The Tiger and the Dragon

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on October 12, 2015.)

Tiger and Dragon at the Tian Hou Temple in Sungang Village

In some temples, tigers and dragons are seen paired together, bringing to mind the title of the Academy Award-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). They represent the two aspects of the Dao--that ancient Chinese concept of "the way things are"--called Yin and Yang.

The tiger is Yin, the feminine and passive. She enters most scenes stealthily, muscles coiled and waiting to spring into action, like a wound-up clock that hasn't been started.

The dragon is Yang. This is the masculine, active principle. He enters with banging drums and ringing bells and a mighty "HOOOOOOOOO!"

Some online sources switch these two, labeling the tiger yang and the dragon yin, but most have it as stated above. Whichever interpretation is used, the two figures taken together--like the open- and closed-mouthed lions and other guardian figures outside of temples--signify "balance."

A good example can be seen at the small Tian Hou Temple in Sungang Village, Shenzhen. There are two bas reliefs, one on either side of the covered central courtyard between the two halls. One portrays the tiger, the other the dragon, each shown with offspring.

The temple does not face precisely south, but the dragon is more-or-less on the east side, the place from which the sun expands its power. The tiger, then, is on the west, to where the sun slinks away at night.

In Buddhist temples, two of the 18 Arhats are shown taming a tiger and a dragon. Scholars believe these were added--perhaps due to the popularity of the tiger and the dragon--to an original group that numbered only 16.

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