January 19, 2018

Tigers—Real and Imagined—in Korea’s Physical and Cultural Landscape

SkabelundFig4-550 by Joseph Seeley and Aaron Skabelund

Historically, people in Korea have valued tigers more as symbols than actual living beings. Premodern Koreans gave various cultural meanings to the tiger—including trickster, divine messenger, and protector. Yet violence characterized most actual encounters between tigers and humans. Various Korean dynasties, most significantly the Chos?n (1392–1910), pursued wild tigers as threats and as sources of valuable fur. Human population growth, agricultural expansion, and overhunting placed significant pressure on them by the late nineteenth century. During the period of Japanese colonial rule over Korea (1910–45), nationalists reimagined tigers as symbols of resistance to imperial

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rule. Traditional attitudes toward wild tigers changed little, however, as continued hunting and habitat destruction led to their disappearance by the mid-twentieth century. But even in their absence, tigers’ cultural mystique continued. The tiger’s disappearance encouraged a feeling of closeness and affinity for the animal rather than diminishing their symbolic importance. Tiger nostalgia has led some to consider bringing them back, but the tiger remains a symbol with more importance as a cultural idea than a living animal.

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