The Editors

A paper cut-out depicting Wu Sung, the folk hero from the famous Chinese novel Water Margin, who was revered for killing the tiger that had terrified the people living on Mount Ching Yang.

Once a royal symbol of war, tigers have become a casualty of both traditional Chinese medicine and environmental destruction in modern China, fading into extinction. The most endangered species of tiger, the South China Tiger, has not been spotted in the wild since the 1960s, and only a few dozen survive in captivity, making it “functionally extinct.”

Deeply ingrained in Chinese culture as a fierce symbol of war, tigers were, for millennia, the emblems of the highest ministers of defense in China, second only to the dragon and the phoenix of the emperor and empress. The Asian equivalent of the lion as the “king of the jungle,” the strong and elegant tiger has also been an important icon as the White Tiger of the West, one of the Four Constellations of Chinese astronomy, and a prevalent image in Buddhist lore and martial arts such as Shaolin.

Although the Indochinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti) is found in China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Vietnam (the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources estimates that only 630 survive), the South China or Amoy Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis), is the indigenous species with which most Chinese relate. With no official sighting since 1964, the Amoy has faded into “functional extinction” since the 1950s, when at least four thousand remained in the wild forests and grasslands of central and southeastern China. Now one of the world’s ten most endangered animals, the dilemma of the South China tiger is three-fold: first, the dried bone of the tiger has been a coveted ingredient in Chinese traditional medicine (TCM) for thousands of years; second, agricultural expansion has put it at odds with farmers and herders upon whose cattle, pigs and goats it naturally preys, qualifying it as an official “pest” in the anti-pest campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s; and third, China’s burgeoning population has converted much of its wooded habitat and previous range. By 1982 it was estimated that only 200–300 of these tigers remained; domestic trade of traditional medicines and “tiger wines” made from tiger bones was outlawed in China in 1993. Other preservation efforts have included the establishment of nature reserves by China’s State Forestry Administration in the 1990s. Nevertheless, by 1996 the Amoy tiger population had been reduced to less than one hundred animals, with less than fifty in the wild.

Today, about sixty-five individuals live in zoos and on breeding preserves, all located within China. However, since 2002 an organization called Save China’s Tigers has sponsored a project in coordination with the Chinese government in which several Amoy have been exported to a South African preserve, with some breeding success. The hope is that a wild population can be developed there for eventual repatriation to China. But some genetic research suggests that all of these captive tigers are descended from only a few animals, making the genetic pool too small to prevent eventual attrition from inbreeding.

The South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) is thought to be the original “stem” tiger from which all tiger subspecies evolved, and it is considerably smaller than its Siberian cousins. In addition to wild populations which some scientists and farmers insist still exist, it is as endangered as the panda and even more of an historic cultural symbol. Yesterday the tiger embodied China’s fierce power of conquest, and today it is an emblem of China’s modern environmental controversy.

Further Reading

Alderton, D., & Tanner, B. (1998). Wild cats of the world. New York: Sterling.

Thapar, V. (1992). The tiger’s destiny. London: Kyle Cathie.

IUCN-World Conservation Union. (2000). The 2000 IUCN red list of threatened species. Retrieved January 18, 2009, from

World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). (6 December, 2006). Traditional Chinese medicine experts speak against captive breeding of tigers. Retrieved February 25, 2009 from

Source: The Editors. (2009). Tigers. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2291–2292. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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