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Tiger, tiger, burning brightBig cat’s place in Korea’s past
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승인 2010.02.16  13:19:11
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▲ Photo from Robert Neff collection

Tigers have always played a key role in Korea’s history and mythology. Many readers are probably aware of the legend of Tan’gun, the legendary founder of Korea. The basics of it are that there was a bear and a tiger who desired to become human. They were told that if they could endure the darkness of a cave, eating nothing more than mug-wort and cloves of garlic, for 100 days, they would be trans-formed into humans.

The bear succeeded and was transformed into a beautiful woman who later bore Tan’gun, but the tiger, unable to restrain his desire to wander, failed. Fortunately for the tiger, Hwanung (the son of the God of Creation) was merciful and allowed the tiger to remain in his presence as a guardian.

Tigers came to be respected and were likened to the yangban or noble class of Korea. They were considered wise but dan-gerous. While many of the Korean folk tales center on the benevolence of Korean tigers, for the most part, the Koreans of the past feared these large cats, and with good reason. Ac-cording to an old saying: “The Korean hunts the tiger six months in the year and the tiger hunts the Korean the other six months.”

To an extent this was true. The pelts of tigers were generally better in early winter when their fur was longer and thicker to protect them from the intense cold, which made them more valuable at that time to Korean hunters than in the late spring when the pelts were thinner as the tigers started to shed their heavy winter coats. While Koreans generally hunted tigers in the winter, the tigers hunted Koreans all year round.

Koreans greatly feared yet revered tigers, attributing them with almost mystical abilities in both their legends and campfire stories. During the winters, vil-lagers often set tiger traps, made from heavy logs and baited with small live pigs or dogs, at each end of their main streets in hopes of catching tigers, not only for their luxurious pelts and flesh, but for self-protection.

As the weather grew colder and the supply of fresh prey became scarcer, Koreans prepared for the inevitable. Stoically, they barred and locked their doors in anticipation of the tigers’ dreaded visits. The big cats, driven by hunger, would slink silently into the isolated villages, often nothing more than a cluster of thatched huts, and upon padded paws would roam the snow-covered streets sniffing the air for a possible meal. The tigers were alleged to be able to cry out like humans and lure their victims out into the open where they would quickly kill them and drag them away, leaving nothing more than a pool of blood and tattered clothing. If the tigers failed to lure their intended victims out into the open, they often forced their way into homes, either through a door or a weak thatched roof, and carried away screaming children to devour them at leisure in the safety of the forest.

For most Koreans, there was little they could do to prevent these attacks so instead they had to rely upon old folk tales for comfort. One such belief was that a tiger would not eat a man who slept on his left-hand side. Apparently most victims slept on their right-hand side.

One of the first American busi-nessmen in Korea, Walter Townsend, is credited with spreading an unbelievable tale in 1907 of how Korea came to be denuded of its forests. He claimed that the Korean people, plagued by man-eating tigers, cut down all the trees in an attempt to remove the tigers’ habitat and force them further away from their villages.

Apparently there were no tigers on Jeju Island, at least according to Professor Homer Hulbert, but other islands weren’t as lucky. The Korea Review, an English-language monthly published in Seoul, printed this in an article in 1902: “The people on Chin-do, an island off southwestern Korea, report the ravages of an immense tiger which they say is over 20 years old and whose paws are seven inches broad as judged from his spoor, and whose body is covered with mud and pitch to which leaves and grass adhere. Their guns are useless against him and they are wondering how they will rid themselves of his unwelcome proximity.”

The tigers’ horrible reputation provided some Korean debtors with an easy way out. According to the Morning Oregonian (Sept. 13, 1889): “So many persons annually disappear in Corea from the ravages of tigers that hopeless debtors and defaulters take advantage of the presumption thus created in case of a missing person to leave their torn garments at the border of some wood and privately decamp. ‘Caught by a tiger’ has come to be equivalent in Corea to our American phrase ‘escaped to Canada.’ ”

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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