Exploring the Meaning of Chinese Tiger Art
Around the globe, most people only come face to face with tigers in zoos and wildlife preserves. South China was one of the few native environments of certain subspecies of tigers, including the aptly named South China Tiger.
In the 1990s, Chinese scientists were dismayed to discover that the population was nearly gone. Thanks to over two decades of conservation efforts, the Chinese tiger population is finally on the rise.
Unsurprisingly, these majestic wild cats have come to take on cultural significance in China. Thus, Chinese antique collectors are bound to encounter Chinese tiger art. What do tigers mean in Chinese culture and what is the significance of Chinese tiger art?
Read on to learn everything there is to know about tigers in various Chinese art forms.
Why Do Animals Play an Important Role in Chinese Art?
Chinese art offers no shortage of cultural symbolism, which is why many Chinese art collectors and dealers are also avid researchers. Animals play a particularly important role in Chinese art from all time periods, including both real and mythical creatures.
This is largely because the creative minds of China, from philosophers to artists, turned to their natural world for meaning. Prior to the overwhelming shifts in our planet's health that resulted from industrialization and human intervention, animals roamed the landscape of China and, to some degree, coexisted with mankind.
Though each animal typically has an agreed-upon meaning in Chinese art, you'll often see them being used to serve a wide variety of purposes, from recording family history to taking on a political or religious stance. For practitioners of Feng shui, artwork depicting different species of animals is often used throughout the home to create balance and bring protection and good fortune.
What Does the Tiger Symbolize in China?
While many other cultures consider the lion the king of beasts, this title is given to the tiger in Chinese culture and history. Though the tiger population is now struggling to survive, the tiger persists in Chinese art and literature as a powerful being. Here are some of the common motifs and themes that tigers represent in Chinese art.
Tigers most commonly symbolize power in Chinese art thanks to their status as the king of beasts. Even a tiger that is depicted with a slender build often has a large head and a ferocious look on its face, indicating that it is not to be messed with. That said, tigers in Chinese culture do not represent a threat and are said to leave those who do not fear them unscathed.
In Chinese culture, particularly in relation to myth or religion, the symbolism of art goes beyond metaphor and story and can provide tangible benefits when used to one's advantage. Because tigers are powerful, they can also provide protection, and this is why you'll often find Chinese tiger art in households or places of work. The tiger's presence can ward off misfortune and threats to the people who make use of their likeness.
Caishen (or Tsai Shen Yeh) is the Chinese god of wealth. He is one of the major deities that oversees several minor deities. To this day, Caishen is a focal point of the Lunar New Year, when many families invite him into their homes and offer him sacrifices of food, incense, and other materials.
Notably, Caishen is also tied to tigers in Chinese art. There are many depictions of Caishen riding a tiger, specifically a black tiger, which we discuss below. This connection between the god of wealth and the tiger solidified the tiger's place in Chinese culture as a symbol of power, protection, and prosperity.
Perhaps because of the tiger's relationship with Caishen, tigers may also represent generosity, both of the owner of the artwork and of the universe. In other words, a tiger may represent one's willingness to share their wealth and good fortune with others. It may also encourage the forces of the universe to bestow wealth and good fortune on those who use tigers in their art and home decoration.
Like most living creatures, tigers are complex and, at times, unpredictable. The belief is that though they spare most who they encounter, a tiger could strike at any moment, as exhibited by their constant tension and motion. This unpredictability makes the tiger more exciting and earns it respect within the animal kingdom.
Throughout Chinese history, tigers are seen as a yang energy, playing an important role in Taoism amongst other Chinese spiritualist movements. Yang energy consists of:
While Yin is female, Yang is male. While this binary of genders does not take on quite the same meaning in Chinese history as it does in the Western world, it does indicate an ability to do, conquer, and provide.
The Five Tigers
The use of animals in Chinese art tends to date back to early Chinese mythology, and this is no different for the tiger. According to ancient myths in China, there are five tigers that create cosmic balance and prevent the universe from descending into chaos. Understanding the significance of each of the five tigers can help collectors to better interpret the meaning of the Chinese tiger art they are observing.
It was believed that tigers lived for centuries, eventually turning white once they reached the age of 500. In the context of the Five Tigers (aka the Five Elements), the white tiger is the ruler of Autumn. The white tiger is also associated with the West (directionally) and metal elements, which symbolize both grief and inner strength.
The black tiger is the ruler of the winter season. It is also associated with the water elements, which symbolize wisdom, intelligence, and flexibility. You may encounter artwork depicting Caishen, the Chinese god of wealth, riding atop a black tiger.
The blue tiger is the ruler of the spring season. It is also associated with earth elements, which symbolize fertility, change, nurturing, and abundance. Interestingly enough, there is a rare species called the Maltese tiger that does have a blue-tinted coat in place of the typical orange.
The red tiger is the ruler of the summer season. It is also associated with fire elements, which symbolize energy, passion, and prosperity. Though the color red in modern Chinese art is often associated with the Communist movement, it represented these earlier meanings for far more of the country's history.
Like the white tiger, the yellow tiger can stand on its own and is given a special role within the Five Tigers. The yellow tiger is the ruler of all the seasons, taking supremacy over the other four. It is also associated with the sun, the provider of all life and the symbol of spiritual enlightenment.
What Types of Chinese Tiger Art Exist?
Tigers appear in a wide variety of Chinese art forms, from ancient sculptures to beautiful hand-painted tapestries. Because 2022 was the year of the tiger, you may encounter an abundance of reproductions and modern Chinese tiger art. To ensure you're getting a rare historic piece, make sure to partner with a knowledgeable art dealer like Michael Weisbrod.
Historical Periods in Chinese Art
Chinese history is often divided into three time periods: ancient China, imperial China, and modern China. Each of these historic periods is marked by significant events and cultural shifts, from the rise of the Shang dynasty in 1600 BC to the Opium Wars of the 19th century to the creation of the Communist Party in 1921.
In ancient Chinese tiger art, you'll often see depictions of one or all of the Five Tigers. Collectors of modern Chinese propaganda are likely to encounter the Paper Tiger, a symbol of imperialist leaders (such as America or the UK) who appeared powerful on the outside but were not strong enough to overpower China. Unsurprisingly, the appearance and meaning of the tiger in Chinese art evolved with the changing focal points and concerns of the people and their leaders.
Significant Chinese Art Forms
China offers a rich variety of art forms, all of which can be found depicting tigers. Significant forms of tiger art include:
- Carved Jade
- Bronze work
Tiger sculptures and paintings are particularly abundant throughout the history of China. However, you will also find tigers painted on ceramics and dishes, depicted in a mosaic of gemstones, and incorporated into Chinese jewelry. The style, color, and position can tell you more about the era and meaning of each individual piece.
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China has a rich culture and history that you can trace through historic and modern artwork. Chinese tiger art is one of many types of art depicting animals and the qualities and attributes they represent. As powerful and noble creatures, it's no wonder that tigers have taken on a special role in Chinese art.
Are you an avid collector or historian? In addition to the online Weisbrod gallery, you can visit our new in-person gallery in Hong Kong. Learn more about it and plan your visit today.