Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Tiger Art

When thinking of a majestic and powerful animal depicted in art, one animal instantly springs to mind: the tiger. And when thinking of countries that are famous for their artwork depicting tigers, three of the most well-known are China, Japan, and Korea.

Tiger paintings from these three countries have become famous all around the world and many other forms of artwork depicting tigers have been made in these countries (as well as in east Asia in general) over the centuries. Many have been purchased by art collectors from all over the world at very high prices. Just one glimpse at these paintings can "transmit" the tiger's prowess and beauty to the admirer.

In this hub we'll study the tiger art of China, Japan and Korea, the characteristics of tiger art in these countries, and the meaning of the tiger in the traditions and folklore of all three countries. So please, read on and learn more about this majestic animal and its unique place in Asian art and culture.

 

Korean Tiger Art

In Korea, tiger art has been very popular over the millinea, especially in traditional Joseon-era Korean folk art (known as "Minhwa").

Tigers made some of their earliest appearances in Koguryo paintings where they were being chased down by archers on horseback. Many of these mural paintings can still be found today on Koguryo-era temple walls in modern-day North Korea.

Tigers are an important character in traditional Korean beliefs and folklore and the mythical white tiger is traditionally the guardian of the East. Until the 1920s, the Siberian white tiger called Korea home and the tiger is mentioned in the creation myth of Ko-choson, which is one of Korea's first dynasties. Tigers are one of the most common and prominent subjects of folk paintings, and are often portrayed as being friendly, approachable, and even silly or stupid. This stands in contrast to the artwork of most other countries where the tiger is portrayed as being an intelligent, proud, and fierce animal! In many folk paintings, the tiger is a companion to the mountain spirits. Many Korean folk paintings feature a magpie (a bird that's considered to be an auspicious omen and a bearer of good news) cackling at a tiger, or the tiger with a lion or rooster. Tiger skins were also painted by minhwa artists and were much more affordable to the common person than real tiger skins. These paintings were supposed to invoke the tiger's guardian powers.

However, the tiger also has more serious portrayals in Korea. Many Koreans believe the tiger is a mountain god that can determine the fate of a person. Also to many Koreans, the tiger is the guardian spirit of Korea. Tiger decorations can be found in many Buddhist temples and shamanistic ritual sites across Korea and tigers are also found on mural walls of many of Korea's ancient kingdoms such as Koguryo and Paekche. And of course the tiger has also been the silly, clumsy animal in many a Korean folk painting and folktale.

In 1988, the tiger took on a new significance for Koreans when a tiger was chosen to be the mascot for the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics. The tiger was named Hodori (derived from "horang-i dori," or "boy tiger," in Korean) and he was featured on many an Olympic souvenir item that year! There was also a female tiger named Hosuni, but she was rarely used.

 

 

 

Traditional Korean Minhwa (folk) painting of a tiger and a magpie.

 

Chinese Tiger Art

In Chinese culture, the tiger is revered as a creature of great courage, prowess, and beauty. It is the king of the wild and is a creature of masculine principles. The Chinese tiger has the power to drive away demons and ghosts and brings good fortune and luck to all those who keep its image close at hand. Furthermore, the tiger represents the basic drive to progress, achieve, and succeed. Also according to traditional Chinese beliefs, a tiger lives to be 1,000 years old and when it reaches the age of 500, it turns white. Therefore any tigers in Chinese white tiger artwork are said to have passed the age of 500 years.

Tiger statues dating back some 7,000 years have been found in China and tigers are carved on many a tomb or monument. Many of the Chinese deities and legendary figures such as the Taoist "First Master of Heaven" Zhang Daoling, the God of Wealth Chao Gongming, and (occasionally) the mythological exorciser/ghost vanquisher Zhong Kui are often depicted riding a tiger in Chinese art.

For all these reasons, Chinese tiger art is displayed prominently in many Chinese businesses, offices, and homes. In addition, tigers appear on children's clothing and many women in southern China place paper tiger images in their homes on the birthday of the tiger (March 6th, or the second moon of the lunar calendar) to prevent quarrels and to keep vermin such as snakes and rats away.

In Guizhou province, many of China's ethnic minorities such as the Miao incorporate tiger motifs into batik artwork. Many of these pieces are very stunning and intricate.

Tiger paintings in China can range from folk art paintings to simple watercolors to modern paintings most people nowadays associate with the Chinese tiger. All of these paintings have one thing in common: they capture the ferocity and gracefulness of the tiger for all to see!

A Song Dynasty, Shaoxing Period-era (1159 AD) illustration of a tiger from a medical book.

 

Japanese Tiger Art

Tiger art is also prominent in Japanese culture. The white tiger in particular is a common motif in Japanese paintings and artwork due to its status as a deity in the Shinto religion. Ironically enough, tigers aren't native to Japan, which is why many Japanese artists from centuries past copied their works from the Chinese paintings.

Three Japanese artists who became particularly famous for tiger paintings during the Edo period were Kishi Ganku (1749 or 56-1839), Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795), and Katayama Yokoku. Ganku had the head of a tiger which became the basis of many of his paintings while Okyo had a tiger pelt which made drawing a tiger's skin very easy. Yokoku's paintings often depicted tigers as a traditional symbol of strength, and the tigers in his paintings are often shown emerging from bamboo.

In addition, other prominent Edo-era Japanese artists such as Okyo's student Kameoka Kirei (1770-1835), Ganku's son-in-law Kishi Renzan (1805-59), Kano Tsunenobu (1636-1713), and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) painted some very famous tiger paintings. Hokusai's "Old Tiger in the Snow" and "Running Tiger" as well as Kirei's "Tiger Looking to the Moon" are staple Japanese tiger paintings from this period.

The popularity of tiger art continued during the Meiji era (1868-1912) in Japan. Artists such as woodblock (Ukiyo-e) artist Koson Ohara (1877-1945) made some amazing tiger paintings and woodblock prints during this period.

Since tigers are not native to Japan, it was not very easy to find a live tiger to get all the facial and body features down exactly as it was in China. However, there was an abundance of tiger skins and the Japanese artists of the time often based their paintings on these skins. This is why in many of the paintings the tiger's skin is beautifully accurate, but in other paintings the tiger has a flat nose, abnormally large eyes, large paws, and small ears!

Tigers were also frequently used on the banners and wall paintings of samurai, to whom the tiger represented ferocity, strength, courage, and stubbornness, as it still does to the Japanese people to this very day.

Today tigers are still painted by many Japanese artists both on canvas and brush and in modern-day computer vector drawings. These artists have picked up where artists of centuries past such as Ganku and Okyo have left off!

 

 

 

Kishi Ganku Tiger Painting

Tiger painting by Kishi Ganku. Notice the flat head and small ears on this tiger. This is very typical for Japanese tiger paintings from the Edo period.

Tiger painting by Kishi Ganku. Notice the flat head and small ears on this tiger. This is very typical for Japanese tiger paintings from the Edo period. 

 

 

 

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