Intricate, black ink designs adorn the women of this community, covering their face in its entirety. The tattoos reportedly date back to the 11th century where, according to legend, the Burmese King stumbled across the Chin State women and became mesmerized by their beauty. As the story goes, the King kidnapped one of the women to take as his bride. In an effort to protect their daughters, the mothers began tattooing their faces to make them “unattractive” to the King, should he return.
Another version of the legend says that the King’s kidnapped bride managed to escape her royal captor by cutting her face to disguise herself on the trek back home. To honor her, future women of the tribe started tattooing the same marks on their own faces. While the stories behind the Chin State women’s tattoos are enchanting, another simple explanation attributes the face tattoos to tribe distinction. Today there are 60 different clans that make up the Chin minority. Of these various clans, it is the M’uun women whose tattoos prove most recognizable due to their P” or “D” shapes on their faces and “Y” symbols on their foreheads. Although these women have different stories about how the face tattoo tradition began, they all agree on one thing: it hurt.
The ink and needles used for the Chin State women’s tattoos are all derived from nature. The tattoos use leaves for color, soot as a disinfectant, and grass shoots as a natural bandage for healing. The women use thorns from cane plants as the tattoo needle, then heat the bark from pine trees and capture the smoke in a mud pot, mixed with various leaves, to create the ink. The tattoo process itself, all depends on each girl’s pain threshold and could last several days, followed by several days for healing.
While the history and traditions surrounding the Chin State are fascinating, they are quickly becoming lost to time. In the 1960s, the Burmese socialist government discovered what was happening in Chin State and banned the practice of face tattoos. The ban was part of a larger government effort to rid the country of old traditions and usher in a new era of modernization. The Chin State women of today are the last of the face tattoo tradition. Once they are gone, the tradition and history of Chin State tattoos will go with them.
The Chin people are one of the major ethnic nationalities in Burma. The Chin are one of the founding groups (Chin, Kachin, Shan, and Myanmar) of the Union of Burma. Chin is the primary ethnic group of the Chin State, who have many related languages, cultures, and traditions. According to the Burma census of 1891, the Chin ethnology was dismissed because the Chin are considered a hill tribe. In the 2014 Burmese ethnic census, the Chin ethnicity was again dismissed by the people of the Chin State. Of Myanmar’s over 130 ethnic groups, more than 50 are Chin, and in the past the women of each tribe would wear distinct tattoo designs.
The Burmese socialist government banned the practice of face tattooing during the 1960s as part of their programme of getting rid of the old and ushering in modernisations, with missionaries in the Chin also criticizing it as barbaric. These women are the last generation to all bear facial tattoos; when they die, a chapter of Chin history will be relegated to the textbooks. The six Chin tribes wear an array of different tattoos. The M’uun women are the most easily recognisable, with large looping “P” or “D” shapes on their faces and “Y” symbols on their foreheads. The M’kaan women have line tattoos on both their foreheads and chins. The Yin Du and Dai tribes feature long vertical-line tattoos across the entire face, including the eyelids; similar to the Nga Yah who have dots as well as lines. The Uppriu tribe, one of the hardest to spot, have their entire faces covered in dots, with either blackened or ashen-looking faces because they are so full of tattoos. The tattoos are made using leaves, grass shoots and soot. The leaves give colour, the soot acts as a disinfectant and the grass shoots are added at the end, acting as a bandage and natural healing cover. The concoction is applied to the face using sharp cane thorns, which prick the skin to create the pattern.
But with increasing access to the outside world, most young Chin don’t see face tattooing as fashionable or beautiful. In fact, many of them are embarrassed by their grandmothers’ seemingly out-of-date markings. But as photographers, journalists and historians make their way to the Chin State to document the disappearing tradition, some families are starting to take pride in their decorated grandmothers, their homes proudly displaying portraits of the tattooed women posing in full regalia.
The Chin people in Myanmar are one of the minority ethnic groups that have suffered widespread and ongoing ethnic and religious persecution ever since General Ne Win overthrew the democratically elected government in 1962. The predominant religion in Myanmar is Buddhism, however, the Chin people are largely Christian due to American missionary work in the 19th and 20th century. This has led to continuous attempts at forced assimilation. There have been recorded numerous crimes against humanity in Myanmar's western Chin state, committed mainly by the Tatmadaw (members of the Burmese Army) and police; however, other agents of the military government and the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) are also involved.
Despite continued persecution, little has been done on the part of the Chin people to speak out due to fear of reprisal, restrictions on travel, and the press imposed by the Burmese military regime. In their oppression of the Chin people, the Tatmadaw consistently violate the rule of law. The Chin people have been subject to forced labor, torture, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, and extrajudicial killings. Such treatment has incited a mass exodus of refugees who have left to neighboring nations such as India, Thailand, and Malaysia, even though doing so will risk further torture, detention, or even death
The Chin are of Sino-Tibetan origin and inhabit a mountain chain which roughly covers western Burma through to Mizoram in north-east India (where they are related to the Mizos, Kuki and others) and small parts of Bangladesh.
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