The Tiger and China
On Feb. 14th, Chinese will be celebrating the lunar New Year of the Tiger all over the globe.
In China, the tiger is considered the king of all beasts. It symbolizes dignity, sternness, bravery, courage and independence. It is also associated with a fiery nature, power and authority. The image of tiger can be found in all aspects of Chinese life: children’s toys, folklore stories, fairy tales, traditional medicine, religious art works and political propagandas. During the 1950s, Communist Mao Zedong called the US a paper tiger, meaning it was only powerful in appearance, but in reality it was nothing to be afraid of.
The tiger appears on many ancient Chinese bronzes, as shown here in a vessel from Freer Gallery of Art collection.
Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1935.22, Western Zhou dynasty (ca. 1050 -771 B.C.E)
"Tigers had been a favored motif on southern bronzes since 1300 B.C.; Despite their stiff postures, the stylized rendition of their stripes, and their predominantly two-dimensional orientation, the bronze tigers are remarkably powerful representations of what were clearly perceived as awesome animals.” –Freer Gallery of Art, exhibition label, 1993-1997
Because of the tigers’ supremacy among all animals, in earlier times, their bones and penises were used by Chinese doctors who credited them with the power to confer remarkable virility.
Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Purchase, F1914.30 Luohan, Attendant and tiger, ca 1708
When Buddhism was first introduced from India to China, there were only 16 Arhats (Chinese named them Luohan) who were enlightened beings, but also very human. They were considered to have been either the actual disciples of the Buddha or followers who lived soon after his time. Chinese Buddhism added two more Luohans : the Subduing-Dragon Luohan and the Tiger Conquering Luohan. The additions were particularly Chinese, as dragon and tiger are the two Chinese symbols of authority and power. The subduing dragon and conquering tiger signified the submission of the Chinese authorities to the teachings of the Buddhist doctrines.
The Tiger is third in the 12-animal Chinese zodiac. One story goes like this: one day, tiger, phoenix and dragon went to the court of the Jade Emperor (the supreme Deity of Daoism) and complained about how they were bullied. The Jade Emperor asked “who dares to bully you, the kings of the mountain, forest and water?” They answered “it is men who always try to do us harm.” The Jade Emperor told them to bring their subjects to the Gate of the Southern Heaven at 5 am the next day and the first ten animals that came before him would be designated as man’s zodiac signs and thus would never be hurt by them. The next morning, all animals were waiting at the gate when the Jade Emperor got there. He said to them “come in” and they pushed against each other trying to be the first ten. The mouse, due to its size, got into the gate through others’ legs and was the first to appear before the Jade Emperor. So the mouse became the first animal of the Chinese zodiac. The ox became impatient and pushed others aside and got to the front. He took the second place. The tiger, as strong as the ox, jumped over the others and got in third. Then, the rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey and rooster got in the gate and presented themselves in front of the Jade Emperor. When the 10th animal, the rooster, took his place, the Jade Emperor said “that’s enough”. Either the emperor had a strong accent or his assistant had a hearing problem, his order was mistakenly taken as “dog” since the pronunciations for “enough” and “dog” are quite similar. Seeing there was now an extra animal, the Jade Emperor became impatient and shouted “quite enough”, but again the order was taken as something else, this time “pig” was called. So that is how the Chinese zodiac came to have twelve animals.
It is believed that people born in the year of tiger have a lively disposition and are forthright and uninhibited by nature. They are broad-minded, honest, tender, generous, humorous and quick to action. However they can be full of suspicion, and sometimes will take hasty action and tend to be selfish.
Before the New Year, the images of tigers are featured on greeting cards, calendars, stamps and other auspicious merchandise. The following greeting cards were sent to the Freer Gallery of Art Library from China for the 2010 Chinese New Year.
Here are some books for your reading pleasure related to tigers, Louhan, Chinese zodiac and symbolism from the Freer/Sackler Galleries Library’s collection:
Chen, Qingxiang, 1995. Luo han tu xiang yan jiu. Taibei: Wen jin chu an she.
Fang, Jingpei, 2004. Symbols and rebuses in Chinese art: figures, bugs, beasts, and flowers. Berkeley:
Ten Speed Press.
Watters, Thomas, 1899. The eighteen lohan of Chinese Buddhist temples. Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh.
Zhang, Feng, 2001. Animal symbolism of the Chinese zodiac. Beijing: Foreign Language Press.—Yue Shu