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Perceptions and Representations of the Tiger in East Asian Art


Traditionally, many people on the East Asian mainland had to be constantly on the lookout for tigers, which they recognized as savage, man-eating beasts. As the same time, they held tigers in awe as sacred animals that kept various demons at bay. The tiger does not belong in the same category of fantastic animal as the dragon or phoenix. Rather, it exists in the real world and has had a place in people’s everyday lives from antiquity. The tiger image was inscribed on jade vessels in prehistoric times as well as on weapons and sacrificial implements during the Bronze Age as a symbol of valor or a magical charm.

The exhibition entitled Tigers in East Asian Art: Korea · Japan · China shed light on the universal as well as the culturally specific significance of the tiger in Korean, Japanese, and Chinese art. Visitors could learn about the perceptions toward the tiger that were shown in the primitive beliefs of high antiquity as well as in Taoist and Buddhist thought of later times. They also saw how the tiger’s symbolism evolved in Korean, Japanese, and Chinese art and culture. This was a new approach to understanding East Asian culture through artistic symbolism and themes, providing various interesting perspectives and discussions.

The Korean Tiger

The tiger character appears in the mythology of the national ancestor of the Korean people as well as in various other Korean myths, legends, fables, andproverbs. The animal is also a common theme in Korean handicrafts, sculptures, and paintings. The earliest surviving depictions of the tiger in Korea date back to the Bronze Age, among the Bangudae Petroglyphs in Ulsan. The tiger image appears on the walls of Goguryeo 37 BCE–668 CE tombs, outside Unified Silla 676–935 royal tombs as a zodiac guardian, and on Goryeo Dynasty 918–1392 stone coffins adorned with the four directional deities. However, many of the most realistic portrayals of the tiger are from the Joseon Dynasty 1392–1897 .

The tiger was seen to play important roles in both the present world and in the afterlife. Importantly, belief in the tiger as one of the four deities who guard the four directions pervaded East Asia. The four directional deities include the blue dragon in the east, white tiger in the west, vermilion bird in the south, and black turtle in the north. Paintings of them can be found as far back as the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Periods 770–221 BCE in China, and they appear on the Korean Peninsula as early as the 7th century CE, in murals at the Gangseo Great Tomb of Goguryeo. Relief and intaglio images of the four directional deities are engraved on stone sarcophagi from the Goryeo Dynasty, while stone tigers are among the guardian figures on the grounds of Joseon royal tombs.

Joseon Dynasty, late 19th–early 20th century / By Shin Jae-hyeon / Framed; color on paper / 96.8 × 56.9 cm (image), 124.0 × 85.0 cm (overall) / Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art

The Korean perspective of the tiger transformed the most during the Joseon Dynasty. Realistic paintings of a ferocious tiger were produced, and the beast appeared on many New Year’s paintings as a talisman for repelling malevolent forces in the coming year. A ferocious-looking tiger was often paired with the mighty dragon in these works, while a comical portrayal would typically appear with magpies, harbingers of good news. Meanwhile, the “four-tiger sword” was produced in the Joseon Dynasty to project the authority of the royal family. In this case, the tiger image was not depicted; instead, the sword itself symbolized the ferocious power of the tiger.

These examples show that the tiger image has been variously portrayed in Korean art because it was perceived to be more than a simple hunting trophy or vicious predator. The tiger has been revered as a deity that controls human fate and guards space and time, and as such was considered a supernatural being imbued with the spiritual power to judge and discern right from wrong.

The Japanese Tiger

Tigers were never native to Japan, so the Japanese people rarely observed them directly. However, Japanese stories about tiger hunting can be found in various records going back as far as the Chronicles of Japan, called Nihon Shoki 日本書紀 , which was completed in the 8th century.

One example of a tiger depiction in early Japan is the white tiger that is part of the four directional deities painting on the burial chamber wall inside the Takamatsuzuka Tomb, built in Nara in the late 7th–early 8th century. However, the tiger was not a major motif in Japanese art in medieval times, and it took until the Muromachi period 1336–1573 before paintings featuring the tiger as the central character came into vogue. In the Kamakura period 1185–1333 , Japanese trade was active first with the Song Dynasty 960–1279 and then with the Yuan Dynasty 1271–1368 , and many Chinese paintings were passed to Japan. Ink paintings of the tiger and dragon as well as the tiger alone by Muxi 牧谿 , a Chan Buddhist monk and painter who lived in China toward the end of the Southern Song Dynasty, were well received by Japanese literati. This sparked a flurry of tiger paintings locally, and those produced in Zen monasteries were particularly prized.

Members of the samurai, who constituted Japan’s ruling class, also preferred ink paintings of tigers, and this fact was heavily exploited to establish close ties between the Zen temples and the samurai. The dragon and tiger paintings continued to be loved by samurai from the end of the Muromachi period through the Edo period 1603–1868 . The Tokugawa shoguns of the Edo military dictatorship, called bakufu 幕府 , had multiple large paintings put on walls, screens, or sliding doors, known as shouhekiga 障壁畫 , for décor inside their residence at Edo Castle. Besides the samurai-Zen link, these paintings were popular because the dragon and tiger were seen to symbolize the samurai’s military might. The dynamic composition of paired folding screens depicting a dragon and tiger staring at each other from each side was considered appropriate as an interior decoration.

Tiger paintings in Japan entered a new phase from the 17th century onward. Various painting manuals started to come into Japan from China, and Japanese artists reproduced the tiger models in these texts, but most of them looked like ordinary housecats. However, the famed artist Maruyama Ōkyo 1733–1795 , who received support from the court and wealthy merchants, closely observed the markings on a tiger’s pelt, and then produced tiger paintings that closely resembled the real thing, rather than the stylized images that were commonly made. His works influenced subsequent generations of artists, including Ganku 1749–1839 .

Meanwhile, numerous woodblock prints and paintings with a tiger-hunting theme were produced in the Japanese ukiyo-e genre, which flourished after the Imjin War 1592–1598 . This was closely tied to the epic tales of powerful Japanese feudal lords, called daimyo 大名 , who purportedly exterminated tigers while they were on the Korean Peninsula to prosecute the war.

Edo period, 17th century / By Kano Tsunenobu 1636–1713 / Pair of hanging scroll; ink on silk / Each 139.6 × 80.3 cm (image), Each 260.0 × 103.5 cm (overall) / Tokyo National Museum

The Chinese Tiger

The tiger theme was in evidence very early in Chinese culture. Found among the extant artifacts from the Shang Dynasty 1600–1046 BCE are tiger images engraved on ge dagger-ax, bronze mirrors, and drinking cups; Bell with a Tiger-shaped Knob, called chunyu 錞于 ;as well as tiger-shaped military tallies, known as hufu 虎符 and jade plaques, calledyuhu 玉虎 .

The tiger on weapons served as a protector spirit for the warriors who carried them. This symbol was believed to imbue soldiers with the fierce tiger’s majesty, vigor, and combat skills, thereby inspiring them to fulfill their desire to perform bravely on the battlefield.

Meanwhile, tiger shapes and patterns were frequently applied to handicrafts used day to day. For example, people liked pillows and other bedding articles decorated with tiger images because they considered the tiger to be a divine animal that wards off evil influences. Articles were commonly decorated in animal patterns in the Jin Dynasty 1115–1234 , a practice intimately connected with the lifestyles of the northern hunter-gatherer tribes. Carrying tiger-shaped jade pieces was also popular among the Chinese during the Ming Dynasty 1368–1644 . Indeed, in addition to its use on bronzeware and jade ornaments, the tiger motif was frequently seen in paintings and ceramics.

The tiger started out in East Asian culture as a totem and was counted among the mythological four directional deities and twelve zodiac animals that guarded space and time. The tiger was subsequently reborn as a guardian spirit within the Taoist and Buddhist traditions, symbolizing a host of guardian deities. A savage predator, the tiger also signified war, killing enemies, and repelling malevolent forces. As the king of beasts, it symbolized the ideal Confucian gentleman and virtuous government; as a swift runner, it was likened to the wind. Such basic notions regarding the tiger were initially formed in China and then spread throughout East Asia, and they evolved independently in Korea and Japan, resulting in a diverse array of manifestations. Many tigers once inhabited the Korean Peninsula, so the people would encounter them in everyday life. The fear and awe that the real tigers inspired were variously expressed in Korean art. On the other hand, tigers did not dwell on the Japanese islands, and so the people there emphasized its qualities as a sacred animal. The tiger was paired with the dragon in paintings that graced Zen temples and the palatial residences of the Shoguns. The special exhibition was well received as an opportunity to appreciate the commonalities as well as the differences in the ways that people in Korea, Japan, and China view the tiger.

Han Dynasty / Bronze / H. 65.0 cm / National Museum of China
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