There is a special section in Mr Gale’s first impression of Korea; that is, the fear of tigers in Korea. While traveling to Haeju, and as the darkness of the night creep towards him, Gale notices that his companion, Mr. An, is increasingly nervous as they approach a mountain pass:
“That same day, just as evening was coming on, Mr. An and I wound our way through a high mountain pass. He warned me repeatedly of ‘horangi’ (tigers). A neighbor of his had been carried off through this pass and eaten only a half moon before. At the summit, a rushing through the grass startled us, and there was one creature, and another, and another that went by us like flash, six in all -not tigers- but deer.”
Perhaps this scene is an irrelevant story for visitors to modern Korea. But until early 1900s, tigers were one of the most horrid travel accidents you might run up to in Korea, and what Mr. An feared was natural to Koreans. To explain, there were simply too many tigers in Korea.
Annals of the Chosun Dynasty (조선왕조실록), the official record of all the kings of the Chosun dynasty records 732 occasions of tiger-related news since the beginning of the recording in 1392. One record notes that 140 people died from a tiger attack in the time frame of only few months in the year 1734. Many travelers passed mountains in groups, even in broad daylight to avoid being snatched away by a tiger. The district called ‘Mu-ak jae(무악재)’ near ‘Seodaemoon-gu’ district in Seoul actually had a guarded shelter for travelers, where travelers groups of ten would go across the pass guarded by soldiers, usually with some bribe money. Tigers became so threatening in Korea, to a point where one of the many duties of the Korean army during the Chosun dynasty was to protect the people from tigers. By the end of the Chosun dynasty, sharpshooters within the Korean army were simply called ‘tiger hunters.’
- But tigers, they were more than a nuisance to Koreans!
On the other side, tigers were also special creatures to Koreans, and they are frequently referred to in Korean history and folktales. Sometimes they were awed as gods. Tigers were often equated with the mountain spirits, and were usually coined the term ‘mountain god’ to their presence in the mountains. Names like ‘sanjung ho-gul(산중호걸),’ literally meaning tiger warrior amidst the mountain, or simply the term ‘san joo-in(산주인)’, meaning the keeper of the mountain, were also frequently used to describe the tigerly presence in the neighbourhood.
On the flip side, they were also friendly creatures to Koreans. Many folktales begin its story by narrating “Age so long ago, so long ago that tigers smoked tobacco.” In one of those stories from when tigers puffed up some serious longpipe, a young man played the drums so well that tigers danced with him into the marketplace. In another story, an old grandma tiger gladly plucked out eyebrows (eyebrows of a tiger was regarded a medicinal item in traditional folk stories of Korea; possibly because it’s so hard to get!) of her grandsons for a boy who wanted to save his sick mother. A famous classic in Korea “Ho Jil(호질)” by Park Ji-Won tells us a story of a tiger that ponders about which human to snatch and eat for dinner, eventually deciding that humans (especially learned aristocrats! A part where the writer adds his political twist) are too nasty and corrupted to enjoy. In the new years, Koreans used to put up a picture of a tiger with a magpie sitting on a pine tree to bring luck and health into the house for the new year as well; This lucky tiger was called “Kkachi horang-i(까치 호랑이, or magpie tiger).” Despite the terror and despair that tigers brought unto Koreans, they still retained a peculiar, friendly, and without doubt mystic status in Korea. They were gods, protectors, nuisances, but at the same time, also friends to be talked about in stories to laugh away hardship and scare children into bed.
- Then people brought out the big guns.
The wake of modernity and westernization however stripped this mystic status of Korean tigers. When gates of Korea opened to the outside world, it did not only bring soul sucking cameras and trains that surpassed the fastest steed that Korea can offer, but many hunters who visited Korea to hunt tigers in the mountains of Korea as well. In addition, the Korean War, increasing industrialization and expansion of human habitat in Korea all undoubtedly contributed to evict the mountain god from the mountains of Korea. The last officially hunted tiger was apparently killed in 1921 at Kyungju, Kyungsang Province by a hunter.
Tigers, though it is safe to say that they are quite rare to find nowadays in your morning stroll to the nearest hill in a Korean neighbourhood, are still special to Koreans today. Over a long period of time of anger, fright and awkward friendship with the king of the mountain, tigers have become almost a national identity of Korea. For example, the emblem of the Korean Football Association uses an image of a white tiger. The mascot of the 1988 Seoul Olympic was also a tiger, too.
But perhaps the best example of how Koreans perceive tigers, is found in a peculiar form of popular Korean culture. a Korean web-cartoon “Horang Chonggak(호랭총각, literally meaning, Tiger bachelor)” became a cult favourite in Korea since 2007, depicting an adventure of a tiger lumberjack “Horang Chonggak” with accompanying giant robot cow; solving problems here, breaking stuff there, whooping out his lightsabre and going undercover at the king’s orders. At any rate, then it is still fair to say that tigers still share the same kind of folk-ish place in the Korean culture, and that special place as that special animal in all Korean hearts.
Next Story: Mr Gale, and Ajummas
Would you like to search the Annals of the Chosun dynasty yourself?
http://sillok.history.go.kr/main/main.jsp (only available for search in Chinese and Korean; interface only in Korean)
Would you like to read some of the episodes of Horang Chonggak?
http://comic.naver.com/webtoon/list.nhn?titleId=22897&no=1&weekday=sun (In Korean)