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British Museum, Japanese tiger on a scroll painting.

Tigers in Asian Myth: Are Pre Scientific Beliefs Bringing About the Collapse of Wild Tigers?


Historically, tigers were a Chinese cultural symbol which inspired story tellers, singers, poets, artists, and craftspeople for over 7000 years. This is evident because the earliest tiger statue ever discovered was dated to the Neolithic period in China, around 5000 BC. Since then, there has been an important role for tigers in Asian myth.

The mythological “Hattara Sonja with his white tiger.”

The mythological “Hattara Sonja with his white tiger.” (Public Domain)

The Importance of Tigers in Asian Myth

Tigers were central to all Asian belief systems, a claim which is highlighted when considering that the Bengal Tiger is the national animal of India, the Royal Bengal Tiger is the national animal of Bangladesh, the Malayan Tiger is the national animal of Malaysia, and there are strong associations with the animal in South Korea. In these countries, tigers became spiritualized thousands of years ago and became pivotal features in creation myths, cosmologies, religions and esoteric philosophies.

In ancient China, tigers became one of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals and it was believed that children born in the ‘year of the tiger’ would become competitive, self-confident, and brave adults. In its spirit form, tigers represented among other things: willpower, courage, and personal physical and inner strength. And the creature’s beauty, masking its hidden prowess and ferocity, were regarded as a visual harmony of opposites. For these reasons and many others the tiger embodied the spirit and drive required to achieve and progress in the material world.

Over time, these ancient qualities were reinterpreted to suit political and military agendas. For example, during the Korean Choson Dynasty (1392-1910), military officials were decorated with tiger embroideries to command respect and fear for their strength and courage. The nature of the tiger was used again between 1910-1945, when the Japanese held colonial rule over Korea, a time when nationalists regarded tigers as symbols of resistance to imperial rule.

Portrait of King Taejo of Joseon.

Portrait of King Taejo of Joseon. (Sithijainduwaraparanagama/CC BY SA 4.0)

Spiritual Notions and Cosmic Ideas About Tigers in Asian Myth and Legend

In China, tigers were one of the four ‘super-intelligent’ creatures - along with the dragon, phoenix, and tortoise - and each of these highly esteemed animals were popular design motifs within Chinese arts and crafts. Since its conception, followers of Tantric Buddhism have regarded tiger skins as representing the concept of transforming anger into wisdom and insight, and the act of wearing them during meditations was believed to bring protection from spiritual interference and potential harm while exploring astral dimensions.

It is no accident that Dragon-Tiger Mountain is the dwelling of the hereditary head of the Daoist religion, located in the Jiangxi Province, east of the capital city Nanchang. Tiger images are painted on the walls of homes and temples to ward off evil spirits and local poems such as “Tiger roaring & dragon singing-the world is peaceful” featured tigers and dragons together, representing the opposing polar, yet balancing forces of yin and yang, female and male energies, respectively.

1593 etching of Daoyin exercises; The Intercourse of Dragon and Tiger.

1593 etching of Daoyin exercises; The Intercourse of Dragon and Tiger. (Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0)

The interaction of the two universal forces, yin and yang, were thought of as forming the seeds from which all created form evolved; thus, evil resulted from an imbalance while good was perceived as emanating from their harmonization. Tigers were thought of as powerful manifestations of and symbolic representations of yang energy, the masculine principle in nature. For this reason, they were corresponded with the sun, the summer season, and the element fire. The tiger was the ‘king of all the animals,’ as shown by “the four stripes on his forehead” which according to some scholars form the character Wang (王), or King.”

At rudimentary levels of ancient Chinese mythology, five tigers held in balance the chaotic cosmic forces which prevented the universe from collapsing. And although interpretations change slightly from place to place, the significance and meaning associated with each of the five Asian tigers can be summarized as follows:

Yellow Tiger: Supreme ruler of all tigers, symbolic of the Sun

Red Tiger: Ruler of the Summer, governor of the Fire elementals

Black Tiger: Ruler of the Winter, governor of the water elementals

Blue Tiger: Ruler of the Spring, governor of the earthly elementals

White Tiger: Ruler of the Autumn, governor of the metallic elementals

“Tigers and Dragon” by Kishi Ganku, founder of the Kishi school of late Edo period (18th-century).

“Tigers and Dragon” by Kishi Ganku, founder of the Kishi school of late Edo period (18th-century). (Public Domain)

Each of the five tigers in Asian cultures was layered with complex cosmological, astronomical and geodetic correspondences. For example, the White Tiger was not only ruler of autumn, but of the West, and all occurrences connected with this aspect of the compass. The animal was personified in astrology and astronomy by the constellation Orion, which was most prominent in the autumn sky. Ancient Chinese people also believed that after a tiger had lived for 500 years it turned white and lived for an entire millennium. They also thought that upon a tiger’s death its spirit entered the earth, taking the form of amber, and from this ancient belief evolved the modern Chinese term for amber: "Soul of the Tiger”.

Will Gods Save or Destroy the Last Remaining Tigers?

Today, tigers are caught between a rock and a hard place and their troubles have not only sneaked up on them, but also on us, humans. The ancient spiritual beliefs associated with tigers were forged in a prescientific world, when communities were generally only several hundred people strong. The monks who assembled in the earliest local temples numbered in the tens, but today, when an estimated 376 million people follow Buddhism, the amplified effects of such supernatural beliefs are conversely bringing about the demise of wild tiger populations.

In March this year I wrote a harrowing news article on Ancient Origins about a shocking photograph which first appeared in an article in The Jakarta Post before circulating on the internet. This repugnant photo showed a massive disemboweled Sumatran tiger hanging in a public hall in North Sumatra, with villagers around it “trying to determine whether it was a supernatural creature.” An article in The Independent said local hunters “feared it was a siluman shape-shifter” and finally stabbed the creature “repeatedly in the abdomen with a spear” before stripping its still warm body parts.

In response to this brain numbing act of violence, scientists at the World Wildlife Fund said “It is no surprise that officials found the tiger was missing internal organs as well as its teeth, claws and some of its skin,” according to a report of the incident in Reuters.

Tiger parts have been important in traditional Chinese medicine regimens for over 1000 years and early medicinal texts claim the “calcium and protein” gathered from tiger bones has powerful anti-inflammatory properties and promotes general healing. The tiger’s strength and mythologized powers were believed to revitalize a body’s essential energies, treat diseases, and ease the symptoms of chronic ailments.

Bags of Illegal medicinal tiger products at the Laomeng market near Yuanyang county, China.

Bags of Illegal medicinal tiger products at the Laomeng market near Yuanyang county, China. (Avlxyz/CC BY SA 2.0)

Even though mainstream medical experts discount ‘all’ such claims of tiger parts having any curative powers, in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, and in Chinatowns across Europe and North America, Chinese doctors prescribe “tiger wines, powder, tiger balms and tiger pills.” According to, “tiger penis is used in love potions such as tiger soup, as an aphrodisiac, the teeth are used to treat fevers, the claws treat insomnia and those magical "12 inch long tiger whiskers” can be used to treat toothaches.

In 2009, Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India reported that the “prices of tiger and leopard parts in Chinese markets have doubled since 2005” and among the products they found for sale in Chinese and Tibetan shops were “full skins for mounting on walls, capes with leopard and tiger trim, bones, skeletons, teeth and skulls, and chupas (Tibetan capes) made with leopard and tiger skins.”

Where, I ask you, has the age of reason disappeared to?

Top image: British Museum, Japanese tiger on a scroll painting. Source: Futurilla/CC BY NC SA 2.0

By Ashley Cowie


CNArtGallery. 2013. "Chinese Tiger in Painting and Its Symbolic Meaning".  Artisoo Paintings – Bring Chinese culture to the world. Available at:

Meyer, A. 2013. "Tigers In Culture And Folklore". Tigers – The most majestic cats in the world. Available at:

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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