Vegder's Blog

April 15, 2010

Not quite the Zodiac – Part Two: The tiger – tora – 寅

Like all of my posts I pick a subject and then let it take me where it will. Something like hang-gliding on capricious air currents. That said, here is the start of a beautiful journey using a downright silly image of a man dressed as a tiger (sort of) doing some kind of gleeful dance that looks like an extremely bad Irish jig. Or, maybe like a baton-thrusting, high-stepping leader of a marching band… This image is taken from a print by Kunisada.

Tigers were not indigenous to Japan so any representations of them might seem a bit capricious or odd, but dancing tigers are somewhat over the edge… unless, of course, you considered that 1) the artist Kunisada wast so damned skilled and 2) immediate source of this prancing figure may have come from a  whimsical moment in a Kabuki play. [Note that in Nepal there was the tiger festival, the Bagh Jatra, where “…worshippers danced disguised as tigers.”]

Tora is the 3rd sign of the Chinese zodiac and traditionally represents 3 AM to 5 AM in the Japanese day of 12 2 hour hours. Directionally it is presented as east to northeast. Although the sign of the Dragon is considered it counterpart – which can be viewed as either hostile or cooperative – it stands for 7 AM to 9 AM east to southeast. Needham noted in a chapter on Chinese alchemy that “In the cosmological tradition the status of dragon and tiger as abstractions is ambiguous. They embody Yin and Yang emergent from their opposites, but early sources differ as to whether the Dragon is Yang within Yin or Yin within Yang.”

“The day of the ox was deemed propitious for the cutting of fingernails and the day of the tiger for the cutting of toenails.” Astrologically whenever the element metal is linked to the tiger fish are poisonous. (This info is provided by T. Volker in The Animal in Far Eastern Art…)

Volker says that originally the tiger represented the feminine half of the Chinese universe, but at some point was assigned its polar opposite.

Later Needham later refers to the Masculine element as Yang, hence Tiger. The Feminine is Yin, Dragon. “The Realised Dragon is the quicksilver within cinnabar. It is born when the solar seminal essence (jih ching) of mature Yang pours down and its realised chhi enters the earth. It is named mercury. The Realised Tiger is the white silver within black lead.” Jih ching is 日晶. Below is a detail from a piece of Spanish cinnabar posted at commons.wikimedia by Parent Géry. Droplets of liquid mercury can be seen dotting its surface.

A curious thought came to me after I posted the image shown above: If someone had shown it to me cold without any reference points I would have thought that it was photo taken by the Hubble telescope.

In ancient China

Merrily Baird explains how the Tiger and Dragon can be counted as counterparts. “In the traditional cosmology of China, the tiger is one of the Four Sacred Creatures, representing autumn, the western direction [notice the contradiction to information provided above – both work], the wind, and the color white. It is thus the compliment of the dragon, which represents the east, the spring season, and water. The interaction of the two – the play of wind and water – is thought vital for creating the nurturing weather that makes soil fertile and crops prosper.”

Archeologists have found ancient burial sites which just barely begin to reveal the mind-set of their occupants. One such site is believed to be that of a wu or shaman who operated as a conjurer of psychopomps or (soul) animal vehicles which can form a bridge to the supernatural world. Among the images found in this site are believed to be those of dragons, tigers and deer.

“When the tiger is five hundred years old its fur is thought to become white and when it is a thousand years old it goes to inhabit the moon with the hare and the toad.  When it is 500 years old there appears on its forehead the character wang (Jap. Ō ), king. A white millennial tiger is also said to inhabit the Milky Way. (Volker)  Wang is 王.

Berthold Laufer (1874-1934) wrote in his Jade: a Study in Chinese Archaeology and Religion, first published in 1912, said that “The West forms the only exception, being worshipped under the sign of a tiger, the first and oldest example in China of a personal image of a deity.” All other deities were represented by geometrical forms. The heavens were seen in a circle, the earth was represented by a square, etc. Laufer also tells us that a Chinese dictionary from ca. 100 A.D. “…an auspicious jade being the design of a tiger [was] used to mobilize an army.” ¶ It was common practice to bury the dead, the rich and powerful dead, with jade objects. “…the tiger-jade was buried in the grave at the right side of the corpse, i.e. facing west in the grave. ¶ Laufer cites Leopold de  Saussure (1866-1926) who believed that “…the tiger as symbol of the autumn is Orion.” Saussure told the story of Huang-ti who tamed tigers and then trained them to use in his wars against his enemies. Hence, tigers became associated with the concept of the warrior himself. ¶ Laufer adds that tigers mate in the fall and the female gestates for seven months. The males tend to be 7′ long and 7 is a yang number reaffirming its masculinity. [I am not sure I buy this, but that’s what he said.] The tiger is a solar animal (yang wu), lord of the mountains (shan kün) and king of all the quadrapeds. Born in late May, the beginning of summer according to Laufer’s accounting, is why it is a zodaical sign indicating the onset of that season. “We [also] now understand why in the Han period the tiger symbol was used as a token of command over the army.” ¶ A 2nd century A.D. account said that tigers could chase away demons. Another story tells of the king of Wu (513-494 B.C.) who was buried with precious swords. Placed as a guardian on top of his burial mound was a stone tiger. In time an emperor passed by the tomb and decided to take the swords but as he was about to dig up the grave site a menacing tiger appeared at the top of the tumulus. The emperor struck at it with his sword, but hit at the last moment the tiger jumped away and the sword hit the stone effigy instead. Laufer says “…the mark is still visible”, but the swords are no longer there. He credits a different grave-robbing people for this. ¶ Laufer tells of a Chinese bronze in a Japanese collection which he has seen which shows a child suckling at the teat of a tiger. The story: The child was born of an illicit liaison between a man of a princely house and a princess of another. After the birth the grandmother ordered that infant be taken out and abandoned in the marshes. There it was found by a tigress which nurtured it. Later the prince of Yun, the child’s father, was out hunting and saw his son with the tiger. When he confronted the mother she admitted the whole thing and the child was retrieved and given the name “Suckled by a Tigress”. He grew up to play an important role within his kingdom sometime around the end of the 8th century B.C.

A powder made from the ashes of its skin were thought to ward off diseases while its nails and its whiskers could drive away evil.

The Tiger vs. the Dragon: A Cosmic Smackdown

“The dragon and the tiger are at enmity, and if a tiger’s bones are thrown into a ‘dragon’s well,’ rain will follow within three days…”

Japan’s oldest reference to a tiger – okay, maybe the second oldest

The Nihongi (日本紀) is the second oldest chronicle from Japan and was written as an historical document covering the time up to 697 A.D. It was completed on July 1, 720. Many of its accounts relate to Japanese/Korean events. One such example is that of Kashiwade no Omi (膳臣), sometimes called Kashihade no Omi – (almost every Japanese name seems to have more than one variant making research for the novice incredibly difficult) –  and his sojourn on Korean peninsula. In one he and his family have landed on the shore of Paekche, an early Korean kingdom. His son wanders off and disappears. It was a dreadful night because there was a snowstorm. In the morning Kashiwade only found the tracks of a tiger which he believed had eaten his son. In W. G. Aston’s translation Kashiwade had strapped on his sword and armor and went out searching. “Coming to a cliff, he drew his sword, and said: ‘I, have respectfully taken charge of the silken threads and cords, with weary toil by land and sea, my hair combed by the wind, my bath the rain, with the grass for my mat and thorns for my carpet, came hither, all because I loved my child, and wished to make him succeed to his father’s office. Thou (too), O Dread Deity! has parental love as one feature of thy character. Now to-night my child disappeared. Following up his traces, I sought for him as far as this place, and without fear of losing my life I intend to have my revenge. For this I have come. Upon this that tiger advanced before me and opened his mouth in order to devour me. But I, Hasuhi, swiftly stretched out my left hand and seized that tiger by the tongue, while with my right I stabbed it to death. Then I stripped off its skin and returned with it.” (Below, on the left, is a detail of most of a print by Kuniyoshi showing Kashiwade no Hanoshi slaying the tiger. Too bad the tongue part isn’t featured. To the right of that is another version by the same artist. In this one our hero is prying open the jaws of the tiger. This print is a promised gift to the British Museum from Professor Arthur Miller. (© Trustees of the British Museum)

In another part of the Nihongi there is the story of Kuratsukuri no Tokushi (鞍作得志) who befriended a tiger and from whom he learned to turn barren mountains green, make yellow earth into clear water “…all manner of wonderful arts to many to enumerate. Moreover, the tiger bestowed on him his needle, saying: ‘Be watchful! be watchful and let no one know! Treated with this there is no disease which may not be cured.’ ” And it was true. “Tokushi always kept the needle concealed in a pillar. Afterwards the tiger broke the pillar and ran away, taking the needle with him.” The people of Koryö – another Korean kingdom – “…hearing that Tokushi wished to return, put him to death by poison.” If only he still had that needle. By the way, as best I can tell Kuratsukuri means ‘saddle maker’.

In one of Aston’s footnotes he quotes Giles as saying that any official who wears a garment made from a tiger skin “…will be a terror to evil-doers, while as a private individual he will have no enemies.”

Motoori Norinaga (本居宣長 1730-1801) wrote: “In the Nihongi and Manyōshū the tiger and the wolf are also spoken of as kami.” In the entry on Shinto in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics from 1921 it states: “Animals may receive worship for their own sakes as terrible or uncanny beings. It is for this reason that the tiger, the serpent, and the wolf are called Kami. But they have no temples and no organized cult.”

Now for the oldest reference – okay, partial reference to a tiger: Killing the nue

Large detail of Yoshitoshi’s Ii no Hayata slaying the nue on the left. Hokusai’s version – or one of them. The orange ground and the red of the blood are my addition.

In 1886 William Anderson wrote about the slaying of the nue in a description of prints and drawings in the British Museum. An emperor is ill and every night a strange bird lands on the roof of the palace and sings a strange song. The year is 1153 and the hero-to-be is Minamoto no Yorimasa (源頼政: 1105-80), a 5th generation descendant of  the killer, Yorimitsu, of the monster, Shuten-doji. Night comes, the bird lands and starts singing and Yorimasa shoots an arrow into the darkened night but in the direction the sound is coming from. There is a loud thud – or plop, if you like. Yorimasa and his warrior/assistant, Ii no Hayata, rush over and the latter finishes off this bizarre creature. Naturally the Emperor is miraculously cured at that very moment and Yorimasa is rewarded with a special sword and a beautiful woman is thrown in for good measure. Not bad for a shot in the dark, eh?

In Basil Hall Chamberlain’s translation of the Kojiki (古事記) it says that the Deity-of-Eight-Thousand-Spears goes a wooing. The object of his affection is the Princess of Nuna-kaha. He sings a song on his arrival which reads in part: “While I am standing [here], the nuye sings on the green mountain…” He then describes the other birds singing including the cock’s crow and finishes with “Oh the pity that [the] birds should sing! Oh! these birds! Would that I could beat them till they were sick!” In a footnote Chamberlain explains this irksome behavior. The deity in his haste is frustrated that he is unable to enter the princess’s chamber and as everyone knows that when the birds start announcing the coming of dawn that is usually the time when lovers sneak away. “Would that he could kill these unwelcome harbingers of day, and bring back the darkness!” Chamberlain then gives us a description of the nuye – if it is to be believed: “…it has the head of a monkey, the body of a racoon-faced dog, the tail of a serpent, and the hands (sic) and feet of a tiger.”

Of course, I can’t prove this, but… according to tradition Minamoto no Yoshitsune, one of Japan’s greatest heroes, was destined for greatness because he was born in the hour of the tiger, in the month of the tiger, in the year of the tiger. Clearly his path was made for him. Below are two examples from the collection at the British Museum created in the 19th century honoring this man. Both show him as a young boy. The first one is by Taito II is a surimono and we can assume that it was created for a Year of the Tiger, which would make it most likely to have been done in 1830 or 1842. 30 would be my first guess. (This short little section was added on September 23, 2011.)

© Trustees of the British Museum

Notice that Yoshitsune’s sword is sheathed in a tiger skin.  Animal sheaths were considered more prestigious and tiger skins were thought to be the best. Only the most important figures possessed them. And, like all other things Japanese, this type of sheath had a special name – shirizaya-no-tachi or 尻鞘の太刀.

The second example is from a well-known legend from Yoshitsune’s childhood when he was said to have been trained in martial arts by tengu. It comes from a triptych from the 4th month of 1858 and is by Kuniyoshi.

© Trustees of the British Museum

Take ni tora – Bamboo and Tiger – 竹に寅

W. R. van Gulik tells us “In Japan the tiger portrayed among bamboostalks in the wind is known as take ni tora, ‘tiger in bamboo’. This representation is generally taken to symbolize that even most powerful of terrestrial forces, namely the king of all animals, had to yield to the forces of nature. As such, the tiger in the take ni tora representation is also said to be identified with the wind itself, symbolizing as it were the rustling wind in the bamboo grove. The tiger may appear in combination with the dragon, the latter portrayed among the clouds or merely symbolized by falling rain. This representation is called uchū no tora, ‘tiger in rain’, once again symbolizing through the image of the greatest celestial animal strength and that of the greatest terrestrial animal strength, the ultimate superiority of the elements of nature over and above the earthly forces.”

In a play, Battles of Coxinga, by Chikamatsu there is a passage which relates directly to the image shown below. Its hero, Watōnai [see a section further down this page] says: “They say that when a tiger roars a wind rises. I’m sure that this storm must be the work of some wild beast. Yang Hsiang, one of the twenty-four examples of filial piety, escaped danger from a ferocious tiger because of his devotion to his parents.”

In 1889 a book on Japanese art by Huish said that the tiger “…is very often depicted in a storm cowering beneath bamboos, signifying the insignificant power of the mightiest of beasts as compared to that of the elements. When merely seen in connection with bamboos, it is so because its power is such that it can transverse a thousand miles at a stride, even through a bamboo forest.”

Merrily Baird on “A tiger sheltering in bamboo. The tiger is said to be the only animal capable of penetrating bamboo thickets, and the pairing of the two is said to represent the weak giving shelter to the strong.”

Tigers and the wind –

This Kuniyoshi image of Yoko defending his father against a tiger is shown courtesy of the British Museum. Notice the prominent display of the wind. (© Trustees of the British Museum)

Isn’t life waterfull?

One of my favorite Japanese prints showing a tiger-  with of without a waterfall – is by Kunisada and dates from about 1820. Shown below on the right courtesy of the British Museum. (© Trustees of the British Museum) It is entitled Tora no asobi (tiger at play) in the cartouche in the upper right. This animal certainly looks like it is enjoying itself.

It’s a wrap

Tigers don’t show up often as design motifs on Japanese robes. This is true especially on women’s clothing. You would think they would considering the tiger’s significant relationship to the cosmos as a plus, but they don’t. For birds they do, and the same for flowers and bats, but not tigers. However, in the example shown below from an 1873 print by Kunichika the tiger is there in spades. You don’t even have to look hard to find it. Not only that it gives the appearance of staring the viewer down and winning at it. That is, if the viewer is a child or an adult who isn’t any taller than, say, 4′.

For men, on the other hand, especially warriors, the tiger skin is something to flaunt. Proof of one’s rank, valor, fearlessness and – dare I say it – virility. Yes, I dare. It’s my blog. But back to the topic: If you look at the image below your first thought might be that the warrior is struggling with a tiger in the heat of battle. But, au contraire. The tiger is long dead and the warrior is using his skin as a shield against the (slings and) arrows coming from his very human enemies.

This image comes from the monumental series of prints produced by Kuniyoshi illustrating many of the scenes from the Suikoden which tells the tales of the heroes of the Water Margin (水滸伝). According to the original Katsuenra Genshōshichi – the Japanese name – grabbed a blue fox skin to defend himself, but Kuniyoshi changed that to a tiger skin. Poetic license. His original Chinese name is Ruan Xiaoqi (阮小七).

This is part of a promised gift to the British Museum by Professor Arthur Miller. (© Trustees of the British Museum)

Oda Nobunaga (織田信長: 1534-82), one of the great figures of Japanese history, during the building of his castle in Kyoto was described by a Jesuit this way: “He always strode around girded about with a tiger skin on which to sit and wearing rough and coarse clothing; following his example everyone wore skins and no-one dared to appear before him in court dress while building was still in progress.”

Man vs. Beast – Watōnai (和藤內) and the Tiger

Watōnai, a theatrical character is half Chinese on his father’s side and half Japanese on his mother’s. Even his name is a curious amalgamation: “…three characters representing ‘Japan,’ ‘China,’ and within respectively – is appropriate, if not too pat, for a hybrid individual…” His story is far too complex and convoluted to tell here – in its many versions. But one thing should be noted: he also was known as Coxinga. I mention this only because sometimes you will be looking at a print and the main character is called Watōnai while at other times it is Coxinga – one and the same fellow. Partially based on a real life person who wanted to conquer China (and perhaps Japan, too) Watōnai follows the path of the fantastic known to so many dramatic creations. On the stage Chikamatsu’s version succeeds where his historical counterpart failed. (Something like Romeo and Juliet living happily ever after.)

His honor and nationalism are quintessentially Japanese. When he and his mother are lost in a bamboo grove in China he is convinced it is Chinese foxes which have brought on their hardship. While in the grove Watōnai and his mother are set upon by a huge tiger. Watōnai struggled with tiger which was only subdued when his mother used a sacred charm which came from the shrine at Ise. “Watōnai! You were born in the Land of the Gods and you musn’t harm the body, hair and skin you received from them in a contest with a brute beast. Japan is far away, but the gods dwell in your body. Why shouldn’t this charm from the Great Shrine by the Isuzu River be effective now?” He accepts the charm, points it at the tiger and the rest is history – or, should I say, pure fiction. Later when  challenged by a group of Chinese soldiers and struggles with their leader he shouts out: “You despise Japan as a small country, but are you not impressed with the martial art of the Japanese, which even a tiger fears?” Then the tiger and Watōnai join forces to overcome the Chinese.

When the Chinese soldiers were told to “Kill the old hag, too!” they were in for a bit of a surprise. “They make a beeline for her with flailing swords, but – a further sign of divine protection – the gods lend their strength to the tiger. It springs up, quivering, bares its teeth. It leaps with a fierce roar at the enemy…. They fling at the tiger their hunting spears, rough lances, and whatever else comes to hand, and slash with their swords. The tiger, possessed of divine strength, leaps about at will, snatching their swords in mid-air with his jaws and dashing them to splinters against the rocks. The glint of the blades scatters like a hail of jewels or slivers of ice.” Translated from Chikamatsu by Donald Keene.

Now, this may not seem to be related, but it is. There is a Japanese game very much like rock, paper, scissors called ken. There are several versions of it. One is fox-ken in which “…both hands are used to make more interesting gestures. In the tiger-ken (tora-ken), which seems to have been invented in Japan a short time after the fox-ken, the gestures are even more interesting, because the whole body is used. This ken probably arose through the popularity of Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s play Kokusenya gassen (The Battle of Coxinga, 1715). In this ken, the half-Japanese, half-Chinese hero Wutōnai defeats the tiger (tora), which defeats Wutōnai’s old mother (basama), who is in turn superior to Wutōnai, her son.” All of this is that much more interesting because there were/are no tigers in the wild in Japan. (From: The Culture of Japan as Seen through Its Leisure)

Watōnai is fearlessly approaching a killer tiger. These two panels from a Kuniyoshi triptych are shown courtesy of the British Museum. (© Trustees of the British Museum)

In many accounts Watōnai says it would be unmanly to confront the tiger with a blade because blades from Japan are imbued with the power of the gods. Besides, the hero claims that he can lay low an elephant or demon with one blow of  his fist, let alone a tiger.

Man vs. Beast – hand to claw combat

There is a song on the English rap album, The Streets, called The Irony of It All. It features two protagonists. One is Terry who says “I’m a law abider” and adds  that “there’s nothing I like more than getting fired up on beer, and when the weekends here… to exercise my right to get paralytic and fight… [and] when geezers look at me funny [I] bounce ’em round like bunnies…” “Good clean grief” he calls it and besides he ain’t no thief. Then there is Tim who tells us “I’m a criminal. In the eyes of society I need to be in jail for the choice of herbs I inhale.”

Now, I can’t tell you what it is about the partial image by Kuniyoshi shown below that reminds me of those lyrics, but they do. Imagine a scenario where  an innocent pussy cat is minding his own business when along comes a brutish, testosterone driven he-man. Somewhat like the last lyrics spoken by Terry: “Why you cheeky little swine come here. I’m gonna batter you. Come here.” (Of course, ‘batter’ here is pronounced ‘battuh’.) But, alas, that’s not what this picture is about. It tells the story of Gyōja Bushō who is traveling in an area which has a man-eating tiger. It has already killed 25 men and there is no end in site. Bushō stops at a local inn and eats dinner and gets drunk. The innkeeper tells him of the loathsome beast and urges him to spend the night there because that is when the tiger goes on the hunt. Bushō only laughs and declares that he is afraid of nothing. As you might imagine these two brutes meet and in the struggle Bushō’s club is split into pieces when he hits a tree by mistake and he has nothing left to pummel the tiger with but his fists. Guess who won. Leave it to say that Bushō was declared a local hero.

In one Japanese version by Bakin (馬琴) all it took was a single blow of Bushō’s fist, but that was a re-write of the original. “…clutching the beast by the ruff with his left hand, Wu Song freed his right, big as an iron mallet, and with all his might began to pound. [¶] After sixty or seventy blows the tiger, blood streaming from its eyes, mouth, nose and ears, lay motionless, panting weakly. Wu Song got up and searched around under the pine tree until he found the stump of his broken staff. With this he beat the animal till it breathed no more.” Now that’s the Chinese version.

Gyōja Bushō is the Japanese name given to Wu Sung (武松) in the Chinese original of the story.

Above are two prints by  Kuniyoshi. Both versions are probably based on that of Bakin’s one blow theory. These prints are promised gifts from Professor Arthur Miller to the British Museum. (© Trustees of the British Museum)

The Lady and the Tiger – and a really big fish, a couple more ladies and a dancing frog

Chinese tiger amalgams and variants

In The Classic of Mountains and Seas composed from the 3rd century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D. there is a whole menagerie of magical creatures. Many of these include tiger-like elements. #1: In a translation by Anne Birrell there is mountain called Cherrysunny which seems to be covered or littered with “…scarlet gold on its south face, and plenty of white gold on its north face. There is an animal on this mountain which looks like a horse, but it has a white head and stripes like a tiger, and a scarlet tail. It makes a noise like the crooning of a human being. Its name is the stag-silkworm. If you wear some of it in your belt, it will help you to have children and grandchildren.” #2: On Mount Floatjade is an animal “…which looks like a tiger, but it has the tail of an ox. It makes a noise like a dog’s bark. Its name is the hoggy. It eats humans.” #3: A river runs along a part of  Mt. Prayerpass. Along the banks are tiger-crocodiles which make a noise like mandarin ducks. [I am not exactly clear from the description what makes them tiger-like, but the name alone made it too good not to mention here.] Tiger-crocodiles can be used to produce a treatment for piles and eating it can prevent abscesses. Another source translates this creature as a tiger-dragon. #4: At Mt. Bell is a monstrously huge osprey which “…looks like an eagle, but has black markings, a white head, a scarlet beak, and tiger claws. He makes a noise like a dawn goose. Whenever he appears, there will be a major war.” #5: On Mt. Carobriver is the Great God’s Garden of Peace where the “…deity Brave Raise resides… In appearance, this deity has a horse’s body and a human face, with tiger markings and bird wings.”

Above is a tiny detail from a Kuniyoshi print.

#6: At the Mound of Offspringline “…is the Great God’s City Here Below. The deity Land My presides over it. In appearance, he has a tiger’s body and nine tails, a human head and tiger claws. #7: On another mountain “There is an animal… which looks like a hone; it has a white body with a black tail, a single horn and the fangs and claws of a tiger…” #8: On Mt. Hookmy is an animal “…which has the appearance of a ram’s body and a human face; its eyes are under its armpits; it has tiger fangs and human nails. It makes a noise like a baby. Its name is the goat-owl. It eats humans.” #9: At Mt. Northhubbub is an animal that “…looks like a tiger, but has a white body, a dog’s head, a horse’s tail, and the long bristles of a sow.” #10: At Mt. Hollowberry there is an animal “…which looks like an ox but has the markings of a tiger. It makes a noise like a chiming bell. Its name is the ling-ling. When it cries, it calls itself. Whenever it appears there will be a major flood…” #11: “There is an animal… which looks like a fox and it has nine tails and nine heads, and tiger claws…” #12: A bird with a white head and rat’s feet with tiger claws. #13: On the south side of Mt. Cucumber is what appears to be a human only it happens to have the tail of a tiger. When it comes and goes there is a flash of bright light. #14: The Alligator Siege deity lives on Mt. Highhorse. “He has the appearance of a human face, ram’s horns, and tiger’s claws.” He, also, is accompanied by flashes of light. #15: The human-like inhabitants of the land of Venomtwist are striped like tigers. #16: There is a god-human called Sky Cry with a human’s face, a tiger’s body and ten tails. There are many more examples, but I would think you get the point by now. To be fair, you probably got it back at the 3rd or 4th example.

In Japanese lore there is a nine-tailed fox as there was in China along with several variations on the nine-tailed tiger. This cannot be a coincidence. Something else must be at work here. Besides some scholars believe that nine is the most propitious number. As I recall at the Nelson Art Gallery there is a ceiling from a Chinese temple with nine dragons representing the nine levels or circles of heaven.

Below is a detail of just such a creature, the fox, from a print by Kuniyoshi. It was sent to me at my request from my great friend Mike. At some point in the future I hope to get to a post on foxes as though it hasn’t all been said before, but for now you will have to settle with this example.

When the Japanese adopted the premier creature, the dragon, as their own they dressed it in their own imagination. It came to be described as having the legs and claws of the tiger.

Perhaps you scoff!

Perhaps you find the creatures in the section above a bit too fantastic. Well, are they? Perhaps the Chinese imagination was just way ahead of its time. Back in 2003 there was an article in the New York Times about genetic engineering of animals. It discussed the soon to be marketed zebra fish which has been altered by the addition of a gene from coral which made them fluoresce and glow in the dark. Below is an image of an unmodified, ordinary example posted at commons.wikimedia byKristof vt. After that is a posting by at the same site of genetically engineered zebra fish.

A few years before that there was the case of the artist who got a lab to insert a jellyfish into a rabbit so that it would glow in the dark. I don’t have access to that rabbit so I doctored an image taken from Kelson at commons.wikimedia and the results are shown below. Note that I could have added tiger fangs dripping blood and maybe some fish scales or a curly-cue pigs tail, but I think the image says what needs to be said. And who hasn’t heard of the jackalope? (By the way, no animals were hurt in the production of this post… by me!) What’s next? A new and improved Vegder? Wouldn’t hurt.

Who’s your daddy? Not Hoosier daddy!

Many people are frightened by the prospects of genetically engineered crops and who can blame them? But perhaps that is just the beginning. H. G. Wells thought about such things back in 1896 when he wrote The Island of Dr. Moreau. What would it be like if we could mix different species? Or put the body part of one animal onto or into a completely different animal? Wait a sec! What about pig to human transplants? We already have them. And what does that do to keeping kosher for those who want to keep kosher?

We can say conclusively that none of these issues were uppermost in Kuniyoshi’s  mind when he created his tiger-headed men like those shown below. But then what? What could he have been thinking?

Next thing you know you’ll be telling me that tigers and lions can’t mate

This morning I was listening to an interview with Tippi Hedren of “The Birds” fame about her preserve, Shambala, a home for big cats. She mentioned that they had a liger. Half lion, half tiger. It would seem that the lion is always the father. This was news to me so I looked it up and found a wonderful image – see below – posted at commons.wikimedia by Алексей Шилин. I also looked it up and found that in a new National Geographic publication for kids that they didn’t consider it natural and that generally lions and tigers would not mate and according to them probably shouldn’t. Any off-spring, no matter how adorable they are, tend to have all kinds of congenital problems. But, at least, now I know that there is such a creature: The tiger, a sign of the zodiac mixed with the lion, the guardian of Buddha. Who would have thought?

How to separate the men from the boys… errrr… I mean tigers

Kuniyoshi had a genius for creating new worlds. If it could be imagined he could draw. Such is the case of his anthropomorphic tiger seen below. Also, notice how he has used his tail as a sash or belt to help support what looks like a sheathed sword and a pouch. He is wearing a blue and white bandana commonly seen tied around the heads of day laborers. He is carrying a pole across his shoulders, probably bamboo, balancing packages on both ends. But the finest touch – he is either getting a light for his pipe from the man next to him or he is giving him one.

In the Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives by C. A. S. Williams it says: “The written symbol for this animal consists of the radical hu (虍), which is the representation of the tiger’s stripes, while the form jên (儿), man, below, implies that the beast rears up on its hind legs like a human being erect.”

Supposedly, but not necessarily true

First I have to tell you something which you already know: There is a lot of misinformation out there and who am I to stand in its way. That said, here are some little known ‘tiger’ related items which I can neither disprove nor prove so I will repeat them.

#1 The Naidka people who live in eastern and southern India, but mostly in southern, have a saying: “May the tiger eat me if I tell a lie.”

#2 The Guanyin rode on the back of a tiger to the Land of the Dead where ‘she’ sings in her heavenly voice to relieve the suffering of the damned souls. This so angers the lord of the dead that he banishes the Guanyin back to our world where she is lives on an island and dispersing mercy to the living. Nothing is said of what happened to the tiger. In Chinese this Land of the Dead was called Feng du 酆都.

#3 There was a half-tiger, half-man god in the moon called Moyang Melur. He held the secrets of a civilized society in a bag and didn’t share them with humans who ran rampant on the earth. One night Moyang Melur was enjoying himself as usual watching humans rape, cheat, lie, etc. when he leaned a little too far forward and fell to earth himself. There he met Moyang Kapir, a human, and threatened him if he didn’t help him get back to the moon. Moyang Kapir set up a rope by which they both climbed back to the moon. While there the human feared he would be eaten so he stole away taking the bag with its secrets with him. Once back on earth he destroyed the rope so the moon god couldn’t follow. Then Moyang Kapir dispensed the rules of society to mankind and as you know things got a lot better. My question: Which part was tiger and which part human?

#4 There is a story of a Buddha who sacrificed himself to a hungry tiger to save the lives of others.

#5 The mountain god in Korea was always accompanied by a tiger.

#6 A Korean myth of the Heavenly King Hwanung – who wanted to dwell on earth: “At that time a bear and a tiger living in the same cave prayed to Holy Hwanung to transform them into human beings. The king gave them a bundle of sacred mugworts and twenty cloves of garlic and said, ‘If you eat these and shun the sunlight for one hundred days, you will assume human form.’ Both animals ate the spices and avoided the sun. After twenty-one days the bear became a woman, but the tiger, unable to observe the taboo, remained a tiger. Unable to find a husband, the bear-woman prayed under the altar tree for a child. Hwanung metamorphosed himself , lay with her, and begot a son…” This is from Sources of Korean Tradition… vol. 2.

#7a In the Cambridge Shorter History of India there is this saying: “He who rides the tiger cannot dismount.” #7b In a 1920 novel by Chauncey Crafts Hotchkiss one character says: “Confucius says: ‘He who rides the tiger cannot dismount.’ ” #7c In 2007 the case of sentencing Mario Claiborne, a drug dealer, reached the U. S. Supreme Court. The issues are not what I am concerned with here, but what does matter to me is that in a 1995 Circuit Court of Appeals decision it was written: “If he was regarded as a prospective perjurer, on the theory that, ‘one who rides the tiger cannot dismount’, it must be remembered that the immunity afforded by the Fifth Amendment relates to the past. It is not a license to a person testifying to commit perjury.” (Despite the fact that the Supreme Court made its ruling the whole point was mooted when Claiborne was shot to death in St. Louis in late May 2007.) #7d In a 1924 book, Western Civilization and the Far East, one chapter states with ” ‘He who rides the tiger [blah, blah, blah].’ – A Chinese Saying” #7e Charles Dawes, 30th Vice President of the United States, veep to Calvin Coolidge, descendant of William Dawes who road with Paul Revere to warn the locals that ‘The British are coming!’, stated in his autobiography “He who rides… etc.” He also said “I should hate to think that the Senate was as tired of me at the beginning of my service as I am of the Senate at the end.”

An exception to the tiger-riding rule?

Maybe there are times and there are people, i.e., morphed gods, who enjoying riding the tiger and don’t want to get off. Shoki could be one such example. He is known as the Demon Queller. Tigers quell demons, too. The two together.. and what do you get? A double whammy. Kyōsai (暁斎: 1831-89) knew this as can be seen in the detail of a triptych shown below:

#8a  From The Book of Rites is a saying “He who treads on the tail of a tiger which does not bite him will see progress and success.” [This is my loose interpretation.] #8b In the 4th to 3rd century B.C. told the story of Confucius encountering a weeping woman who said that a tiger had killed her father-in-law, husband and son. When asked why the woman had not fled the area she responded that it was because the government was not harsh. ” ‘There!’ cried the Master, turning to his disciples; ‘remember that. Bad government is worse than a tiger.’ ” #8c Chinese children learned the proverb “It is easier to catch a tiger by the tail than to ask a favor.”

#9 In a volume called Law Relating to Animals an argument is made that “If a person wakes up in the middle of the night and finds an escaping tiger on top of his bed and suffers a heart attack, it would be nothing to the point that the intentions of the tiger were quite amiable.”

#10 In the Nihongi there is a quote: “Give a tiger wings and let him go.”

#11 In parts of India it is said that wherever a man was killed by a tiger people would start a cairn of rocks and that whenever someone else would pass that spot again they would add an extra rock. This is not completely unlike the common practice in the U.S. today of erecting white crosses accompanied by plastic flowers at the site of automobile or motorcycle wrecks where someone died – often because they were drunk, stoned, speeding, etc., or in the wrong place at the wrong time when someone else was drunk, stoned, speeding, etc.  Call me cynical.

#12 “In central Java the wer-tiger is held to guard the plantations against wild pigs.”

#13 Among the Nagas of India it is thought that the tiger could cause an eclipse.

#14 “A myth of descent from a tiger ancestor among the Bhils and Rajputs [of India]… but tiger-worship proper is confined to wilder tribes.”

#15 In Mirzapur tiger-gods were said to live in bira trees and at night they would take human form and call out the names of passersby. Those who answer get sick.

#16 The first live tiger displayed in Rome was said to be in ca. 11 B. C. It was kept in a cage.

#17 There are more metaphors in China surrounding the tiger’s powers – real or imaginary – than that of any other animal. For those who wielded power it meant dignity and sternness. For soldiers it was courage and fierceness. Its mere appearance or the sound of its roar represented danger and terror. Still does.

#18 Tiger whiskers were said to help ease the pain of toothaches. (I know that if I encountered a tiger in the wild I would forget about any toothache I might have at the time.)

#19 In ancient China some soldiers would dress up in fake tiger skin outfits and would then roar in an attempt to intimidate their enemies.

#20 It was written that if a tiger leaps at its prey three times and fails each time then it will walk away. However, any of its victims will become demons once digested with the exception of dogs which simply make the tiger drunk. Bad smells will drive it away.

#21 If a person was eaten by a tiger one of two things might happen according to the Chinese: 1) it will urge the tiger to eat others or 2) the human’s spirit will lose all will to escape, but will stay near the tiger to serve its purposes.

#22 When the eccentric Zen priest Ikkyū (一休) was five years old he was already known for his precocity. One story says that he was called before the shogun Ashikaga Yorimitsu (足利義満) who pointed at a painting of a tiger and told the boy to go tie it up. To this the boy said he would tie it up right after Yorimitsu drove it away.

#23 In ancient China there was a reclusive Buddhist monk named Xuanzong who lived by himself on a mountain infested with tigers. One day an old man showed up and told the monk that formerly he had been a man eating tiger but since he had studied the monk’s teaching he had been transformed into a deity (deva).

When did the Japanese see their first live tiger?

I don’t know, but we do know that foreign circuses were visiting Japan as early as 1871 – maybe a bit earlier. Perhaps a gift of a tiger had been sent by the Koreans or the Chinese before that, but if there was one we haven’t seen the evidence yet. If or when we find any new information we will post it here. But until then here below on the left is a detail for your delectation taken from an anonymous print from ca. 1881. Clearly it represents a circus troupe visiting form abroad. On the right is a detail from a Chikanobu (周延) triptych dated 1886.

While I can give the earliest date of a live tiger in Japan I can quote an interesting account from the mid-19th century – ca. 1860-1. In a book published in 1873 by Samuel Mossman it says “Among the imports at Yokohama was a tiger from Singapore, brought over by a Dutch trader. The Japanese customs refused at first to let it be landed, while the shipmaster would not take it back. In this dilemma it was resolved that it should be let loose on shore, which horrified the officials, and they gladly admitted the animal, while the importer sold it for ten times its cost, to a Japanese wild-beast showman.” UPDATE: Yokohama: Prints from Nineteenth-Century Japan says that the first live tiger was displayed in the Ryōgoku district in 1860. On a print by Yoshitoyo (芳豊) there is an inscription by Kanagaki Robun (仮名垣魯文: 1839-94) in which he says: “When the tiger and the leopard roar… the rooftiles will all shake, and wine on a table will tip over…. Being able to view such a frightening beast in a prosperous district spreads the moral reform of peace widely across the seas and has been a blessing for this suspicious reign.”

Below is an adulterated version of a Yoshitoyo print from that period showing the ferocity of a captive tiger having his lunch.

For more information about Japanese prints and culture please visit our other web site at


  1. Thanks for this – I’ll be putting a link to you on my blog.

    Comment by Lucinda Cowing — December 6, 2010 @ 4:48 am | Reply

  2. This was all really helpful. All the neat things I didn’t know about tigers ancient culture in China and Japan. Nine tailed tigers, awesome! Now I am even more proud to have the tiger as my zodiac sign! ^ ^*

    Comment by Lillian — January 30, 2014 @ 2:36 pm | Reply

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