11 Symbolic Meanings of Tigers in Chinese Culture

In Chinese culture, the tiger is often referred to as the “king of the wild beasts,” and embodies strength, fierceness and courage.

It’s perceived as a powerful creature, feared and respected for its boldness and prowess.

The tiger also holds a place in the Chinese zodiac as the third animal of the twelve terrestrial branches, symbolizing its importance in the passage of time and character traits.

The tiger also represents the West cardinal point, is a common protection symbol and even has connections to Taoism, one of the most widespread religions in China.

A Tiger’s “essence” was thought to bring immortality

The tiger was traditionally perceived as a symbol of eternal life in Chinese folklore. According to folk tales, tigers could live for a thousand years, with their fur turning white upon reaching the age of five hundred.

Chang Tao-Ling, the founder of Taoism, dedicated years of his life to the intensive study of alchemy. His persistent efforts finally paid off when he managed to unite the blue dragon and the white tiger, elements in the Taoist alchemical process.

This combination of elements, Chang Tao-Ling crafted the so-called pill of immortality. Upon consuming this pill, despite being sixty years old, his physical appearance miraculously transformed, becoming young again both in aspect and in strength.

In Chinese mythology, riding a Tiger was a heroic feat

In Chinese mythology, the act of riding a tiger symbolized an extraordinary accomplishment. The ability to control or domesticate a tiger was proof of immense strength and virtuous character, traits typically found in heroes and mythical figures in Chinese lore. This privilege was not confined to mortals; Taoist immortals, genii, and Buddhist saints were also often portrayed in this manner.

For instance, the Arhat, a revered figure in Buddhism, is known for taming a tiger. Similarly, Shen Kung-pao, despite his embarrassment in one tale, is depicted escaping on a tiger. Notably, the father of Taoism, Chang Tao-Ling (also known as Zhang Ling), is often depicted riding a tiger.

The tiger under Chang Tao-Ling’s command not only holds his magical seal in one paw but also tramples five poisonous creatures – a lizard, a snake, a spider, a toad, and a centipede – symbolizing triumph over threats and dangers.

Tigers were a symbol of Taoism

Tigers have been long-standing symbols of Taoism. Chang Tao-Ling, the founder of Taoism, was deeply involved in the study of alchemy, specifically working with a concoction known as the ‘Dragon-Tiger elixir’, believed to grant eternal life.

Chang Tao-Ling is typically depicted wielding a magical sword in his right hand, and a chalice with the ‘Dragon-Tiger elixir’ of immortality in his left. He is also frequently shown riding a tiger.

Chang Tao-Ling spent his later years on Dragon-Tiger Mountain, a significant location within Taoism. Dragon Tiger Mountain held considerable significance within Taoist hierarchy, often serving as the dwelling of the spiritual leader or the ‘pope’ of Taoism.

Tigers symbolize metal and jade

Tigers in Chinese culture are often associated with elements like metal and precious stones such as jade.

For example, during the worship of the Tiger god of the West, white jade, often referred to as “tiger jade,” was utilized, featuring a carved depiction of a tiger. This particular god is symbolically linked with the element of metal.

Thus, when metal is ceremonially included in a burial site, it is believed to establish a sacred connection with the tiger deity.

Tigers symbolize the West cardinal point

The “White Tiger of the West” is a term used to denote the western realm within the Chinese cosmological perspective. Each of the four cardinal directions in Chinese mythology is presided over by a different guardian and associated with distinct elements and principles.

For example, the southern quadrant, governed by the principle of Yang and the element of fire, is symbolized by the “Red Bird.”

The north is represented by the “Dark Warrior,” a tortoise symbolizing the principle of Yin, representing passivity, and associated with the element of water.

The “Azure Dragon” characterizes the east, embodying the rising warmth of spring and the element of wood.

Meanwhile, the “White Tiger” of the west symbolizes autumn and the metallic element.

Tigers represent a month in the Chinese calendar & zodiac

In the Chinese zodiac calendar, time was perceived as a cyclical pattern. It was believed that an individual’s traits and the state of the world were intrinsically tied to this zodiac cycle.

The tiger holds the third position in the Chinese zodiac cycle. An experienced astrologer, with knowledge of a person’s birth date, was believed to be able to determine an individual’s characteristics and destiny.

Personality of the Tiger in the Chinese zodiac:

Tigers, in the context of the Chinese zodiac, are characterized as born leaders, often taking the initiative with noble and fearless determination.

They are respected for their courage and are daring fighters, standing firm for their beliefs. Despite occasional selfishness, they are generally generous and possess a magnetic personality with a natural air of authority, making them hard to resist.

They are confident, sometimes overly so, and prefer to lead rather than follow. Tigers are efficient and enthusiastic workers, often choosing to work alone due to their urgency and drive.

Despite not being directly interested in wealth, they seem to attract money. Emotionally, they are sensitive and capable of profound love, albeit intense, and can be territorial and possessive. For Tigers, understanding and practicing moderation is a significant challenge.

The Tiger was important in Chinese funerary fengshui

According Chinese Feng Shui burial practices, graves were oriented facing south during burial rituals, with symbolic pictures placed strategically around the coffin.

The Dragon symbol was positioned on the eastern (left) side, while the Tiger symbol was set on the western (right) side. The southern end featured the Red Bird, and the Black Tortoise was placed at the northern end.

The placement of the dragon and the tiger was a crucial aspect of Feng Shui burial rites. The ideal burial site required the dragon on the left and the tiger on the right.

It was the responsibility of the Feng Shui expert to discern which hill corresponded to the dragon and which ridge represented the tiger. Using a compass, they determined the auspicious intersection where the remains of the deceased would rest in peace.

The Tiger was a Chinese military symbol

In Chinese culture, the tiger was considered the king of all animals (similar to how the lion is “king of the jungle” in Western belief) and the “master of the mountains.”

The male tiger, in particular, symbolized the deity of war.  Because of this association with the war deity, tiger-jade jewelry was almost exclusively worn by leaders of military forces.

In this role, the tiger symbol was believed to aid the emperor’s armies and to combat malevolent spirits that threatened the tranquility of burial sites for deceased emperors, nobles and soldiers.

Tigers were a Chinese protection symbol against evil spirits & bad luck

Tigers have traditionally served as a protective symbol against malevolent spirits and misfortune in Chinese culture. For instance, during the New Year, reed grass is displayed over the doorway, and a tiger is painted on the door to deter evil influences.

As per the historical records of Wu and Yueh, the spirit of the metal element transformed into a white tiger and guarded the king’s grave three days post-burial, emphasizing the protective role of the tiger.

The male tiger, was believed to combat the evil spirits threatening the peace of deceased warriors.

For those venturing beyond the safeguard of household deities, specific calendars identified days of significant danger, with the fifth day of the fifth month being the most perilous. On these days, tiger images were hanged on doors and walls, and the tiger symbol was inscribed on children’s foreheads as a deterrent against harm.

Door ring holders were often shaped like fearsome tiger heads, believed to fend off demons beyond the reach of household gods, particularly needed on the fifth day of the fifth month.

To protect their children, mothers often sewed tiger heads onto their shoes, and ashes from a burned tiger’s skin were carried in a necklace vial as a talisman to ward off illness.

In Chinese belief the Tiger and dragon are in opposition

In Chinese philosophy, the tiger and the dragon are seen as forces in opposition. The concept of Yin, associated with feminine, receptive qualities such as passivity, darkness, and the moon, is symbolized by the tiger. On the other hand, Yang, linked to masculine, assertive characteristics such as activity, brightness, and the sun, is embodied by the dragon.

The tiger and dragon are considered adversaries. The dragon signifies a deity of water and rain, while the tiger represents a deity of mountains and forests. The White Tiger is notably recognized as a god of the west.

The White Tiger god of the West and the Blue (or Green) Dragon god of the East are seen as controllers of wind and water. They embody all aspects symbolized by Feng Shui, encompassing both wind and water influences. According to Confucian tradition, “the winds follow the tiger,” and in Chinese cosmological mythology, the dragon has long been recognized as the primary spirit of water and rain.

Tiger remains were thought to bring rain

According to some local historical accounts from Southwest China during the Qing dynasty, drought was often believed to be caused by a lazy dragon who didn’t cause rain.

Various methods were employed to stimulate the dragon to bring about rain. One such practice involved throwing a tiger’s bone into the pond believed to be the dragon’s dwelling. This act was thought to provoke the dragon spirit into combat with the tiger spirit, resulting in heavy rain.

The rationale behind this practice stems from the notion that the dragon and the tiger, being the most formidable creatures, are intolerant of each other. They are believed to engage in conflict upon detecting any trace of the other.

An alternative method was to pollute the dragon’s pool with unclean substances. The dragon, being intolerant of filth, was believed to generate rain to cleanse its habitat.


  • A dictionary of symbols by Cirlot, Juan Eduardo
  • A dictionary of symbols by Chevalier, Jean
  • Dictionary of symbols by Chetwynd, Tom
  • A dictionary of dream symbols : with an introduction to dream psychology by Ackroyd, Eric
  • Illustrated dictionary of symbols in eastern and western art by Hall, James
  • Dictionary of symbols and imagery by Vries, Ad de
  • Symbolism : a comprehensive dictionary by Olderr, Steven
  • Dictionary of mythology, folklore and symbols by Jobes, Gertrude
  • The complete dictionary of symbols by Tresidder, Jack
Atlas Mythica

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top