What is the role of the tiger in Chinese culture, history, and mythology?
A brand new Chinese tiger year is around the corner. With that, how much do you know about these mighty beasts, as far as Chinese culture, history, and mythology are concerned?
Is there a Chinese tiger god? Are tigers synonymous with power and might in classic Chinese literature?
Are there any famous Chinese warriors, leaders, or entertainers, associated with the biggest of the big cats?
Here are 33 tiger facts, specific to the Chinese, to know before the new ren yin tiger year arrives!
33 Tiger Facts to Welcome Year of the Tiger 2022 With
1. The Chinese character for tiger is Hu (虎), but in literature, the character yin (寅) also represents the powerful Panthera Tigris. Yin itself is the third of the 12 Earthly Branches, with these 12 characters each representing one Chinese Zodiac. (In the corresponding sequence too)
2. Not all Chinese tiger years are the same. The Chinese lunar calendar uses a cycle of 60 years, with five tiger years found within each cycle. These tiger years are furthermore differentiated by the five elements. For example, 2022 is a year of the water tiger. The previous year of the tiger, in 2010, was a metal tiger year.
3. The South China tiger, part of the Asiatic Panthera tigris tigris subspecies, is native to the Chinese provinces of Fujian, Guangdong, Hunan, and Jiangxi. Since the mid-1990s, it has also been listed as critically endangered, no thanks to a slew of threats including poaching and natural habitat loss. At the moment, the once-mighty Hua Nan Hu (华南虎) is considered “extinct in the wild” and only found in captivity.
4. The South China tiger is the second smallest of all tiger subspecies. They also hunt alone. The latter might have given rise to the Chinese saying Yi Shan Bu Neng Cang Er Hu (一山不能藏二虎). Literally, “A mountain cannot harbour two tigers.” Two champions cannot co-exist.
5. Since antiquity, the tiger has been a symbol of vigour and might in Chinese culture. Numerous Chinese metaphors using tiger imagery to project power attest to this. Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian also wrote that the legendary Yellow Emperor was accompanied by tigers, among other mighty creatures, when battling Yan Di.
6. So it’s said, the Chinese character for “King,” i.e., wang (王), was derived from the strips on the forehead of the tiger. In Chinese culture, the tiger is regarded as the king of the jungle, not the lion.
7. In Chinese mythicism, Bai Hu (白虎) the white tiger is one of the four celestial beasts and represents the West, metals, and autumn. Some geomancy practices also state that the “East,” represented by the Green Dragon, must always be higher than the “West” to keep the ferocious tiger in check.
8. Perhaps because of the mythical pairing of the Eastern Green Dragon and Western White Tiger, the “dragon and tiger” is today a metaphor in the Chinese language for prowess. Anything with the characters of Longhu (龙虎) is assuredly something of great physical might.
9. As a symbol of vigour and power, the tiger is frequently invoked in Chinese folkloric practices for health and protection. For example, villagers would paste drawings of tigers on main doors to repel evil. Children would also be given tiger caps and shoes to wear. During tiger years, wang (王) would also be written in red on the heads of kids in hopes of well-being and vitality.
10. Interestingly, the tiger doesn’t appear much in Chinese Buddhism. Its most noticeable appearance is but that of the “subdued” tiger of Tiger Taming Lohan/Arhat. In classic Chinese paintings depicting the Tiger Taming Lohan, the tigers are generally “cute” and friendly too. (That is, till the pre-modern age)
11. In Taoism and Chinese folkloric worship, the Tiger Lord (虎爷 | Hu Ye) is worshipped as the divine steed of Chenghuang and Earth gods. Capable of banishing evil and wicked schemers, Hu Ye is also frequently worshipped with raw meat. Slices are placed at the mouth of statues.
12. Zhao Gongming (赵公明), the Chinese Martial God of Wealth, is usually shown riding or accompanied by a tiger.
13. Other than the characters mentioned in (1), the tiger was given many other lyrical names in Chinese literature. For example, it is often called the Mountain Lord (山君 | Shan Jun). In an ancient compendium, it was also called Big Worm (大虫 | Da Chong).
14. The Tiger Talisman, or Hu Fu (虎符), was a symbol of high military might in ancient China. For example, during the Zhou Dynasty and the Warring States. Note that such talismans aren’t at all like the yellow paper ones in Hong Kong ghost movies.
15. Further to what’s highlighted in (4), there are numerous Chinese metaphors and proverbs with the character Hu. Here are eight of the most commonly known ones, with translations:
- 虎虎生威 (Huhu Shengwei): The splendour of a mighty tiger. Often used as a Chinese New Year greeting nowadays.
- 生龙活虎 (Shenglong Huohu): As lively as dragons and tigers.
- 狐假虎威 (Hujia Huwei):Bossing others with borrowed might. The story goes that a fox thought the other animals were terrified of him, when all were actually cowering in fear of the tiger behind the fox.
- 如虎添翼 (Ruhu Tianyi): Adding wings to a tiger. In other words, expanding/heightening one’s might.
- 龙潭虎穴 (Longtan Huxue): The dragon’s pool and the tiger’s den. A metaphor for extremely dangerous places.
- 狼吞虎咽 (Langtun Huyan): To gobble and swallow like wolves and tigers.
- 养虎为患 (Yanghu Weihuan): Literally, “rearing a tiger is a disaster in waiting.”
- 虎视眈眈 (Hushi Dandan): To “eye like a tiger.” In other words, to view with greed or deep intent.
16. In classic literature, the tiger’s most notorious appearance is probably in Water Margin. A ferocious white-brow one was killed by the hero Wusong, with Wu accomplishing the feat after drinking 18 bowls of wine. Today, Wusong Dahu (武松打虎) continues to be a popular motif in Chinese art.
17. A minor character named the “Dragon-Beard Tiger” (龙须虎 | Long Xu Hu) appeared in the Ming Dynasty fantasy saga, Investiture of the Gods. An anthropomorphic hybrid of a tiger and dragon, the character stood on one leg and assisted the righteous Zhou forces, briefly, by hurling stones. Of note, several other characters in the saga have the character for tiger in their names, but they are not particularly associated with the king of the jungle.
18. The tiger’s most noted appearance in Journey to the West is that of the conniving Huli Daxian (虎力大仙), i.e., the “Tiger Might Supreme Deity.” The human form of a magical tiger, Huli swindled the Chiche nation together with his sworn brothers (a goat and a deer). Ultimately tricked by the Monkey God into beheading himself.
19. Romance of the Three Kingdoms named five followers of Liu Bei as the Five Tiger Generals (五虎上将 | Wuhu Shangjiang). They are Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, Zhao Yun, Ma Chao, and Huang Zhong.
20. Moving on to Chinese folktales, the righteous Justice Bao was described as having three guillotines, one of which had the head of a tiger. The Hu Tou Zha (虎头铡) was reserved for beheading evil imperial officers.
21. Within Wuxia novels and movies, the tiger is typically associated with clawing strikes. Strangely, though, novels by the three Wuxia masters do not feature any famous techniques solely based on the tiger.
22. In Southern Chinese Wushu, the tiger is one of the five animal styles of Wuxing Gongfu (五形功夫). There is also the Hu Zhao Pai (虎爪派), or the Tiger Claw Style.
23. “Dragon Tiger Gate,” or Long Hu Men (龙虎门), is one of the most famous Hong Kong-style action comics in the 1970s. It was created by Wong Yuk-long. A 2006 movie adaptation staring Nicholas Tse is available on some streaming services.
24. In the 1980s and 90s, four rising economies in Asia were collectively called the “Four Asian Tigers.” These are Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan.
25. If you’re fond of kungfu flicks, you’d have probably heard of the Five Tigers of Canton. The Guangdong Wuhu (广东五虎) in films such as The Tiger’s Legend of Canton was inspired by pulp fiction depictions of ten renowned Cantonese Wushu masters; in other words, there were originally ten Canton Tigers. The composition also differs depending on which version you’re watching. For example, the famous Huang Feihong (黄飞鸿) may or may not be one of the tigers.
26. You’d know this if you’re a fan of Hong Kong action movies and TV series. The Hong Kong Special Duties Unit is nicknamed the Fei Fu Dui (飞虎队). The Flying Tigers squad, in other words.
27. You’d know this too if you’ve been a fan of Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop entertainment since the 80s. Five popular TVB male actors from the 80s were nicknamed the “Five Tiger Generals.” In the early 90s, there was also the popular Taiwanese boyband, Xiao Hu Dui (小虎队 | Little Tiger Team)
28. Moving on to travel locations, Hangzhou is renowned for its Running Tiger Spring. The water here is regarded as perfect for tea brewing.
29. Nearby in Suzhou, the Tiger Hill (虎丘 | Hu Qiu) not only has a leaning tower, it’s said to be the burial spot of a few thousand ancient swords.
30. Tragically, centuries of cultural reverence towards the tiger did not prevent rampant poaching, killing, and destruction of natural habitats in modern China. Within a quarter of a century from the 1950s, the South China tiger population plummeted from several thousand to a mere 30-40 in 1987. The notorious Chinese obsession with using tiger parts as medicine, including the penis, undoubtedly worsened this plight too.
31. On a slightly brighter note, or not, increased affluence and a taste for the exotic led to many Chinese zoos nowadays exhibiting tigers. This is, however, not without controversy. Chinese zoos have been criticised for poor treatment of its exhibits.
32. Equally worthy of concern are tiger farms, of which China has several. While these rear thousands of tigers, they are criticised for horrific living conditions and indirectly continuing the inhuman demand for tiger parts. There is also the threat of in-breeding.
33. Last but not least, Singapore’s Haw Par Villa was previously known as the Tiger Balm Gardens. This stems from the name of one of the founding Aw brothers having the character for tiger. Today, the Tiger Balm is still a classic souvenir of Singapore.