The Korean Tiger: Icon of Myth and Culture

By National Museum of Korea


The mountainous landscape of Korea was once home to a large tiger population, such that the country was popularly known as the “Land of Tigers.” Korea was also once called the “land of the exceptional people who know how to tame the tiger,” demonstrating the close relationship between tigers and the Korean people. From ancient times through the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), Koreans have expressed their reverence for tigers in various ways. For example, a tiger plays a prominent role in the myth of Dangun, which depicts the birth of the Korean civilization. Tigers are often featured as guardian deitiesin funerary art and as the spirit of the mountain god in Buddhist and folk art. In every conceivable artistic genre, tigers have been widely portrayed in Korea as magnanimous symbols of superiority, as well as auspicious creatures that expel evil spirits.In Korean art, the ferocious roar of the tiger is never depicted; instead, tigers are shown with a stern expression, or perhaps even a mirthful grin. This style reflects not only the Confucian values of virtue and benevolence, but also the cheerful and optimistic spirit of the Korean people.

Tiger-shaped chamber pot(Collection of Buyeo National Museum) (Baekje kingdom)National Museum of Korea

Tiger-shaped chamber pot
Baekje kingdom
H. 26.5cm, L. 26.0cm

This chamber pot was excavated from the site of Naseong City Wall in Buyeo, capital of the ancient Baekje kingdom (18 B.C.E.–660 C.E.). In the shape of a tiger, it was a portable urinal for males, presumably a type mostly used by the upper class in the southern part of China from the Warring States to Southern and Northern dynasties periods. According to Miscellaneous Records of the Western Capital, a semi-fictional chronicle from the ancient Han dynasty of China, kings used a tiger-shaped chamber pot, hence their attendants had to carry one around with them. Legend has it that a immortal once made a tiger open its mouth and then urinated in it. It can be assumed that the portable urinal was created in the form of a baby tiger based on such tales and legends.

This particular example, which was unearthed in Buyeo, the capital of ancient Baekje, reflects the culture that flourished in the royal capital. This Baekje earthenware chamber pot takes the shape of a tiger with forelegs up straight; when picked up with the right hand the opening faces upward and toward the person holding it, making it easier to use. In style, it is simple with the finer details omitted, exemplifying the transformation of Chinese imports into the Baekje style.

A round handle is attached from the head to back, making it easy to carry.

Unlike those from China, this Baekje earthenware chamber pot takes the shape of a tiger with forelegs up straight; when picked up with the right hand the opening faces upward and toward the person holding it, making it easier to use.

Tiger-shaped chamber pot(Collection of Buyeo National Museum) (-0018/0660)National Museum of Korea

The tiger’s pupils and nostrils are expressed with dots and the eyebrows and whiskers with simple lines.

Replica of the white tiger mural in Jinpa-ri Tomb No. 1 (Japanese colonial period) by Oba TsunekichiNational Museum of Korea

The white tiger mural in Jinpa-ri Tomb No. 1(replica)
Japanese colonial period

This painting is a replica of the white tiger mural in Jinpi-ri Tomb No.1, known to be a stone-chamber tomb with earthen mound dating back to the Goguryeo period(37B.C.E.-668 C.E.), located in Pyongyang, North Korea. It was produced by Oba Tsunekichi (1878-1958), assistant professor at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. The Goguryeo people plastered the four walls of the tomb chamber and painted on them the blue dragon, white tiger, red phoenix, and black tortoise-snake on the east, west, south, and north walls, respectively, as the four guardian deities of the four directions.

The white tiger is one of the four guardian deities of the four directions. In China, from the third century BCE seven constellations began to be allocated to each of the four directions, in accordance with the theory of the five elements. From the Han dynasty, these guardian deities were imbued with the roles of expelling evil spirits and protecting the four directions according to geomantic theory, or feng shui. The four guardian deities were painted in tombs because the ancient people believed such paintings would turn the burial chamber into a scared place. This assumption is also connected with the idea that tigers can devour evil spirits that is found in Records of Customs, an ancient book from the Later Han dynasty.

In this white tiger painting, the tiger is depicted as a winged sacred beast. It has an elongated body and legs, an S-curved neck, and wings attached on either side at the forelegs. In this depiction the tiger is closer to an idealized creature rather than a real tiger.

In addition, the mystical background showing flowers fluttering down in five-colored clouds, makes it look as if the tiger is being born from a burst of numinous energy.

Zodiac figures(Collection of Gyeongju National Museum) (0801/0900)National Museum of Korea

Zodiac figures
Silla kingdom

This earthenware zodiac statue was discovered in 1988 near a crematory grave located in Hwagok-ri, Naenam-myeon, Gyeongju, Gyeongsangnam-do Province. The grave contains the funerary jar called golho holding the ashes of the dead, which is placed in a stone casket. This zodiac figures were found near the stone casket. At the back of the stone casket to the north, the pig, mouse, cow, and tiger zodiac figures were also discovered. The rabbit, ram, monkey, rooster, and dog statues, which had been displaced, were found removed from the original site.

The concept of the four guardian deities and the twelve zodiac animals began to be applied to tombs and other funerary art during the Unified Silla period(676~935), as a consequent of the wide spread of Taoism during the preceding Three Kingdoms period. The twelve zodiacal symbols of Chinese astrology represent deities protecting the earth, a concept formed by dividing temporal and physical space into 12 sections and 12 time periods, then allocating one animal in each: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. There was a folk belief that decorating burial sites with the twelve zodiac signs or burying the dead with zodiac figures would turn the inside of a tomb into a microcosm with the zodiac animals in the twelve directions guarding the spirit of the dead.

Zodiac figures-Tiger (Collection of Gyeongju National Museum) (Silla kingdom)National Museum of Korea

These zodiac figures are carved out of a single clay block. They all feature animal faces, human bodies and plain clothes. They are kneeling down with both hands at their chests, the heads and bodies facing right. The tiger figure has short ears with teeth bared, which are signature characteristics of the tiger.

Mountain god (Joseon dynasty)National Museum of Korea

Mountain god
Joseon dynasty
Color on paper, 109.5×81.0cm

This painting of the Mountain God features the personification of the tiger, which was worshipped as the mountain deity, or king of the mountain. In the Flower Garland Sutra, the basic scripture of the Avatamsaka Sect of Buddhism, the mountain god is counted among the dharma protectors. In the course of Buddhism becoming naturalized by incorporating it with folk beliefs, mountain gods, which were embraced by Buddhism, were upgraded to the rank of deities protecting the teachings of the Buddha. As a result, from the mid-to-late 18th century mountain god paintings, which had been preserved at shrines to village gods or mountain gods, began to be enshrined in Buddhist temples. In the paintings of mountain gods from the later Joseon period, an old man and a tiger appear against a mountain backdrop. Some take the old man for the mountain deity and the tiger at his side for his messenger. Other regard the tiger itself as the god and the old man as personification of the tiger.
In this painting, the mountain god sitting under a pine tree with a fan in his hand, a young boy, and a tiger are depicted deep in the mountains against a backdrop of clouds and distant peaks.

This mountain god painting is characterized by the expression of the background, which is in folk painting style, as seen in the decorative clouds in the blue sky, the valley, the pine trees, and the rock bearing divination signs.

The mountain god sits wearing a horsehair cap and red robe. The mountain god wears leaves on his shoulders and around his waist and holds a fan in his hand. His face is rather extraordinary with long eyebrows coming down to the cheeks and a long beard coming down to his chest.

The young boy standing at his side wears his hair in pigtails and is holding the Buddhist fly whisk. The tiger is sitting with glaring eyes and open mouth, baring its sharply pointed teeth.

Tiger, Joseon dynasty, From the collection of: National Museum of Korea
Show lessRead more
Dragon, Joseon dynasty, From the collection of: National Museum of Korea
Show lessRead more

These paintings of a dragon and a tiger are large wall hangings that formed a pair. The top edge of the paper canvas was folded over and glued down so that a string could be passed through it making it possible to hang the painting outdoors. During the Joseon dynasty, there was a custom of hanging up New Year's paintings called sehwa on the doors or in the main halls of royal palace and government buildings to ward off evil spirits and pray for good fortune. It can be assumed that this pair of paintings was used for similar purposes.

Tiger (Joseon dynasty)National Museum of Korea

Joseon Dynasty
Ink on paper, 221.5×218.0cm

The tiger painting shows the beast coming down from the mountain, suddenly turning its head in the direction of the rocks and pine tree as it lets out a roar. This painting is not only the largest among the extant tiger paintings from the Joseon dynasty, it also displays the artist's bold and unrestrained brushwork, and serves as a link between traditional Korean paintings of the 17th century and folk paintings of the 19th century.

The tiger's fur is depicted in black and white with a fine brush while the texture of the rock and pine trees is rendered in swift, bold strokes with light color applied on top.

The detailed rendering of the pine twigs, and the brushwork of the vines display the great skill of the artist. The pair of magpies perched on the branches is a motif characteristic of the tiger and magpie paintings that were popular during the Joseon period.

Dragon (Joseon dynasty)National Museum of Korea

Joseon dynasty
light color on silk, 73.0×95.5cm

The dragon was a popular motif for New Year paintings because it was a legendary animal thought to bring rain and clouds, and because of the folk belief that it had supernatural powers. In this painting, the dragon breaks through thick clouds and ascends to the sky. The noble mien of the dragon, resembling a human face, the depiction of heavy, realistic clouds, and the grand composition give viewers a glimpse of the refined style and artistry of the work, incomparable to any other Joseon dragon painting.

The right rear leg of the dragon is still immersed in the water, capturing the moment the dragon emerges from the surging waves.

Tiger (Joseon)National Museum of Korea

Joseon dynasty
Ink on paper, 97.6×55.5cm

This painting "Tiger” was produced during the late Joseon dynasty. In this work, the tiger passes by silently then suddenly turns and glares at the front, taking a menacing stance. In this ink painting on paper, the tiger is moving forward, staring at front with his body turned to the side. This composition of a tiger emerging from the mountains was first employed by Zhao Miaochuo, a Chinese artist famous for his tiger paintings who lived during the Northern Song period. From the latter half of the Joseon dynasty, such tiger paintings featuring the same composition were produced in large numbers for appreciation.

It was once presumed to be the work of Sim Sa-jeong(1707-1769), a renowned scholar and painter of Joseon because it bears the seal of his pen name Hyeonjae. But the year on the inscription, the Gabo year, does not match the period in which Sim was active, and the artist of this painting still remains unknown. The inscription and seal that appear on the painting seem to have been added by later generations.

Each strand of the tiger’s fur, which moves in accordance with the body, was depicted through the repetition of fine lines that join together to create a thick pelt. Hence the tiger in this painting is realistic and has a dignity and presence that cannot be matched by other tiger paintings where the shape of the beast is painted in outlines. The fur is depicted in such detail that every single strand can be practically counted, and it seems you could almost feel the lush pelt by reaching out your the hand. This fine depiction enhances the presence of the tiger and draws viewers into the painting.

The expression is so vivid that it makes the viewers feel threatened. This work by an unidentified artist is a masterpiece where the majesty of the tiger, which was regarded as king of the beasts and a sacred animal, is expressed so well through the briskly rising whiskers, glittering eyes, and graceful movements.

The Book of Changes includes a passage in which the transformation of the tiger and leopard into magnificent and dignified animals after shedding their hair while hidden in an autumn fog is likened to a man who is completely transformed into a superior man. As such, the tiger emerging from its hideout often represent the man of virtue, or noble man, coming out of seclusion and going out into the world to change it for the better.

Tiger under a pine tree(Collection of Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art), Kim Hong-do, Joseon dynasty, From the collection of: National Museum of Korea
Show lessRead more
Tiger under a bamboo tree(Private collection), Kim Hong-do, Im Hui-ji, Joseon dynasty, From the collection of: National Museum of Korea
Show lessRead more

These two tiger paintings are created by Kim Hong-do, during the 18th century in the Joseon dynasty. They are regarded to be the finest tiger paintings among those produced for appreciation during the late Joseon period. Both paintings depict the tiger coming down from the mountain, facing the front, a device that enhances the majesty of the tiger, the king of beasts. The paintings are interpreted as a message encouraging politicians to rule the country in a righteous and sincere manner. Along with the painting titled "Tiger" at the National Museum of Korea, this painting by Kim Hong-do expresses the dignity and virtues of the tiger in the refined and vivid style of court artists and thus presents the ideal of the Joseon tiger painting .

Tiger under a pine tree(Collection of Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art) (Joseon dynasty) by Kim Hong-doNational Museum of Korea

Tiger under a pine tree
Joseon dynasty
Ink and light color on silk, 90.3×43.8cm

The painting by Kim Hong-do depicts a tiger under a pine tree, whose trunks are painted in bold strokes that make it a superb representation of a pine tree.

It features a tiger under a pine tree and bears an inscription that reads: “This pine tree was painted by Pyoam." Pyoam is the penname of pen name of Kang Se-hwang, one of the most renowned artists of Joseon. However, judging by the style, it is hard to see the pine tree as his work.

It is particularly marked by the depiction of the tiger's fur in fine repeated lines and the wonderful proportional harmony between the tiger and the tree. The tiger's massiveness, agility, and vigor emanating from the painting makes it a masterpiece produced in the style favored by literati class of Joseon.

Tiger under a bamboo tree(Private collection) (Joseon dynasty) by Kim Hong-do and Im Hui-jiNational Museum of Korea

Tiger under a bamboo tree
Joseon dynasty
Ink and light color on silk, 91.0×34.0cm

This painting by Kim Hong-do shows the tiger with back and tail raised high and the head turned to face the front.

The inscription on the upper right hand side of the painting says, “Kim Hong-do of Joseon painted the tiger, the old gentleman Im Hui-ji painted the bamboo tree, and Hwang Gi-cheon critiqued them." It suggests that this particular tiger painting is a collaboration by Kim Hong-do and Im Hui-ji, a literati artist of the so-called "middle people," or jungin, origin, who was famous for his bamboo paintings. The bamboo is expressed with bold and unrestrained strokes,

while the tiger's fur, finely depicted line by line, the glaring eyes, and stiff whiskers and eyebrows, create an atmosphere of tension.

Tigers and magpies(Collection of Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art) (Joseon dynasty) by Shin Jae-hyeonNational Museum of Korea

Tigers and magpies
Joseon dynasty
Color on paper, 96.8×56.9cm

This is a folk painting featuring tigers and magpies, produced between the late 19th century and the early 20th century of Joseon. The painting depicts the tiger sitting down with her head held up, while carefully taking care of her three cubs.
Overall, all components of the painting seem to be created with cut-outs glued on the surface following the outlines. The stylized depiction of the tiger skin, Mt. Sam, and scaly trunks of the pine trees give the painting the look of a talisman against evil. The tigers and magpies in this painting allow the viewers to experience typical, simple, but intense visual effect generated by the use of icons. This particular work that has the feel of a New Year’s talisman with magical powers is a wonderful example of the change and expanded application of Joseon tiger and magpie paintings to the realm of folk painting.

The inscription placed on the right side of the painting says, “Written by Shin Jae-hyun on the morning of the first day of the year of the dog,” which suggests that the artist produced it as a kind of New Year painting, called sehwa.

Two other inscriptions on the painting describe the images of the roaring tiger and magpies, respectively. One reads, “The sound of the wind is heard from a thousand miles away; the roar of the tiger shatters the rock,"

while the other reads, “The tiger's roar brings all the magpies to gather at Mt. Namsan." These inscriptions that seem to figuratively describe the tiger’s ferocity and authority reflects the tiger's image as the king of beasts.

In addition, mushrooms of immortality from Mt. Sam, the three legendary sacred mountains of China, and

the cicada express wishes for longevity and at the same time indicate that the tiger is a sacred, mystical animal living in the three sacred mountains.

The inscription next to the baby tiger on the back of the mother tiger emphasizes the quality of the tiger as a generous animal that takes great care of its offspring and reflects wishes for filial children and many sons.

Tigers and zodiac figures Tigers and zodiac figures (Joseon dynasty)National Museum of Korea

Tigers and zodiac figures
Joseon dynasty
Ink and color on paper, 43.6×25.8cm

This 12-panel folding screen features paintings of the 12 zodiac figures and paintings of tigers and magpies on both sides. Tigers and magpies were the most frequently used subjects in the tiger paintings of the Joseon period. However, most of the extant tiger and magpie paintings are those in the folk painting style. From the 19th century, commoners adopt traditional themes including ‘tiger’ that were mostly favored by the literati class for their folk art. Tiger and magpie paintings in the folk style developed in diverse ways and become the representative folk painting type, characterized by a candid and humorous approach. Such tiger and magpie paintings exemplify the way traditional themes were transformed and extended into the realm of folk painting.

The tigers depicted in this folding screen encompass diverse appearances of tigers shown in tiger and magpie paintings. For example, a tiger raising its head to look at a magpie perched in the pine tree,

a tiger looking back or twisting its body, or a tiger staring straight in front. In addition, the patterns of the tiger’s fur vary, including stripes, dots like those of leopard, or a combination of the two.

In the third panel of the folding screen, there are two rabbits in front of a smoking tiger. The tigers also took on a comical appearance, some personified and even smoking a pipe.

Tigers and zodiac figures Tigers and zodiac figures (Joseon dynasty)National Museum of Korea

The twelve zodiac animals painted on the other side of the folding screen have animal faces and human bodies. They wear long robes and carry their own particular guarding implements. In the third panel, the tiger raises one hand and one leg appears poised for attack. Among them, the tiger is the symbol of the east-northeast direction and the time period of three to five in the morning.

The twelve zodiacal symbols of Chinese astrology represent deities protecting the earth, a concept formed by dividing temporal and physical space into 12 sections and 12 time period, then allocating one animal in each: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.

Portrait of Kwon Eung-su (Private Collection) (Joseon dynasty)National Museum of Korea

Portrait of Kwon Eung-su
Joseon dynasty
Color on silk, 163.0×88.0cm

This painting is the portrait of General Kwon Eung-su (1546-1608), a military official of the late Joseon period. Kwon passed the state civil service exams in 1584, the 17th year of the reign of King Seonjo, the 14th monarch of Joseon. During the Japanese invasions of the late 16th century, he was actively involved in mobilizing irregular troops called the "righteous armies" and repelling the Japanese. After the war he was named a meritorious subject in recognition of his wartime activities. This portrait of General Kwon, a gift from King Seonjo, was presumably produced at that time. It contains the typical formal characteristics found in 17th century portraits of meritorious officials, called gongsin. The subject bears an embroidered rank badge with tiger design, the symbol of military officials. The rank badge was attached to the breast and back of the uniforms of civil and military officials and royal family members of the Joseon dynasty. Motifs embroidered on these badges include giraffes, an imaginary creature baektaek, peacocks, the mythical unicorn-lion called haechi, cranes, tigers and leopards. These rank badges were used to indicate the wearers’ position and had a decorative function as well. Until the reign of King Yeongjo, who reigned from 1724 to 1776, the tiger insignia indicated a military official of first and second rank, and the bear for third rank. However, during the reign of King Gojong from 1863 to 1897, the rank badge for dangsangwan, officials above the senior third rank, featured a pair of tigers, while the badge for danghagwan, officials below junior third rank, featured a single tiger. The tiger was chosen to adorn the uniform for military officials as it was considered a symbol of valor.

Palanquin cover with tiger design (Japanese colonial period)National Museum of Korea

Palanquin cover with tiger design
Japanese colonial period
Wool, 169.3×118.5cm

This is a wedding article that was used to cover the roof of the bridal palanquin. On the day after the wedding night, the bride rode the palanquin, carried by four men, to the groom’s house. The palanquin was swathed in white drapes and the roof covered with a tiger skin. The practice of covering the bridal palanquin with a tiger fur originated in the folk belief that the brave tiger would protect the bride from evil spirits and ward off misfortune. However, when the indiscriminate hunting of tigers during the Japanese colonial period endangered the species and it became difficult to obtain tiger skins, tiger striped fabric covers were used as a substitute. The outside of this tiger skin fabric cover is woven with red woolen yarn as the weft and white cotton yarn as the warp. The underside is woven using dark brown woolen yarn as the weft and reddish-brown cotton yarn as the warp. The whole cover is trimmed with a decorative border. Korean woolen textile weaving techniques developed early through cultural exchange with nomadic tribes in the northern region of the Korean peninsula and continued to progress steadily well into the Joseon period. The main products were floor rugs, and tiger-skin rugs or thick red rugs were exported to Japan through envoys dispatched on diplomatic missions.

Tigers and peonies(Collection of Seoul Museum) (1984/1984) by Park Saeng-kwangNational Museum of Korea

Tigers and peonies
Ink and color on paper, 250.0×140.0cm

This painting titled "Tigers and Peonies” by Park Saeng-kwang is a modern reinterpretation of the traditional themes as seen in folk paintings of tigers and magpies. Park, a leading figure in the modernization of Korean color painting, in the late 1970s began to depict indigenous motifs featured in Buddhist paintings, folk paintings, and shaman paintings using the bright colors of dancheong, the colorful paintwork found on traditional buildings; saekdong, the multi-colored stripes on clothing, and Buddhist altar paintings. In this painting, intensely colored auspicious motifs from traditional paintings completely fill the surface.

On the left side sits a tiger with its head turned toward a pair of birds and its forelegs neatly gathered together. In addition, the green peonies and the magpies, whose bodies are composed of yellow and red sections, boast color variations that are not found in traditional folk paintings.

On the right side are a mother tiger and her cub putting their heads together. The tigers in this painting take the typical image of tigers commonly found in Korean folk paintings featuring tigers and magpies or a mother tiger and her cubs. At the bottom are some oddly shaped stones that have a decorative effect.

At the top of the painting is a red sun slightly covered with clouds on the left side and a green crescent moon on the right side. These motifs remind us of the tradition of decorative court paintings such as the folding screen of the sun and moon, and five peaks.

This artwork is an exemplary work showing modern interpretation of the subjects found in traditional folk paintings of tigers and magpies. The artist recreated those subjects using the techniques of folk painting, Buddhist painting, and court decorative painting to produce a modern artwork with splendid colors and dynamic composition.

Credits: Story

For virtual reality experience of the special exhibition "Tigers in East Asian Art" in the national museum of Korea, click here.



Jan. 26.FRI~Mar. 18.SUN, 2018
Special Exhibition Gallery, National Museum Of Korea


Gyeongju National Museum
Jinju National Museum
Buyeo National Museum
Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art
Seoul Museum
Lee Hun

Co-organized by
Korea National Museum of Korea
Japan Tokyo National Museum
China National Museum of China

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps