A silk purse showing two colourful embroidered figures, one dressed as a tiger, in a garden scene.

China's talismanic tigers

By Jessica Harrison-Hall, Head of the China Section, Curator of the Sir Percival David Collection, Chinese Decorative Arts and Ceramics at the British Museum

Publication date: 17 May 2023

In traditional Chinese culture, the image of a tiger was used as a symbol to represent bravery. Its depiction also acted as a defensive talisman.

Intro

Ink painting of a orange and black tiger crouching against a background of reeds.
Crouching tiger among reeds, ink and colours on paper, China, about 1800–1909 

This is because the Chinese word hu (tiger), which is pronounced like the English word 'who' with a down and up intonation, sounds similar to the word hu meaning 'to protect' (which is spelled the same, but is pronounced with a falling tone intonation). Elite soldiers gave each other paintings of tigers as a mark of respect for their comrades' bravery and wrote 'hu' in beautiful forms to give to their friends. This piece of calligraphy shows the Chinese character for tiger written by the Manchu bannerman and army commander Jalari Iktangga (1834–99) and is impressed with his seals.

A Chinese symbol drawn in black ink on beige paper.
Jalari Iktangga (1834–99) Tiger. Ink on paper, China, about 1850–1899. 

2

Tigers appear as small details on two imperial robes in the show. One a full-length, blue imperial garment, likely worn by the middle-aged Jiaqing emperor (r. 1796–1820) for the fasting ritual before the Sacrifice to Heaven. The other a child's yellow imperial robe, which belonged to the Guangxu emperor (r. 1875–1908) when he ascended the throne as a boy. Both garments are ornamented with nine auspicious dragons (eight outside and one on the inner flap) and also with the 'Twelve Ornaments' (sun, moon, constellations, mountains, paired dragons, pheasant, ritual cups [with tiger and monkey], water weed, millet, fire, an axe, and a fu symbol) and auspicious emblems including bats.

A robe displayed with arms outstretched, embroidered with multicoloured silk.
Imperial blue robe embroidered with multicoloured silks and couched gold thread, China, about 1800. © The Teresa Coleman Collection.

 

2b

By using the Twelve Ornaments, Manchu Qing rulers (1644–1912) connected themselves to Chinese emperors of the ancient past. According to the Shangshu (Book of Documents), ascribed to Confucius (about 551 BC – AD 479) one of these Twelve Ornaments was a pair of tall ritual cups with straight sides. This can be seen in the 17th century woodblock-print illustrated Sancai tuhu. The vessels should carry a design of a tiger on one and a monkey on the other. Over time these animals came to look more like two tigers with their tails curled over their heads.

Detail from a silk robe showing two embroidered cups with tiger designs.
Detail of ritual cups on an imperial blue robe. © The Teresa Coleman Collection.

3

Several different species of tiger inhabited the wild in China, including the Siberian Tiger in the Northeast in Manchuria, and the South China Tiger in the Fujian, Guangdong, Hunan and Jiangxi provinces. Although most depictions show a creature with a striped, orange or caramel-coloured pelt, there were also depictions of mythical tigers, which varied in their appearance.

Man riding a black tiger.
Zhao Gongming riding a black tiger, woodblock print on paper, China, 1900–1911. 

The enormous red wool hanging in the show with warlike figures, perhaps used as the backdrop to an opera performance, includes a mythical black tiger to the far right. The black tiger is common in popular religious and Daoist images. For example, the protective deity Zhao Gongming is said to have ridden a black tiger, so people believed black tigers could ward off evil. The Chinese character with three horizontal lines connected by a central vertical line 王 (wang) meaning 'king' which you can see here, often appeared on the forehead of tigers.

Detail from a wool hanging show a black tiger.
A black tiger with the character for 'king' on its forehead. Textile hanging (detail), silk and metallic thread on wool, China, 1800–1900. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Fong Chow, 1959. 

4

You can find tigers in the military section of the exhibition in many guises. In the giant portrait of an unknown bannerman the pelt of a tiger, lined with patterned red silk damask, covers the wooden chair in which the unidentified general sits for his portrait. In between his black silk-booted feet we can see the animal’s head, with closed eyes and claws flexed and flattened – testifying to the general's victory over the wild creature.

A full-length portrait of a man in elaborate armour, including a plumed helmet. He carries a spear and sits on a chair covered with a tiger pelt.
Portrait of an unknown bannerman, ink and colours on silk, China, about 1796–1820. Royal Ontario Museum, The George Crofts Collection, gift of Mrs HD Warren. 

5

Different regiments within the army wore painted cotton tiger outfits and hoods. Some were closely connected to the Qing ruling elite and were stationed in the inner city in Beijing, but others defended coastal cities such as Xiamen and Ningbo to the east from pirates and foreign aggressors. Within Zhou Peichun's painting of the tiger soldiers you can see the shields are also decorated with a tiger’s face with prominent eyes and fangs and the character wang.

Watercolour of two soldiers fighting with swords and shields, while dressed as tigers.
Zhou Peichun (active 1880–1910), Tiger Soldiers. Watercolour and ink on paper, China, 1880–1910.  

5b

William Alexander (1767–1816), the British draftsman, painted images of soldiers with similar shields when he accompanied Lord Macartney on the First British Embassy to China in 1792–94. The mission to improve British trading circumstances was essentially unsuccessful but the images of the trip made by Alexander provide an extraordinary window into late 18th-century China. 

Watercolour of a soldier with sword and shield, dressed as a tiger.
William Alexander (1767-1816), Chinese foot-soldier. Watercolour over graphite, United Kingdom, 1793–1816. 

5c

The shields also feature in early 20th-century battles, testifying to the longevity of their design. This remarkable rattan shield, which is about a metre in diameter, was also painted with the face of a tiger. Such shields were produced for more than a century, with only minor variations over that period. This example was given by the British journalist and author Perceval Landon (1868–1927); special correspondent for The Times on the Younghusband (British) Expedition to Tibet (1903–04), a military campaign purportedly made to establish diplomatic relations but in fact a temporary invasion by British forces.

A round shield designed like a tiger's face, with prominent round eyes.
Tiger shield, rattan and coloured paint, China, 1860–1903.

6

This military flag, dating towards the end of the Qing dynasty (about 1870–1900), features a tiger striding on its hind legs with outstretched front legs, pink-veined bat's wings and oversized silver eyes. The beast is surrounded by multi-coloured clouds (a good omen) and flames which look like flashes of lightening.

This military flag features a tiger striding on its hind legs with outstretched front legs, pink veined bat’s wings and oversized silver eyes.
Military flag with flying tiger, painted cotton and paper, China, about 1900. Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.   

6b

Flags with flying tigers were hung on vertical poles by Qing troops during the Qing dynasty. They are described in the 18th-century court text on regalia – Imperial Ritual Paraphernalia – and are the symbols of groups of soldiers.

A red a blue flag show a tiger design in the centre.
Flying tiger flag, silk, paper, paint and gold, China, 1870–1875.

7

In popular culture there are numerous legends about tigers. There are also many stories about tigers in Chinese novels, poems and dramas. In this embroidered scene on a small purse, we can see a man crawling beneath a tiger pelt, stealthily approaching a person under a parasol. If you hadn’t guessed, it is possibly from a short story collected in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio in 1740.

A silk purse showing two colourful embroidered figures, one dressed as a tiger, in a garden scene.
Embroidered purse, silk, China, 1850–1900. © The Teresa Coleman Collection.

8

Having chosen most of the textiles for the show from minute digital images during the years of the COVID pandemic, we are now learning so much more from seeing the real objects as they arrive for the exhibition. As we prepare the textiles for display with specialist conservators and textile display experts, it is a great opportunity to consider the detailed features of each costume. For example, in the broad border trim of the woman's bright pink robe, decorated with scenes from popular stories, we can see a tiger with an upright tail on the bottom edge of the back of the garment, together with other auspicious emblems including endless knots and a beautiful peacock displaying its feathers. 

A pink robe displayed with arms outstretched.
A woman's pink robe, embroidered silk, China, 1850–1900. © The Teresa Coleman Collection.
Detail of an orange tiger on fabric.
Detail from the robe showing an embroidered tiger. 

9

Children's clothes are often made in the form of tigers such as these little orange silk shoes with a tiger's face over the toes and white whiskers. The child's foot fitted into the shoes with half a tiger protecting either side of the foot. Some children's clothes have painted, applied, or embroidered designs of tigers. This jacket's tiger design is painted rather than embroidered and has a pattern of tiger stripes all over the surface, with a prowling tiger on the back.

Child's orange silk shoes with a tiger's face over the toes and white whiskers.
Child's shoes in the form of tigers, silk with appliqué and embroidery, China, about 1850–1910. 

jacket

An orange sleeveless jacket with tiger detailing.
Sleeveless jacket, painted silk, China, 1800–1900. © The Teresa Coleman Collection.

conclusion

The Citi exhibition China's hidden century will be on display until 8 October, please do come and search for the tigers in the exhibition, galleries and on Collection online – and  get a taste of the art, fashion and furnishings created in China's turbulent 19th century.

Lead supporter Citi.

Additional supporter The Huo Family Foundation. 

This work was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council [Grant Number AH/T001895/1].