Koreans feel a peculiar affinity towards tigers. As the panda in China and elephants in India and camels in Egypt have a special place in the hearts of their people, the animal that represents Korea is the tiger. So much so that when Korea hosted in 1988 the 24th Olympics, the competition’s mascot was the tiger Hodori. Korea views Mt. Baekdu (where our earliest ancestors established our country) as our people’s spiritual mountain, and views the tigers of Mt. Baekdu as the ultimate sacred animal.
In our earlier years, because 70% of the country consisted of mountains, there were many tigers residing there. There were tigers everywhere, and there wasn’t a single town that didn’t tell tales from long time ago, so long ago, in fact, that it was ‘when the tigers were smoking pipes.’ This is how all Korean fables begin– it’s our version of ‘once upon a time’. Korea is also called the “Land of Tiger Stories.” In actuality, the number of Korean tales and fables that feature the tiger surpasses 600.
There isn’t a single Korean who didn’t grow up listening to stories about tigers, and most all Koreans have had a dream featuring a tiger. It’s not uncommon that a Korean child would stop crying at their grandmother’s threats that ‘a tiger will come and get you.’ (The nastiest words that I ever heard my grandmother utter at us kids was that we were ‘bad enough for a tiger to come get us.’ “호랭이 물어갈 놈들!” *shudder* <호랭이 is a rural slang for 호랑이>)
During the Chosun Dynasty, Scholar Nam Sa Go (1509-1571) even went as far as to state that the shape of the Korean peninsula is in the shape of a Tiger. He said that “the Korean land is the form of a Baekdu tiger clawing the Manjoo land (present day China).”
Although it’s not possible to see actual wild tigers anymore in present times, Koreans still use ‘ho (meaning tiger)’ in their child’s names, wish for childbirth in the year of the tiger, desire to have tiger dreams, and use the symbolism of the tiger in daily aspects of their lives to stand for strength and power– the spirit of the tiger lives on in all of us.