Chinese Tiger Culture
The tiger is regarded in China as the king of mountains and forests, and as embodying valor, virility and majesty. People born in the year of the tiger – third in China's twelve year cycle – are hence brave, optimistic, generous, and open minded, but better suited to leadership than service.
As four of the surviving subspecies of tiger are believed to have originated within Chinese borders, and the South China tiger is considered the evolutionary antecedent of them all, the tiger is a popular folk art motif in China.
Chinese ancients regarded the tiger as an amulet against fire, theft and evil. The walls of imperial courts, as well as of each common household, bore paper-cut tiger images to ward off disaster. Bandit chiefs on the margins of society received one another seated on tiger hides that signified their strength and bravery. Chinese children traditionally wear tiger-head hats and shoes for health and energy, as well as protection.
People the world over identify with the 12 animals comprising the Chinese zodiac. As Chinese migrants on their historical travels to Europe, America and various Asian countries have effectively imported Chinese tiger culture, along with other traditions, countries of the world are looking forward to the coming lunar New Year of the Tiger almost as much as China itself.
Tigers figure largely in Chinese classical literature and performance art. The Chinese opera, Wu Song Da Hu adapted from a tale of the Outlaws of the Marsh, one of the four great Chinese classical novels, tells how the outlaw Wu Song, set upon by a tiger in the mountains, kills the beast with his bare hands. The play is popularly performed in local opera styles throughout China.
Tigers are also the main protagonists of many folk tales and proverbs. One of the best known tells of the tiger who asked the cat to teach him how to leap, pounce and stalk its prey, but after mastering these skills used them to make a meal of the cat. It is the Chinese version of the Western maxim not to bite the hand that feeds.
The tiger image is synonymous with success and achievement. The spectacular economic take-off of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, for instance, has given them the epithet the five tigers. China itself became known as the tiger with wings after developing two warheads, a satellite and a manned spacecraft.
Tigers also inspire fear for their bloodthirsty pursuit of anything from chickens to people. The sage Confucius once raised this negative tiger trait in his warning, "Bad governance is more terrible than a tiger."
Save the Tiger
But although Wu Song is a hero for killing a tiger with his bare hands and Li Kui commands respect as a filial son for killing a litter of tiger cubs whose dam mauled to death and ate Li's mother, these big cats must now be nurtured rather than slain. Just one century ago there were eight tiger subspecies on earth. Now just five – the South China tiger, Siberian tiger, Panthera tigris, Sumatran tiger and Indo-Chinese tiger – remain. Half a century ago there were almost 4,000 South China tigers in the country. Today there are just 100, 60 of which were bred in Shanghai Zoo.
The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 led to the UN Commission on Sustainable Development which sets out to protect the ecological environment and preserve rare animal species.
As the majority of tigers today have been born and reared in zoos, the big cat now more resembles a pet kitty than a ferocious king of mountains and forests, terrorizing all in its hunt for prey. Environmentalists throughout the world are consequently searching out reserves where tigers can reacclimatize to life in the wild.
Environmentalist Quan Li is a champion of the South China tiger. She began establishing the Save China's Tigers Foundation in the UK, US and Hong Kong in the year 2000. She has taken two South China tigers to a wildlife sanctuary with a complete food chain in Pretoria which she hopes will awaken the big cats' hunting instincts. "When they are able to survive through their own hunting prowess, I'll bring them back and set them free in the mountains of China," Quan Li said.
Let's hope they become the founders of a new dynasty of majestic South China tigers.