China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2010/Feb

The Year of the Tiger

How the world has changed in 100 years! In 1909, when he left the White House, outgoing president of the United States of America (US), Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) needed a vacation. He sailed to colonial British East Africa and headed inland on safari. He shot elephants, lions, rhinos and other big game with an extra-heavy rifle. Then he sailed back with items for display in US museums. When his ship docked in New York City, thousands of people jammed the dock to cheer the return of the “great white hunter.”

In 2009, a man was executed for killing a tiger, possibly the last South China tiger (華南虎) roaming free in the Chinese countryside. No one applauded his hunting skill. It is now considered better to shoot animals with a camera than with a gun.

Dwindling numbers

Originally, eight sub-species of tiger lived in Asia, from the Caspian Sea in the west to the islands of Java and Bali in the southeast. Three of these breeds are now extinct; the other five are endangered.

From an estimated 100,000 tigers in 1900, only 3,500 now remain in the wild: 1,000 in India, slightly more in Nepal, a few Bengal tigers in Bangladesh, perhaps 500 Siberian, or snow tigers, on the Russian side of the Amur River, a small number in the forests of Heilongjiang (黑龍江) and some in southeast Asia. That’s all.

In Hong Kong, the last wandering tiger was seen in 1947. China banned tiger hunting in 1977. However, with the loss of dense jungles and uncut forests, their numbers kept decreasing. In October 2007, photos of a wild tiger in the mountains of Shaanxi (陝西) created a brief sensation. Someone with a sharp eye soon noticed they looked faked and no more tiger sightings have been reported in the area.

Tigers in ancient China

In China’s early history, enough people had close personal encounters with a tiger for it to acquire the reputation as the king of the forest.

There is a stone carving, often seen in Chinese art, dating as far back as the Han Dynasty (漢朝, 202 BC-220 AD), of a running man glancing back at a tiger which is gaining on him.

In that era, China had only about 60 million people, less than five per cent of its current population, and tigers were common. So the tiger-to-human ratio was much more favourable then, at least from the tiger’s viewpoint.

Tiger qualities

The word tiger has acquired a variety of meanings. Tiger mouth, for instance, means jaws of death, tiger vigour, means daring drive, while paper tiger means empty bravado.

Paper tigers, however, have another meaning for the Chinese. They are also used to ward off evil spirits and can be seen just about anywhere in great numbers during certain festivals. To the tiger’s undoing, many people think its various body parts have marvellous healing qualities.

There is a story about 12 animals that raced to pay homage to the Buddha. The tiger came in third, so the third year in the 12-year cycle belongs to it. People born in the Year of the Tiger (1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986 and 1998) are said to be daring and dignified.

Tigers inspire awe. To the Chinese they are a symbol of courage. In the early days, some Chinese liked to eat tiger liver thinking that they would acquire the strength and courage of a tiger.

Some even preferred the tiger to the Mandarins. After her husband died, one woman was left alone in a hut at the foot of a mountain. Friends from the village visited her and urged her to move in with them for safety. She answered: “Better the tiger on the mountain than the government in the village.”

West, autumn, white

Dong Zhongshu (董仲舒 175-105 BC) compiled traditional associative thinking and systematised the theories of yin-yang (陰陽) and the Five Elements. He linked the tiger to the direction west, the colour white and the season autumn.

The association with the west is not clear. Maybe by Dong’s time, tigers were becoming scarce in the Central Plain while they were still numerous in the west. Autumn in the northern hemisphere often brings wind from the west, and frost, which is white.

The white tiger is complimentary to the green dragon and is honoured just as much. Ancient Chinese thought tigers lived for thousands of years. At a certain age, about 500 years old, tigers turn white. They then act as a psychic current running around the earth. It is also a symbol of dignity and vigour.

The tiger is also associated with white jade. Since the male tiger was the god of war and the king of the mountain, only army commanders wore white jade. When the emperor authorised a general to move troops, he sent him a talisman in the shape of a tiger.

In 496 BC, a king was killed in battle outside Suzhou (蘇州). After his soldiers buried him, a tiger came and sat on the mound for three days, as if guarding the tomb. Buddhists built a 48-metre pagoda there, on Tiger Hill (虎丘), around 960 AD. It later tilted and is now called the Leaning Tower of China.

Animals in creation

Chapters 38-41 of Job contain God’s response to Job’s anguished questions about evil and suffering in the world. The Almighty directs Job’s attention to the age and size of the earth, the beauty of the stars and then speaks at length of a number of wild, beautiful and even terrifying animals.

Job’s response is not: “Why did you create species which people cannot or should not exploit commercially?” Rather, he says, “I know you can do all things” (Job 42:2).

Despite his misery, Job has eyes to see God’s wisdom and beauty in creation. This is one reason why Job is restored to health and prosperity.

Christian responses

As Christians, we may find the myths and legends about the tiger interesting and amusing, but also quaint and quite unbelievable. What we can take from them, however, is the spirit behind these myths, the respect these myths convey for all creation, the emphasis on the value, beauty and the belief that somehow, all of God’s beautiful creation is linked together in some mysterious and godly plan that needs to be respected.

Creation glorifies God – perhaps especially – those parts of it from which no one can get rich quickly. The urge to make a quick, big profit, “to make a killing,” comes from greed, not from inner peace. People argue about whose greed caused the financial panic in late 2008, but it is hard to say that greed played no part.

When a thief breaks a glass display case, scoops a few watches or necklaces into a bag, and then runs, the police call it a case of “smash and grab.” Often the robber is caught and sentenced to years in prison to reflect on his momentary triumph. In economic language, he is guilty of discounting the future, not bothering to figure the future cost, which outweighs the short-term profit.

Likewise, there is money to be made in smashing the ecology and grabbing this or that valuable resource. Many times the thieves get away with their crimes. Yet, in the long run, future generations will pay the price.

For World Day of Peace 2010, Pope Benedict XVI chose the theme: If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation. As the Sunday Examiner reported on January 3 and 10, he began this year by urging, more than once, that all people should take a long-range view of economic development. The ecological crisis is connected to a crisis in morality.

Bishop John Tong Hon affirmed this message on January 1 by saying in our cathedral, “Theologically, we are stewards of creation, not its dominators and exploiters. Part of our vocation as human beings is the duty to pass on this world intact to the next generation… If people understand the inseparable links between God, humanity and all creatures, then the task of cultivating peace will be halfway accomplished.”

One decade into the Third Millennium, we still have ample misery on this planet, yet more and more people realise that reverence for nature and for all creation is part of the solution. If tigers vanish from the wild, people will point fingers at each other for a long time, but trading accusations will not restore the tiger’s natural habitat.

Hopeful signs

Word has finally got around that international trade in tiger parts for traditional medicine is illegal and efforts are being made to find a substitute. People are admitting that animals are more valuable alive than dead, that they add to the beauty, joy and wonder of the world in ways that are hard to price and record on the balance sheet of any accountant.

In 2002, China and South Africa reached an agreement to send a few pairs of South China tigers to a wildlife reserve in South Africa. After they multiply, some will be shipped back to China to run freely outdoors in restored natural parks, not to be embalmed behind glass inside a museum. The 144-hectare Harbin (哈爾濱) Tiger Park, established in 1996, is now home to 500 Siberian tigers. New Delhi, India, will host a conference on tiger preservation starting on February 14.

Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) said, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white. If it catches mice, then it is a good cat.” Big cats are equally pragmatic. Tigers do not care who comes to their rescue: atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims or followers of some other religion.