The Difference between the Indian and Chinese Tigers

Tiger: Unpredictable, rebellious, colorful, powerful, passionate, daring, impulsive, vigorous, stimulating, sincere, affectionate, humanitarian, generous. Can be restless, reckless, impatient, quick-tempered, obstinate, selfish, aggressive, unpredictable, moody.

When I first heard that the year 2010 was going to be the ‘Year of the Tiger’ from my Chinese mate, V, I said, ‘oh? Not bad. So it’s the Year of the Indian then.’ After all, just as the star sign Aries, quite describes my persona, I have to say that the Tiger quite aptly describes the popular mindset in India, as opposed to that of China. At the base of it is passion and an aggressive spirit, both of which tend to make more of everything else - great dancers, singers, actors, orators, thinkers, etc. It can either produce great good, or great evil. As I said with regards to India to some a few years ago, ‘The problem with Indian history is that it produces great intelligence and vibrance. When one is bad, one is very bad, just as when one is good, one can be very good. And when we put forth capitalism as the best of all socio-political systems, we are set for a nice little battle indeed.’

The difference between the Indian and Chinese Tiger in the symbolic context is that in India, it symbolises not so much the nation-state, but the people. One can see, in films for instance, where a hero is perceived as a Tiger of a personality. The tiger is sort of personalised and its spirit is there for popular appropriation. That is one of the reasons why Indian men from the subcontinent might sport a mustache, likened to the whiskers of a tiger, or wear a tiger claw around one’s neck to symbolise ‘veeren‘ or ‘fierceness’ or ‘strength’.

In the Chinese instance, as in terms of the Zodiac, it is held apart from the person as a separate influential entity impacting on their destiny. Thus, this being the Tiger year, we are told of how this might impact on the interests of the people or according to their own Zodiac symbol. Of course there are those whom are born in the Year of the Tiger - i’m reminded of my Chinese father-in-law who was born in the Year of the Ox, but always asserted that he was born in the Year of the Tiger, who, when he was earthly-located, was quite the Tiger in personality, and maybe that’s why he kind of liked me enough to reserve a seat next to him at family dinners. But other than being born in the Year of the Tiger, the rest were chickens, rats, oxen, and so on. Their traits were assigned to them.

But in the Indian case, everyone could potentially be a Tigerish ‘veeren’ or Veerapandiya Kattabomman (a well-known fighter against early British colonialism....nice meaningful name, I’d prefer that to a ‘john’, ‘jack’, or ‘ed’;)). In the Chinese case, the government is the supreme Tiger running a nation of subservient individuals, with subsidiary Tigers such as employers, triad leaders, etc. In the Indian case, the government has to do its utmost to prove itself to a potential nation of Tigers - which is one of the reasons why India doesn’t have as systematised a secret society like triads, yakuzas and mafias. They are, to a large degree, and intellectually, a ‘reason’ as opposed a to a ‘rule’-based economy.

Another significant difference between both is how its symbolic meaning complements both nation’s histories. For instance, in China, the masses suffered political defeat and depoliticisation. Hence, the focus on money, and much of Chinese New Year symbolism and practices dwelling on wealth, fortune, luck, with a touch of opportunism (gambling, pushing against others to be the first to place one’s joss stick in the temple urn at the stroke of midnight). When one is not allowed to look askance at the government, they will have no choice but to view each other as an opportunity, rely on luck, hard work, amongst others to get around the financial and psychological pressures of life within such a milieu. That is when all symbolism that is produced is associated with wealth. If the tiger comes into the picture, it is in terms of economic strength.

I had gone down to Chinatown on the eve of the Chinese New Year to buy a few ‘red packets’, not to distribute, but to collect, as some of the designs are quite eye-catching - i especially like a set for the Year of the Ox I got last year which was done in traditional Chinese style paintings. Anyway, whilst admiring the Tiger set I got this year, I couldn’t help but noticing that the tiger on each individual ‘ang pow’ was flanked by taels of gold. Whilst I can appreciate the artwork in itself, I could also appreciate that the tiger has been enlisted in associating the Tigerish spirit with wealth acquisition. And in this, it served to reinforce the depoliticisation of the people. Of course, the pursuit of wealth can lead to people taking issue with a financially oppressive government, but the association between the Tiger and money does not necessarily entail that. Hence, in this case, as in others, we could say that the Zodiac, and the Tiger, serves to complement the popular depoliticisation that is one of the hallmarks of Chinese history.

In the Indian case however, the Tiger is either generally associated with individual self-worth, and justice and conflict with authoritarianism. The people are empowered, not economically, but in the context of either a righteous struggle against all odds for the people, or in personal strength. Whilst we cannot say that most of the population are ‘fierce tigers’, such associations in the cultural mindset will generally produce far more popular vigour than in the inverse situation. But in the Indian scenario, there is also a recognition that Tigers can be good or evil, and hence, in films, we can see a good Tiger clashing with a bad one, be it the colonial authority or a ‘rowdy’(gangster). What’s most important here is the idea of the Tiger is not generally associated as an unassailable entity influencing human affairs as it is in the Chinese case, but a force for appropriation by the people.

The symbolic and popular meaning of the Indian Tiger quite complements Indian history with oppositional movements for change dating back to before the birth of Christ; a strong sense of regional independence; the production of a variety of religions; the fact that the popularly derived wiseman or sanyassin, or freedom fighter had more influence over the masses than a King; and that conquering kings preferred to leave regional kings on their thrones instead of vanquishing them completely provided that they would symbolically recognise him as Maharajadhiraja (king of kings), and so on and so forth.

Very interesting isn’t it.

In my personal experience with the opposition in singapore, i know that it is a clash between an Indian Tiger and a Chinese one. Like China had it’s Son of Heaven, and Singapore has its Lee Kuan Yew, the opposition, in the spirit of the Chinese Tiger, prefers to have adherents instead of tigers in its respective parties. Critique amongst the ranks is seen as compromising unity - a way of seeing things that is wholly Chinese and not Indian. In my personal experience with Chinese triads and Indian gangs a couple of decades ago, i noticed an identical tendency. These parallels are most remarkable in their congruence in various levels of society. In the former, subservience and loyalty. In the latter, democracy and internal critique. So long as the spirit of the Chinese Tiger, a spirit of popular vigour that gets around top-imposed evils as opposed to getting rid of it whilst sacrificing thought for loyalty to their respective parties, reins in Singapore, change, when it comes, will be a diluted one. We have, in the Chinese Zodiac, metal tigers, water tigers, wood tigers and so on. Perhaps we ought to consider including an Indian Tiger as well.

Happy Year of the Indian Tiger



  1. Well thought and a meaningful article, Ed!
    Indian Tigers can be good leaders and don't have to wait for the time to arrive.
    Credits to you!

  2. Good work and an excellent read, must say Ed! However dont't get big headed ok! Pass on all the good praises to the GOOD LORD,by thanking the LORD, for letting you be the owner of some bloody good BIG BRAINS! So you won't get 'off balance.'

  3. Thanks A1,

    I would say that Indian Tigers make great citizens. And, by the way, by Indian Tigers, I'm not referring to 'race', but to perspective.

    Thanks A2,

    God gives us all 'big brains'. It is only our self-absorption, apathy, and the egoistic tendency to discount sensible but contradictory information that makes it a relatively empty vessel.

    As for 'thanking the Good Lord', it is those who gain from the thoughts of 'big brains' whom ought to be thanking Her/im. The 'big brains', however, would find it more of a curse than a blessing. You won't find Jesus thanking God on his way up Golgotha or during his last couple of minutes on life on the Cross, but he accepted his task.

    If anything, we thank God for Jesus, and, of course, the Buddha, Guru Nanak, Muhammad, amongst a host of others. If anyone does not have 'big brains' like them, it is not because God didn't give it to them, it's because they didn't bother making more of it. Asking us to thank the 'Good Lord', hence, is akin to absolving themselves of their own egoism - so that they can say that they don't have it because the 'Good Lord' didn't give it to them instead of them not making much of it.


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