Tiger in Folk Art (1)

The tiger is a popular theme in Chinese folk art. One may encounter numerous images of tigers in almost all forms of folk art: paper cuts, embroidery, sculpture, new year print and so on.

The earliest image of the tiger was discovered in an ancient tomb unearthed in central China’s Henan Province in 1987. A tiger made of shells was found lying on the left side of a body buried there. On the right side was the earliest image of a dragon even found, also made of shells. These images are believed to the some 6,000 years old. Experts say that both tiger and dragon were totems in ancient times.

clip image002 thumb1 Tiger in Folk Art (1)The Han people are actually a mixture of many ancient tribes from all over China. Tribes from the west, including the tribe of the Yellow Emperor, worshipped the tiger, while those along the eastern seashore worshipped the dragon. Of course, there were many other tribes with different totems. After many wars of expansion, these tribes gradually mixed to form the Han Nationality. Because tribes worshipping the tiger and dragon were more powerful, other totems disappeared, while these two continued to exist.

Worship of the tiger came from the nomadic and hunting life style of our ancestors. On the grassland, a tiger was a powerful animal. People held a contradictory attitude towards it. They both respected and feared it. There used to be a saying that if you are staying with an emperor, it is as if you were staying with a tiger. People took the tiger as a symbol which could protect their descendents.

With the development of agriculture, people began to rely more on the climate and were concerned with its changes. Since the dragon is said to be in charge of the weather, it replaced the tiger. Gradually, the dragon came to hold the dominant position in the heavens and the tiger became one of his subordinates, the king of mountains. No wonder there is also a similar saying to that of English in China that “While the cat’s away, the rat will play.” Actually the Chinese saying is that “If there is no tiger on the mountain, the monkey is the king.” And another saying goes that “there can never be two tigers that are staying on one mountain simultaneously”, meaning two capable persons cannot work together since they challenge each other.

However, the tiger has always belonged to the people. It is loved not merely as a totem, but has been secularized through the years. People love its beauty and strength, find spiritual sustenance in it, and use it as a protector and symbol of good luck. For example, in new year prints, we can often see a picture called “The Tiger Guards the House”. People will put it on the front door at the beginning of the year, so that the tiger will protect the family and let it have a peaceful life during the rest of the year.

Snap2 thumb Tiger in Folk Art (1)

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