Tuesday February 1st, 2022 marks the turn of the Lunar New Year. With the new moon, we move from the Year of the Metal Ox to the Year of the Water Tiger. There are twelve zodiac animal signs in the Lunar calendar; the Ox and the Tiger are the second and third respectively. Laid on top of these dozen animals are the five elements – wood, fire, earth, metal, and water – in that order. Each element is repeated twice why this year is the Water Tiger this year and next year, 2023, will be the Water Rabbit. That'll be followed by the Wood Dragon and then the Wood Snake (water begets wood in the elemental cycle of creation). Five times twelve equals sixty so the complete zodiac is known as the 'Cycle of Sixty.' The cycle begins with the Wood Rat, which makes year of the Water Tiger the 39th year in the cycle of sixty (you can do the math yourself if you like).

The Lunar calendar is older than worldwide accepted Gregorian calendar. While the Gregorian calendar sets Christ as the starting point, the Chinese calendar begins with the reign of the Yellow Emperor Huangdi, which began in 2607 BCE. So in the Chinese calendar, this is the year 4719. Huangdi was the founder of much of Chinese culture, including the Lunar calendar.

Although it began in China, the Lunar New Year is celebrated throughout Asia, as well as all around the world through the Asian diaspora. In China, it's the largest annual human migration as millions of people head home to be with family. Observations go for two weeks beginning with the Spring Festival on the 1st and ending with the Lantern Festival on the 15th.  This is the period between the New Moon on January 31st and the Full Moon on February 16th and there are special festivities and observations for each day.

For martial artists and qigong practitioners, the Year of the Tiger has special meaning. As one of the largest extant predators, the tiger is revered for its power, ferocity, and majesty. In the west, the Lion is considered the king of the jungle. However, apart from royalty, Chinese weren't exposed to lions. This is one reason why the lions in Chinese lion dance rituals seen at Lunar New Year celebrations don't look like lions at all. For Chinese, the king of beasts is the tiger. Consequently, Chinese depictions of tigers have the character for 'king' (王 wang) emblazoned on their foreheads. In kung fu, tigers have inspired warriors and practitioners for centuries. Tiger faces often adorn sword guards and shields; the wang on the forehead is a tell. What's more, tiger symbolism proliferates the practice itself.

The Tiger and Qigong

Humans have lost their connection to the natural world so imitating animals is a way for us to reconnect with nature. The inclusion of animals in qigong is a way to reconnect. One of the oldest forms of qigong, Wu Qin Xi (五禽戲), includes a tiger. Conventionally translated as Five Animal Play, Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming translates this as The Five Animal Sports. It is commonly attributed to the father of Chinese medicine, Hua Tuo (c. 140–208 CE), although Dr. Yang suggests that it was originally created by a Taoist master named Jiun Chiam. The five animals are the tiger, deer, bear, ape, and bird.

The five animals are also related to the organs of traditional Chinese medicine, and consequently, the elements of five element theory. According to Dr. Yang, the tiger is the first animal in the sequence and is related to the organ of liver and the element of wood. Because the tiger is fierce, this is associated with the liver. In Chinese medicine, ferocity is an expression of the liver on fire. 

Tevia Feng, author of a new YMAA video Five Elements Qigong, dubs his academy White Tiger Qigong. "The White Tiger can be found in ancient Daoist scrolls and pictures in China," explains Feng. "It was a part of ancient Daoist esoteric inner alchemy practices. Historically, white tiger symbolism included virtue, courage, and peace. The white tiger symbolizes protection of goodness, while a destroyer of evil. There is an ancient saying, 'Only when the emperor rules with absolute virtue the white tiger appears.' It is also one of the 4 Chinese star constellations which are the Azure Dragon of the East, the Vermillion Bird of the South, the White Tiger of the West and the Black Tortoise of the North." Feng acknowledges the impact of Five Animal Sports as a founding form of qigong, but he distinguishes his white tiger from the tiger in that form when discussing the elemental and organ connection. "The White Tiger is associated with the metal element of the five elements. The organs are the lungs and large intestine."

Image courtesy of Tevia Feng

The apex of Feng's system is a White Tiger Qigong. Additionally, he propounds a White Tiger Qigong Breath which is a more advanced breathing system taught after someone has learned the fundamentals of the Primordial Breath and Golden Elixir Qigong. "When I practice my Qigong, I feel the power of the spirit of the white tiger," says Feng. "When I feel the deep pains of life, I turn to the wisdom and power of the white tiger, I breathe it out and let it go, becoming stronger and all the wiser. I let it flow through me in every step, feeling the courage and humility to carry through life."

The Tiger and Kung Fu

"Tiger Style!" Anyone who listened to music during the 90s remembers this iconic opening line for one of the leading tracks off Wu-Tang Clan's debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The line was poached from the 1977 Kung Fu classic film Executioners from Shaolin. This motion picture was a fictional recount of the creation of Tiger Crane kung fu, one of many movies that affirms how tigers have been a part of kung fu for a long time.

In southern kung fu, there is an alternate quintet of animals than what is found in qigong. These are tiger, crane, snake, leopard, and dragon. There are many more animal imitative styles of kung fu like monkey and praying mantis, however the southern Chinese five animals are prominent for the kung fu diaspora in part because the bulk of the golden age kung fu movies were made in southern China. Specifically, Hong Kong was home to the two most impactful movie studios: Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest. These studios brought us Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and glorious period epics like Executioners from Shaolin. Many of the actors in those films were practitioners of traditional Hung Gar kung fu which exemplifies tiger style. The movies and music reflect the prominence of tiger styles and keep them present within pop culture.

Tiger veneration extends far beyond Chinese martial arts. Within karate, the tiger is the emblem of Shotokan. "The Shotokan Tiger, which every Karate student has seen, was created by no less than famed artist Hoan Kosugi, renowned for his intricate depictions of nature and common folk," explains Bruce Costa, author of the new YMAA book Welcome To Karate: Unlocking the Wisdom of the Beginner's Mind. "A student of Gichin Funakoshi, whom we all know as the founder of modern karate, Kosugi encouraged his teacher to write the first karate book, creating the tiger for its cover."

The Shotokan Tiger by Hoan Kosugi

For Costa, the tiger has a profound meaning. "Ever a symbol of decisive strength, speed, and courage in the pursuit of self-development, Kosugi's tiger has, for me, always symbolized the uncompromising mindset necessary for proper karate training. Between the times I bow on and off the tatami, I serve myself best by the extent to which I embody the tiger's deadly force, and use it to stop threats to myself and those I've taken into my charge. It is an image I've stared into deeply many times. It has remained an anchor for me through the successes and struggles that have come with me into my fifth decade of karate. As I look at it, I can't help but think of the countless others who've similarly looked at it closely and taken its journey, though their challenges have greatly surpassed mine."

The Tiger and 2022

As we enter another year of the pandemic, the outlook for 2022 looks unfavorable. We look to the tales of old in hopes of finding some wisdom and refuge. Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming authored a delightful collection of Daoist fables, The Dao in Action: Inspired Tales for Life. Like the works of Aesop, these Daoist tales are woven around underlying morals, often with anthropomorphic characters like sentient animals, including tigers.

Amongst the over 180 tales within this book, there are several charming anecdotes about tigers. With so many twos in 2022, the story "Two Tigers" seems the most auspicious. It's also somewhat unsettling, given the general trepidation with which we are approaching this year, but therein lies the power of fables. Daoist tale often leave us hanging, forcing us to fill in the blanks and consequently, subconsciously updating them to be appropriate to our current circumstances. When it comes to fables, there's always wisdom to be found if you keep an open mind. "Two Tigers" is retold below for your consideration:

"Once there were two tigers. One lived in the wild and one lived in a cage. Both tigers believed they lived in poor conditions. One day they decided to exchange positions. They were both very happy in the beginning. Eventually they both died. One died of hunger, and the other died of depression."

Happy Lunar New Year

Gong Xi Fa Cai