Today we went to E-Mart like we usually do on Saturdays. As we entered the third floor from the parking lot, there was a shopping cart with a beautiful sight on top of it, a large stuffed tiger, as big as the shopping cart. Seeing that tiger made me think. I have been writing things about Korea on my blog, but I have never addressed Korea’s tiger. The tiger is now extinct in Korea, but it is so ingrained in the culture of Korea that it is the national animal.
In the early days of Korea, the tiger roamed the Korean peninsula. They influenced many, many parts of the Korean culture from the way house were built, to Korean sayings, to traditional stories, to symbols of wealth, paintings, and has even influenced the Korean attitude toward Japan. People who lived in the Korean countryside were constantly in danger of tigers. Tigers killed many people in Korea in the old days.
A couple of the sayings I have heard about tigers are: 1) “There is a bear at the back door and a tiger at the front door.” You can just guess what this means. We have a saying with a similar meaning in English saying we are between a rock and hard place. The tigers are gone, but the bears are still here. 2) “Speak of the tiger.” We also have one like this in English. You probably know which one it is: “Speak of the devil,” and there is no doubt in old Korea, the tiger was the devil.
As far as traditional stories being influenced by tigers. Think back to the traditional stories you have read on my blog. The most important one is about Dangun, the first emperor of old Korea. It is considered a creation myth. The lion and the tiger called to God to make them people. God sent his son to the earth. He put a lion and a tiger in a cave for an extended period of time and gave them human food. If they could stay in there and eat the food, they could become human beings. The tiger gave up and left, but the bear stayed, became a woman, and married the son of God, and their son was Dangun, the first emperor of old Korea. The other story was about the sun and the moon. It is a story where the tiger kills the mother, and chases her two children up a tree, and the children pray to God. Ropes fall down from Heaven for them to climb up into the sky, and one becomes the sun and the other the moon, and the tiger is still on the earth. He also prays for a rope, and one comes down for him, but it is an old messed up rope, and it breaks, and he falls back to the earth. I have heard there are more stories with tigers in them. However, if you read my blogs, you will know that I only post those stories as I hear them. They say the tiger is always the bad guy in old Korean stories.
In old Korea, there was always a tall stone wall around the hanoak, the traditional Korean house. On top of that, the only place the family spent time outside was in the middle of the group of buildings called the hanoak. This was for their protection. They needed protection from other people, but even more importantly, they needed protection from the tigers that were everywhere. The windows were also influenced by the tigers. Usually, the outside walls of the house didn’t have windows, and the windows were only covered with paper. If they were afraid a tiger was coming, they had something big they put over the windows to make sure the tigers couldn’t get in. Besides the houses themselves, there was a large wall all around Seoul. If you didn’t know, Seoul has been part of Korea from the very beginning of people living on the Peninsula. The wall not only kept invading armies out, but it also kept the tigers out of the city. If you go to Gyeongbuk Palace in Gangwamun in the middle of Seoul, close to the Blue House, Korea’s White House, there is a large wall all around the palace grounds to keep tigers and other trespassers out.
“Horang-ee” is how tiger is said in Korean, and here is a picture of my Korean friend, Hanul, and I when we were at Gyeongbuk Palace. I don’t think any tigers would have been able to get through walls like that.
The last emperor who lived in Gyeongbuk Palace was during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910-1945. The Koreans accuse the Japanese of wiping all their tigers out because the Japanese used to organize hunts for tigers. Tigers have never lived in Japan, and the Japanese have always thought of a tiger skin as a symbols of wealth. The last tigers were seen on the Korean Peninsula under Japanese occupation.
However, the Japanese didn’t wipe the tigers out. That is the Korean prejudice against the Japanese speaking. The Koreans themselves wiped them out because all along, they had tiger hunts, from the beginning of when they first came to the Korean Peninsula. At first, the Korean men used to organize hunts to thin the population of the tigers to protect the people. After a while, the tiger skin became a symbol of wealth in Korea as it later became in Japan, and the men used to organize hunts as a sport like the Japanese did. The tiger population was already severely diminished by the time the Japanese got to Korea.
Tigers still exist, but not in Korea, so they are not known as Korean tigers anymore. Now a days, what was known as the Korean tiger is known as the Siberian tiger. They are an endangered species, but they do exist. Not long back, there was a joint mission between North Korea and the Russians to figure out if there were any more tigers in North Korea because there had been rumors that they were there. The people in the country have reported seeing signs of them, but there was never any conclusive evidence that there are still tigers on the Korean Peninsula.
Whether the tigers are still living in Korea or not, they are a very important part of the Korean culture. If you see Korean paintings, there are many beautiful paintings of tigers. Tigers influenced the Korean imagination in many, many ways. They are huge, powerful, majestic, beautiful, dangerous animals. There is no wonder that they have influenced the Korean imagination from the beginning of people on the Korean Peninsula. They are Korea’s national animal, and their influence will always be here.