Year of the Tiger

February 1 was the Chinese New Year that marked the end of the Year of the Ox and the start of the Year of the Tiger.  While based on the Chinese lunar calendar, this day is also celebrated as the New Year in Korea, Singapore, Mongolia, Tibet, Vietnam and in Asian communities worldwide. More than just the beginning of a new calendar year, the Lunar New Year is seen as a time of reunion and rebirth, marking the end of winter and the start of spring. Thus it is also celebrated as the Spring Festival in China. This is traditionally a time to honour ancestors and deities, with family reunions, parades and fireworks to drive off evil spirits. These customs relate to a legend according to which a monster called Nian (Chinese for year) would emerge from under the earth at the start of every year and eat villagers. It was believed that the monster was afraid of bright lights and loud noises, and the colour red. Hence the fireworks, and the tradition of wearing something red on this day.

The Chinese calendar is on a 12-year cycle, with each year linked to one of a dozen animals — the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. There is a popular legend about a race as a consequence of which these animals came to be in this order. The tiger is the third animal in the Chinese zodiac. Among the other legends that tell how the animals were selected for the Chinese zodiac, there is one about the tiger found its place here.

Once upon a time the lion was the king of animals. The lion was very cruel but the supreme gods could not take away its status on the zodiac because they did not know of another animal strong enough to control the other animals. Meanwhile, down on earth the tiger was an insignificant animal, but a clever one. It learned fighting skills from the cat, and then honed these to such an extent that it could defeat any animal in battle. Over time tiger became famous for its ferocity and bravery. The supreme gods heard about this and summoned the tiger to heaven where it was challenged to prove its prowess; and it did so, defeating even the supreme god’s warriors. The supreme gods designated the tiger as one of their warriors.

Back on earth, with no one to fear, the other animals started attacking humans who called upon the supreme gods to help them. The gods sent tiger back to earth for this mission. The tiger took on all the other animals in three major battles, defeating them all, until they fled to the forest, and no longer emerged. The humans were saved from their attacks, and were very grateful to the tiger.

The tiger went back to heaven, the gods were pleased with his winning the three big battles. As a permanent mark of reward, the supreme god marked three black horizontal lines on its forehead. Sometime later there was a huge flood on earth, caused by a turtle. Once more the tiger was sent to the rescue. It defeated the turtle in battle and saved the earth. This time the supreme god rewarded it with a vertical line in the centre of the horizontal lines, creating thereby the Chinese character ‘wang’ which means ‘king’. The tiger was thus anointed the King of the Animals and replaced the lion in the zodiac.

During the year of the Tiger, children have the character Wang painted on their foreheads in wine and mercury to promote vigour and health.

The tiger is much more than a zodiac sign in Chinese culture and tradition, and has played a significant role in Chinese mythology, history, art and craft for over 7000 years. The earliest tiger statue ever discovered was dated to the Neolithic period in China, around 5000 BC. Throughout Chinese history, the tiger has evoked a sense of both awe and admiration for its prowess, its ferocity, its beauty, and the harmony of the opposites. It was especially revered in southern and north eastern China, believed to be its original habitat, as a creature with many symbolic attributes.

According to Chinese myths, five types of tigers balance the energy in the cosmos, preventing universe from chaos: Black tiger, governs the water element and rules during winter season; Blue tiger, governs the earth element and rules during spring; Red tiger, governs the fire element and rules during the summer; White tiger governs the metal element and rules during autumn; and yellow tiger, rules all other tigers and symbolizes the sun.

According to another belief, each direction of the compass is traditionally believed to be ruled by a mythical creature and the ruler of the West direction is the White tiger.

Tigers figure largely in Chinese classical literature and performance art. They are also the main protagonists of many folk tales and proverbs. In Chinese folklore tigers are believed to be such powerful creatures that they are endowed with the ability to ward off the three main household disasters; fire, thieves and evil spirits. A painting of a tiger is often hung on a wall inside a building facing the entrance to ensure that demons would be too afraid to enter. Tiger charms are used to keep away disease   and evil, and babies are given colourfully embroidered tiger shoes for protection. Tiger images frequently decorate children’s clothing and caps. The “Tiger Claw” (hu chao) amulet is believed to ward off sudden fright and give the wearer the courage of the tiger. Along with the tiger, the dragon, phoenix, and tortoise are considered to be the four ‘super intelligent’ creatures, and thus are held in high esteem. They are popular design motifs in Chinese arts and crafts.

After the 12-year cycle, the year of the tiger is here again in 2022. 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998 and 2010 were all Tiger years. People born in the Year of the Tiger are said to be born leaders, who walk and talk assertively and inspire respect. They are courageous and energetic, love a challenge or competition and are prepared to take risks. They are hungry for excitement and crave attention. They can also be rebellious, short-tempered and outspoken, preferring to give orders rather than take them, which often leads to conflict. Tiger people may appear calm but there is often a hidden aggressiveness, but they can also be sensitive, humorous and capable of great generosity and love.

Cheers to the tigers!

–Mamata