By Chung Ah-young
The tiger may well be Korea's most beloved animal throughout its history. The country was once dubbed the "nation of tigers" as it has mountainous areas that provided them with a good habitat.
The animal has been a symbol of bravery, strength and dignity, and hence 2010, the Year of the Tiger, according to Chinese astrology, will be fervently hailed as a year of good fortune and vigor.
Tiger as Time, Space and Zodiac Sign
The tiger is the third sign in the Chinese zodiac of 12 animals. It is also represented by the month "inwol", the first month of the year; and the hour "insi", the 3rd in the 24 hour clock ― 03:00-5:00 a.m. in the lunar calendar. It also points to the bearing east-northeast. The white tiger is one of the four guardian gods ― three others are the blue dragon, the red bird and the black tortoise. They protect the four major directions with the tiger taking care of the west.
From Myth to Everyday Life
People's perception of tigers has changed over time ― in the past, they feared becoming prey to them, but nowadays they probably only see tigers in a zoo.
But the process of that change is interlaced with mysticism. The tiger, a vicious and ferocious beast, is also considered a mystical creature that keeps away evil spirits.
"In ancient times, the tiger was deemed a scary animal, but our ancestors weren't consumed by that fear. What is rather mystifying is that people also saw it as a guardian that drove away evil spirits, keeping peace and well-being in the village", Gu Mun-hoe, curator of the National Folk Museum of Korea, said.
Gu said that in their daily lives, warding off evil spirits was one of the major duties of the tiger. "It means the animal keeps away bad luck and evil spirits and draws in good luck. So our ancestors made talismans, using patterns shaped like a tiger".
The tiger and the falcon have three heads on talismans as defense against three years of misfortune and natural disasters caused by water, fire and wind. Also people sought protection from evil things using paraphernalia that had tiger patterns such as tiger skin on a bride's palanquin, tiger skin folding screens, tiger leg shapes for dining trays, and ornaments with tiger claw pendants.
"Also, we can see many stone tiger sculptures installed around royal tombs in the belief that they guarded the dead", said Gu.
He said that because of its strongly positive image, historical relics related to tigers have remained relatively large in number compared to others.
Presently, the tiger is favorably used as a model for commercial products. After the animal was symbolized as the cute and adorable "hodori", the mascot for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, the tiger has been used as an emblem and symbol of universities and at sports events.
Tiger in Folk Belief
In Korean fairy tales the image of the tiger traditionally symbolized the people's spirit. In folk stories, it appears as a sacry tiger, a tiger returning a favor, a foolish tiger and a violent tiger, having equally both, positive and negative sides to its character.
The beast is used in satire about the human world in the stories "A Tiger Repays Kindness", "A Filial Son", and "A Virtuous Woman Catches a Scary Tiger".
Having a tiger pattern on military uniform's chest insignia during the Joseon Kingdom symbolized wealth and fame.
A painting of a hunting scene "Horyeopdo" is one of the ways to express the bravery of the officers.
"Jakhodo", the painting of a magpie and a tiger, shows the joy of the New Year and the warding off evil spirits.
Also, in books on geomantic guidelines, the shape of a tiger lying down is one of the most fortunate places from a topographical point of view.
Exhibitions Featuring Year of Tiger
The National Folk Museum of Korea is holding a special exhibition titled "From Myth to Everyday Life" to showcase about 100 tiger-related relics through March 1.
The event looks into the transition of the tiger, as a symbol of Korean culture and history through the Year of the Tiger. "With this, we can find out how closely the images of the tiger are connected with us in everyday life", said Gu.
The exhibition displays various items related to the tiger such as "Eo", the tiger-shaped wooden percussion instrument, stamps as talismen and the bride's palanquin and blankets with tiger-patterned designs and folk paintings. For more information, call (02) 3704-3152.
Gallery I presents a special exhibition of tiger folk paintings by Nam Jung-ye through Jan. 12. The gallery showcases the artist's experimental works that blend traditional subjects with modern touches. Tigers are portrayed in diverse spectrums in the folk paintings. For more information, call (02) 733-3695.
The Seongnam Culture Foundation will hold an exhibition of "bokjumeoni", Korean traditional coin purses to represent good fortune, at the outdoor plaza of the Seongnam Art Center through Feb. 28. Visitors can also view installation artwork inspired by the animal and folktales. For more details, call (031) 783-8000.
The Lotte Department Store's Avenuel Gallery offers a tiger exhibition through Jan. 27. Renowned folk painter Suh Gong-im's works, including a painting of a tiger 530 centimeters wide, which was shown during the Beijing Olympic Games in China last year, are on display. For more information, call (02) 726-4428.
Famous Tiger People
Tigers are believed to be courageous, active and self-assured, optimistic, passionate and independent but sometimes they are rebellious, unpredictable and quick-tempered.
In the Korean traditional belief, people who were born in the year of the tiger are believed to have such traits.
Male idol stars are among the stars born in the Year of the Tiger: Park Yoo-chun
, Kim Jae-joong
of the top idol group TVXQ, Kim Hyun-joong
from SS501 were born in 1986, the year of the tiger.
Celebrities who turn 37 this year include actors Uhm Tae-woong
, Shin Ha-kyun
, Joo Jin-mo
, Moon So-ri
and Kim Ji-young
, who were born in 1974.
Also, stars born in 1962, Choi Min-sik
, Choi Min-soo
, Choi Soo-jong
, Choi Yang-rak
and Choi Myung-gil
Top singer Cho Yong-pil was also born in the year of the tiger in 1950.