Tigers in Korea

One of the interesting things about Korea are the tigers.  Where I grew up, team mascots were always fierce and realistic. Perhaps it’s about balance: we, who knew basically nothing of real violence, chose mascots that had a threat of violence. Yet in Korea, where every man serves in the army, where there are tank traps and massive artillery bases north of Seoul, this was the mascot they chose for the 1988 Seoul olympics:     

"Tony the Tiger" with a hat!





Often tigers were used as comic relief, according to David Mason. With their fierce pride and dignity, they resembled the yangban, or aristocratic class. In images like this tiger, you can see the puffed out chest and aggressive expression, filled with pride about its noble heritage and superiority to all, but, where did those spots come from?    

It seems the tiger’s mother had an affair with a lowly leopard!  Here the tiger is used to mock the arrogance and unearned pride of the yangban.  


 On the other hand,  in mountain-spirit portraits, images of tigers often served to symbolize the power of the mountains and nature, as well as the power of spiritual practice to help us become one with this.     

More tomorrow about tigers and spiritual practice.  


11 thoughts on “Tigers in Korea”

  1. I would really like to hear about that korean fire-bird, paintings of which I see in temples, because it is the same fire bird that are in russian folklore, stories and art, and the meaning of the name in russian and korean is the same and the bird depicted the same, these folklore stories are ancient, but they must have a common root, since they are similar. Growing up I always thought it is only Russian fancy bird, but then learned to my surprise it is Korean too, well, after all, Korea and Russia are neighboures. So the tiger is the same Siberian tiger, now endangered species;
    I just thought if you draw a parallel of tigers with spiritual practice, then the endangered applies for both of them

    1. Hi Tanya,
      You know, I’ve never actually seen a phoenix painting in Korea. The only ones I’ve ever seen have been wooden, carved ones in the Dharma hall, and sometimes carved on the beams of the Dharma hall. I’ve also heard almost no stories about them in Korea, either. I think I may have read one or two stories in the “Samguk Yusa,” collection of stories, but that’s about it. It’s as if they didn’t catch on here.

      1. it’s not really a phoenix, it’s a bit different, but as for paintings of it, there are two of them here in Toronto temple, which was painted by korean temple artist, also I’ve seen it in korean children’s books, and korean people seem to be very familiar with this mythical bird, so I don’t know about “didn’t catch on here”

      2. so why are they in the Dharma hall, what they represent and where did they come from?

  2. “we, who knew basically nothing of real violence” – interesting how you put it, maybe that’s why it is important to learn history properly? I grew up in the echo of WWII, the major part of which happened in Russia

    1. I meant the actual, immediate threat of violence. We had a major B-52 base nearby when I was growing up, but nuclear bombs were somehow more abstract than the situation in Korea. As a matter of fact, they’ve just closed to the public one of the northern rivers and nearby island beaches because of the huge number of landmines drifting down from North Korea. They found 30 more yesterday. Somehow this directness seems inversely related to a preference for fierce animal images.

      1. fierce animal images were long before North Korean stuff.
        Having a military base nearby is not the same as seeing the films and documentaries on tv and in schools and stories of veterans, friends and family, having “museums” of marks of shells and bombs left just as a reminder, I mean in high schools we had basics of military training and all had to learn general stuff like handling kalashnikov rifle, to put it all together in 10sec, and I really liked target shooting, however once I realised that the target is actually ment as potential killing and of people, the violence took the whole new meaning.

  3. Whenever I’d visit a temple, I would head first to the Sahn Shin hall (which must say something about my mind). The intimacy between the mountain spirit and tiger always impressed me and I look forward to hearing more about this!

    1. Hi Barry!
      If you’re interested in san-shin, then David Mason’s the man for you. I fixed the link above, so that should take you to his extensive site. Likewise, check out his book, “Spirit of the Mountains.” It’s really the ultimate book in English or Korean for info about san-shin. It’s basically out of print now, but I think you can probably get a copy either through David’s website, or through the Seoul Selection website (see the “books” section of this blog). I think the only copies of this book that are left are a few still on the shelves of bookstores, so let me know if you need help tracking this down. (I haven’t checked, but I’m guessing a copy on Amazon will be insanely expensive.)

    2. thank you for the link Chong Go!

      i know a music instrument with this name shan shin, but musical tigers?;-)
      so this a quite helpful link…
      as i’ve only minor knowledge about Korea i haven’t heard about Mountain Spirits so far. and they seem so important in times people don’t care for their environments…
      not caring about our inner world we’ll loose our outer world,too.

Leave a Reply to evelyn Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s