The tiger is a popular theme in Chinese folk art. One may encounter numerous images of tigers in almost all forms of folk art: paper-cuts, embroidery sculpture, new year presents and others.
The earliest image of the tiger was discovered in an ancient tomb unearthed in central China's Henan Province in 1987. A tiger made of shells was found lying on the left side of a body buried there. On the right side was the earliest image of a dragon ever found, also made of shells. These images are believed to be some 6,000 years old. Experts say that both tiger and dragon were totems in ancient times.
The Han people are actually a mixture of may ancient tribes from all over China. Tribes from the west, including the tribe of the Yellow Emperor, worshipped the tiger, while those along the eastern seashore worshipped the dragon. Of course, there were many other tribes with different totems. After many wars of Expansion, These tribes gradually mixed to form the Han nationality. Because tribes worshipping the tiger and dragon were more powerful, other totems disappeared while these two continued to exist.
Worship of the tiger came from the nomadic and hunting life style of our ancestors. On the grassland, a tiger was a powerful animal. People held a contradictory attitude towards it. They both respected and feared it. They took it as a symbol which could protect their descendants.
With the development of agriculture, people began to rely more on the climate and were concerned with its changes. Since the dragon is said to be in charge of weather, it replaced the tiger. Gradually, the dragon came to hold the dominant position in the heavens and the tiger became one of his subordinates, the king of mountains.
Ever since the Qin Dynasty in the third century BC, emperors have monopolized the right of using the dragon symbol. Qinshihuang proclaimed himself the son of the dragon and said his power to rule was given by Heaven. Later on, all the emperors in Chinese history followed suit. The Emperor's chair was called the dragon chair, his dress the dragon robe. Dragons appear everywhere in the imperial palace. Anyone else who dared to connect himself with the dragon symbol would be sentenced to death for a crime against the emperor.
The tiger, on the other hand, has always belonged to the people. It is loved not merely as a totem, but has been secularized through the years. People love its beauty and strength, find spiritual sustenance in it, and use it as a protector and symbol of good luck. For example, in new year prints, we can often see a picture called "The Tiger guards the House". People will put it on the front door at the beginning of the year, so that the tiger will protect the family and let it have a peaceful life during the rest of the year.
A legend has it that on a mountain, there was a peach tree and under the tree stood two brothers. Whenever the two found any evil spirits, they fed them to a tiger. Thus, the two found any evil spirits, they fed them to a tiger. Thus, the tiger has the power to expel evils. According to some researchers, the tiger also symbolizes marriage and reproduction. However, customs differ from one place to another.
In Shaanxi Province, the bride will receive two dough tigers when she arrives at the gate of the bridegroom's home. There is a custom of hanging tiger ornaments on the bed of a newly wed couple. In Henan Province, a temple fair is held at fuxi in the third lunar month and tiger toys made of various materials are sold. Many people go there to pray for a child and then bring a tiger toy home with them. One such toy is usually made op of two tigers to symbolize a man and a woman.
In Chinese legends, there are quite a few tales about how tigers saved human lives. One story says in the ancient state of Chu, a man had an illegitimate child which he abandoned in a desolate field. A female tiger found the child and fed him with her own milk. Later, the child grew up to become the prime minister of the state of Chu.
Maybe, the most famous man supposedly saved by a tiger is the great philosopher, Confucius. It is said that Confucius was so ugly when he was born that his parents decided to leave him on a mountain. Again, it was a tiger who saved his life. The theme of "tiger-feeding man" is, therefore, also popular in paper-cuts and embroidery.
Tigers were worshipped not only by the majority Han people, but also by more than a dozen minority ethnic groups. One example is the Yi Nationality. Yi people have a tiger festival every year. On that day, all people dress up to look like tigers and hold all kinds of celebrations.
The worship of the tiger can be found in most parts of China. The tiger theme used to be so popular that you could find many kinds of tiger objects in one household. You might see a tiger head made of cloth hanging on the gate, tiger paper-cuts on the window, tiger pillows and quilts on the bed, a tiger cake on the table and tiger caps, shoes and toys for children.
In the past, folk art works of tigers were usually made by women in the countryside. They made these for practical as well as aesthetic purposes. The skill was passed down from mother to daughter and a woman of talent would spread her skill to another village when she married to a man from that place. Most of these women were illiterate and spent their entire lives in one small area in the countryside. So it is a wonder how the original patterns could have been passed down for generations and spread from the isolated villages to all over China.