Wealth, prestige, bravery, auspiciousness and vigour have all been associated with the mighty tiger in South and East Asia. However, over the centuries the tiger has also acquired racist and gendered meanings. So, who subjugated the tiger? And how has the tiger re-emerged as a powerful representation of national political prowess? The tiger was deified in ancient China, representing the Guardian God of the West—and being a mount for main folk gods to exorcise evil spirits. The tiger has never inhabited Taiwan, but the aboriginal culture similarly sees another feline—The Formosan clouded leopard. Tiger imagery was introduced to Taiwan by immigrants , and even became a symbol of Taiwan’s independence in the fight against Japanese colonisation.

In the Indian subcontinent, Mughal emperors were known for their grand tiger hunts. Through a careful record of these tiger kills, they boasted ultimate kingly power. Tipu Sultan, known as the “Tiger of Mysore,” used tiger symbolism almost to a point of obsession. His assassination in the Battle of Seringapatam (1799) proved to be an important turning point for the British: with the Tiger of Mysore out of the way, the colonisers gained greater control over South India and eventually, the Indian subcontinent. 

Later, the British Raj appropriated local cultural events and meanings associated with tigers in various ways. From then on, subjugating the tiger meant ultimate control over the colonised Indians. The tiger, nevertheless, resurfaced as a popular image, often presenting themes of national unity and power in South and East Asia.

This exhibition highlights ambivalences in the use of the tiger symbolism in the various, and often unsettling, histories of South and East Asia. Explore the story map below to find out how the image of the tiger evolved amidst local imperial visions and competing colonial imaginations.

Tigers in the Imperial Imagination
Tigers as Symbols of Political Organisations
Tigers in Popular Culture

Tigers have long had a close link to the imperial rulers of South and East Asia because of their association with power, prestige and military prowess. For the Mughal Emperors of South Asia (1526-1857), tigers were connected to what they saw as the ideal qualities of a ruler. At the same time, they also hunted tigers to show off their skill in battle, demonstrating that they were capable of protecting their realm, and were therefore worthy Emperors of South Asia. 

In East Asia, even though tigers were only native to China and Korea, this did not stop Japan from using the tiger as a symbol of imperial power and military prestige. Japanese Samurai hunted tigers and used paintings of tigers to depict their military strength. 

After the colonisation of South Asia and parts of East Asia by European powers, the symbolic meaning of the tiger changed. Like the Mughal emperors who came before them, British rulers of the Indian subcontinent appropriated the idea of the tiger hunt as a demonstration of masculinity, power and fitness to rule. However, now the tiger had come to symbolise India as a whole. Hunting the tiger became a symbol for subjugating India and its people.

John William Godward, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Painting, Akbarnama, Akbar tiger-hunting near Narwar, outline and portraits by Basawan, painting Tara the Elder, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, Mughal, ca. 1590-95 / V&A London

Katō Kiyomasa Hunting Tigers in Korea during the Imjin War by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The British lion’s vengeance on the Bengal tiger / Tenniel, John, 1870, watercolor and gouache on paper / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C./ no known copyright restrictions

Throughout its long history of interaction with people in Asia, the tiger has not only existed as a real creature, but has also been a symbol, including for many political organisations and nations.

In Asia, tiger imagery is often rooted in nature worship, and the power that it radiates. Because of this, and the way tigers often symbolise national or political groups, tiger imagery has also been a focal point for contestation, particularly in colonial contexts.  Throughout history, the tiger has been interpreted in diverse ways to meet the needs of different political organisations and agendas.

 

Emblem of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
The Flag of the Pakistan Muslim League-N / SharqHabib CC BY SA via Wikimedia Commons

The Flag of the Formosa Republic / National Taiwan Museum / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 TW

Whether as Tiger Balm or through its appearance in the zodiac, the tiger has retained its position in the popular imagination of Asia even after the new national boundaries of the twentieth century were created. In fact, tiger imagery in contemporary society seems to have only become more and more diverse. Fashion, mascots, dances, charms, product labels, fictional characters—the tiger is all around us. Living on as a national symbol from India to South Korea, the tiger has also left its mark on the daily lives and cultural habits of contemporary Asian culture. In East Asia, for instance, the tiger emerged as a symbol of peace and wealth as well as a guardian spirit. While some of the meanings we see today are recent constructions, others trace their roots to much older popular practices and beliefs. That isn’t to say that the national and imperial connotations of the tiger have disappeared from the realm of popular culture altogether. As we shall see, the tiger as a symbol of fortune and symbol of power may often go hand in hand in ways we might not expect. 

Hodori and Soohorang, South Korea’s Olympic Tiger Mascots from 1988 and 2018 / Source : Rsa, and CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Master Tiger / Source: Museum of the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 TW)
Shera, the Mascot of the Commonwealth Games Delhi 2010 takes a pleasant ride in the Dal Lake of the Srinagar, in Jammu and Kashmir on June 29, 2010.
Shera, 2010 Commonwealth Games mascot. Source: Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (GODL-India)