team players such as start Zhang Linpeng have been implored to remove their tattoos completely and in cases where this is not possible, footballers will be permitted to cover up in consensus with their club and teammates. Footballers wishing to play for the national team one day will no longer be considered for selection if they have tattoos and young prospects from U20 level and lower will be expelled from the set up. 


In a statement titled: ‘Strengthening the management of football players’, the GAS wants footballers to demonstrate the “positive spirit of Chinese football” and recommends that teams should “organise ideological and political education activities" that would "strengthen the patriotic education of players.” It is hoped that this new directive will “enhance the sense of mission, responsibility and honour, and create a national team capable of conquering and fighting well and with excellent style of play”


The new rules have already begun to affect the grassroots game. In December 2021 it was widely publicised that a university women’s game was cancelled because a number of the players had dyed hair. 

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