Although tigers can now be seen only in zoos, during the Joseon Dynasty they frequently appeared in Hanyang, the capital which is current day Seoul. Indeed, there were so many tigers in Joseon that the state operated a special unit to catch them and the legal code of Joseon stipulated that anyone who caught a tiger was to be given a generous reward. Military units of the central army were often named after the tiger, for example the Hobunwi (Tiger Command), one of the five military commands of Joseon, and the Yonghoyeong (Dragon and Tiger Battalion), attesting to the tiger’s reputation as a symbol of valor and courage. Moreover, the intelligentsia of Joseon left behind interesting records of tigers.
Personifications of the tiger can be found in Story of the King of the Beasts (Sangunjeon) by Jeong Dugyeong (1597-1673), a literary man of the seventeenth century, and The Tiger’s Admonitions (Hojil) by the eighteenth-century writer and scholar Park Jiwon (1737-1805).
These works show that past Koreans also perceived the tiger as a close and familiar being.
During the Joseon Dynasty, there was a widespread custom of attaching pictures to the front gate on the first day of the New Year (sehwa) to keep bad energy away for the coming year. The Korean ancestors believed that tigers chased evil away, so when the New Year came around they would put up various tiger pictures, such as Tiger and Magpies or Dragon and Tiger. When depicted on its own, the tiger was usually a valiant and courageous beast, but when depicted with other subjects it was imbued with different meanings.Fig.1,2
Dragon and tiger paintings, called yonghodo, symbolize courage and dignity. The dragon and tiger were considered sacred beings symbolizing heaven and earth, respectively, and at the same time they were seen as rivals. Usually, paintings of the two animals depict one above the other or on two separate canvases placed to face each other. The paintings reflect the feelings of past Koreans who sought to bring good energy and drive away bad energy by borrowing the courage and sacredness of the dragon and the tiger.Fig.3
Paintings of the tiger with magpies, called hojakdo, represent the delivery of good news and warding off bad energy.
Interestingly, in these paintings the tiger is expressed in a humorous and humane way, belying its reputation as the king of the beasts. The tiger is surrounded by chirping magpies or depicted with symbols of longevity such as cicadas and bullocho, the herb of eternal youth, reflecting wishes for longevity, good fortune, happiness, and peace. Fig.4,5
In addition, paintings called sansindo feature the Mountain God accompanied by a tiger, which is hence expressed as an object of worship. Hopido are paintings of a tiger skin, which stands for dignity and protection, and they were used to decorate a room or to repel evil spirits.
The year 2022 is the Imin year, which in Asian countries is the thirty-ninth year of the sexagenary cycle. The word Imin is a compound of im, meaning “black,” and in, meaning “tiger,” hence 2022 is the year of the black tiger. In this exhibition at the NMK the black tiger paintings are drawing special attention. Fig.6,7
The abovementioned paintings are all types of tiger paintings that beautifully capture that moment when the tiger, covered in black fur, is roaring loud.
The sharp eyes, red mouth, and pointy teeth seen through the black fur leave a powerful impression. Black tigers were not easily seen, but during the Joseon Dynasty they were known to be terrifying and ferocious animals. According to Tales from the Green Hills (Cheonggu yadam), a collection of unofficial historical tales from the late Joseon period, “Black tigers are so hideous and ferocious that they cannot be compared to other tigers.” This perception seemingly influenced tiger paintings.
Joseon paintings of tigers are dignified and humorous, expressing the wishes of past Koreans who wanted to bring happiness into the home while driving bad energy away. Welcoming 2022 the Year of the Tiger: Tiger Paintings I can be seen at the NMK until May 1. It will be followed by Tiger Paintings II from May 3 to September 4. Hopefully, the powerful energy of the tigers in the paintings will soon drive away the pandemic and bring back peaceful, everyday life.