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The Symbol of the Tiger in Korean Culture

The Symbol of the Tiger in Korean Culture


  The symbol of the tiger has been greatly revered - maybe equally besmirched -  and respected by the people of Korea for what seems like the whole of time.  The tiger, through the ages, has weaved itself throughout folklore and tradition and continues to be a powerful and mystical figure today. The Tiger is strong, wise and resilient. The Tiger demands respect and a little breathing room. The Tiger protects.


  Korea’s early animistic and shamanic beliefs and practices are still around today with Mudang - or shamans - carrying on the traditions and culture of our ancestors. The spirit of the tiger is seen as a protector and a guardian which can be called upon in times of need. Tiger idolatry is not uncommon and has been a fixture in Korean art and myth throughout the ages. You see more tigers around in things of culture than you do in the real world: paintings, sculptures, ornaments at your aunt’s house, clothes that your cousin made, et cetera.


  In Korea’s creation myth, a tiger and a bear are given a chance by the Gods to become something greater than animals. They must complete a lengthy trial of isolation and fasting and patience. With little time left, the tiger abandoned the task out of frustrated boredom, while the bear was blessed with becoming the first human.  In becoming a person, the bear moved forward in evolution while leaving behind its animal self. The tiger lived in solitude and had a new wisdom from its test with the Gods while sustaining an ancient and inconceivable animal knowledge. While surely we should respect the tiger for being strong and resilient and unchanged, it left the cave - as the story goes - in an outburst of childlike impatience.


  In folklore, the tiger is often depicted as an aloof and unrelenting antagonist. Its deviant actions towards people - thievery, for the most part - are rooted in hunger, temptation, and desperation. The Tiger was respected, but kind of annoying in ways that one can imagine a tiger would be. In these stories, the hungry tiger is usually tricked into harm by people in attempts to banish it. The tiger returns and asks for or steals food, and is tricked into another painful circumstance. In one of these stories, someone’s grandma wrapped a pesky tiger up in a rug covered in manure, then kicked it down a mountain and into the ocean to drown. That’s a little heavy handed for stealing a couple radishes. In another ordeal, a bunny tricks a tiger half a dozen times, at first out of survival, but the rest seems wicked. The little bunny leaves the tiger hungry, beat up, knocked out, toothless, burned, hairless and with a tummy full of hot rocks, then eventually frozen. While this is a less noble iteration of the tiger in Korean culture, its resilience is still prevalent.


  In the real world the number of tigers is dwindling, and on the Korean peninsula, there hasn't been evidence of the tiger for nearly a century. There was even a supposed successful effort by invading forces to eradicate tigers from the Korean peninsula simply because of its resounding connection to the people. This changed recently though when news came that a tiger had been spotted in the North Korean mountains. While we might tend to dismiss the things that come from North Korean media, hopefully, this one is true. Like the spirit of the Korean people, no matter the circumstance the tiger prevails. Sometimes the tiger’s desperate animal actions on temptation and selfish desires bring upon it a lot of pain and shame. Sometimes the Tiger is elusive; a mystery. A strong and nobler thing. I’m sure we can all relate. 

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