Tiger in Korean Culture

Q: What do the Seoul 1988 Olympics, the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea 2017 and the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games have in common, apart from the fact that they are hosted in South Korea?

A: They all use tigers as the official mascots.

According to a poll run by the National Institute of Biological Resources, part of the Ministry of Environment, tiger is Koreans’ favourite animal. In fact, tiger has a close connection with the Korean culture – let’s discuss about this in this blog post.

Korea was once known as the “nation of tigers” because its mountainous landscape has provided a good habitat for tigers.  No wonder tigers have been important characters in many Korean myths and legends.  One of the well-known ones is the Dangun myth (단군신화) relating to the founding of Korea. In the Dangun myth, a bear and a tiger prayed to become human beings and were assigned a task to complete before they could do so. The tiger gave up mid-way but the bear persevered and finally became a woman who later gave birth to Dangun, who, in turn, was the founder of the Korean nation. You can read more about the Dangun myth by reading my blog post dated 2 October 2015.  So, given the importance of tigers in Koran myths and legends, there is a saying in Korean, 호랑이 담배 피우던 시절 (literally, “The time when tigers smoked”), which means “a long time ago”.

Since ancient times, tigers have been considered by Koreans as guardians against evil spirits and bad luck. Therefore, there are talismans and daily objects using tiger-related patterns, e.g., tiger skin on a bride’s palanquin, tiger skin folding screens, tiger leg shapes for dining trays, and ornaments with tiger claw pendants. There are also stone tiger sculptures installed around royal tombs to guard the dead.

Given the importance of tigers in Korean culture, tigers also appeared in many Korean folk paintings. For example,  “Jakhodo”, the painting of a magpie and a tiger, represents the joy of the New Year and the warding off evil spirits. If you want to see more art works on tigers, now there is a good opportunity in South Korea.  Currently, to celebrate the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games, the National Museum of Korea presents a special exhibition titled “Tigers in East Asian Art: Korea, Japan, China” in collaboration with the Tokyo National Museum of Japan and the National Museum of China until 18 March 2018.  The exhibition focuses on the tradition and transformation of the tiger images in East Asian art. You can click this link for more information on the exhibition. You can also get a glimpse of the exhibited art works by watching this video.

Reminder: You can follow my blog by clicking the “Follow” button on the sidebar to receive email notifications of new posts.  For flash news on Korean culture, you can also follow me on Twitter (Kalbi8888).


Kim Young-shin, “Tiger voted as Korea’s favorite animal“, Korea.net, 2017-10-25

Chung Ah-young, “2010 The Year of the Tiger“, The Korea Times, 2009-12-31

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