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January 27, 2022

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Home » City specials » Hangzhou

Honoring tigers in all their splendor

AS 2022 marks the Year of the Tiger, in honor of this occasion, an ongoing exhibition at the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History includes displays of artifacts, specimens, paintings and handicrafts relating to this big cat.

“We hope the exhibition enhances residents’ awareness of wild animal protection while celebrating the Chinese New Year,” said Yan Hongming, curator of the museum.

The exhibition falls into two main segments — culture and zoology. Visitors can learn about tiger’s role in Chinese culture and ecology through the exhibits.

Tigers have been considered the “king of all animals” in China for millennia. Ancient Chinese endowed the tiger with spiritual elements and transfigured it into a sacred beast known as the “Mountain King.”

In Buddhism and Taoism, stories related to tigers have been passed down for thousands of years. Mahasattva Jataka Buddha’s previous incarnation was that of a compassionate prince who sacrificed himself to feed tigers. The story is portrayed in a fresco in Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes. The founder of Taoism, Zhang Daolin, rode on a black tiger to slaughter evils. The tiger is believed to link human beings and immortals.

In Hangzhou, there is also a legend about tigers. Hupao, literally meaning “tigers pawing,” is a famous spring that has been gurgling for centuries. It is said that a monk saw two tigers scoop out a hole and then spring water gushed out.

In addition to Han people, some ethnic minorities also worship the tiger in rituals and festivals. The white tiger is the only totem for the Tujia ethic minority in Hunan Province. Every household worships a wooden tiger figurine at an altar, believed to be the offspring of the white tiger.

Yi and Naxi ethic minorities living in southwest China also take tigers as their ancestors, believing people will be incarnated into tigers in the afterlife.

The exhibition introduces these legends and displays handicrafts inspired by tigers. Myriad tiger head-shaped shoes and hats embroidered with colorful patterns are emblematic of the tiger-loving tradition in China.

They have been popular among all walks of life during the Chinese New Year. People traditionally believe such shoes and hats could ward off evil spirits and protect kids at the beginning of a new year.

Tiger’s kingly style and bravery were also used as a symbol of majesty and power in ancient China. The tiger-shaped copper seal, which is displayed at the exhibition, was used to deploy troops during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). The seal was cut in two and enabled generals to direct troop movement only when the two parts were combined.

Tiger motifs were also embroidered on the costumes of royal court officials in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The designs varied according to different officials’ ranks and often matched with roaring waves and auspicious clouds.

In nature, tigers belong to the feline family and are at the top of the food chain in the ecosystem with important ecological and scientific values. The exhibition shows 16 specimens and three fossils, giving visitors a well-rounded picture of the big cat.

Beginning in the 1960s, a series of regulations and laws have been issued to protect wild tigers and their habitats. Tigers are classified in the Panthera genus along with the lion, leopard, jaguar and snow leopard, all of which are displayed at the exhibition.

“I haven’t seen real tigers before. Even if I go to the zoo, I still cannot watch the animals at a short distance because they are dangerous,” said 10-year-old Chen Zhenxuan. “The specimens give me an opportunity to view them clearly.”

Tigers once ranged widely across Asia, from Turkey in the west to the eastern coast of Russia. Over the past 100 years, the numbers of wild tigers dropped drastically due to the habitat destruction, since tigers are territorial animals, often requiring large contiguous areas of habitat that support their prey.

Today, only six tiger subspecies remain in the world, all classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Two subspecies are native to China. In 2010, the Huichun National Nature Reserve was established in Jilin Province to protect wild Amur tigers, and the Aobei National Nature Reserve was built in 1990 in Guangdong Province to protect South China tigers.

Celebration of the Year of the Tiger Exhibition

Dates: Through April 8 (closed on Mondays)

Admission: Free

Venue: Zhejiang Museum of Natural History

Address: No. 6, West Lake Cultural Square



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