虎 is a pictograph, and it once looked like a dignified, upright tiger. In oracle bone inscriptions, the tiger is clearly recognizable, standing vertically, with striped fur, sharp claws, and a long tail. You can see its huge mouth and sharp fangs.One oracle bone character, referring to an ancient state institution called “fangguo,” showed a man (人 rén) standing under a tiger. In seal script, this was used to refer to the animal. Looking at the character today, it’s hard to imagine the lifelike, threatening tiger it once was.
In most cases, characters with the radical 虎(hǔ) are related to the animal. For example, you’ll see the tiger embedded within 吓唬 (xiàhu), or “scare,” which was onomatopoeic of a tiger’s roar. Behind the meaning of 彪炳 (biāobǐng), “historic achievements,” are the stripes on the tiger’s back. 琥珀 (hǔpò), or “amber,” is derived from a jade tiger that had been used by emperors to mandate military deployment.
In ancient Chinese tales, the lion isn’t the king of all animals: it’s the tiger. One fable from the Warring States Period, 476 B.C. to 221 B.C., tells of a clever fox that walks side by side with a tiger, convincing the tiger that it’s actually he, the fox, that the rest of the forest are afraid of. The idiom 狐假虎威 (hújiǎhǔwēi), or “a fox borrowing the airs of a tiger,” comes from this story, referencing bullies who take shelter under a mightier power. The tiger character was also painted on gates in ancient China to ward off evil spirits. Not unlike an apple a day, “a tiger on the gate keeps ghosts away.”
Because the tiger is such a ferocious animal, it is also associated with menace. To find yourself in a dangerous situation is to be “between a tiger’s teeth,” and you’re “a lamb fallen prey to a tiger.” A narrow getaway is “an escape from the tiger’s teeth.” If someone “stares like a tiger,” it’s a greedy and vicious stare.
Idioms containing both a tiger and another animal can be complimentary, but it depends on the other animal’s status in Chinese culture. For example, a dragon is an auspicious creature, so sayings with both a tiger and a dragon are complimentary: “vigorous dragon and lively tiger,” “soaring dragon and leaping tiger,” “occupied by tiger and resided by dragon,” and, of course, “crouching tiger and hidden dragon.” All of these indicate vigor coupled with reverence. Using the wolf, however, isn’t quite so complimentary. “Like wolf, like tiger,” “the heart of a tiger and a wolf,” and “the land of tiger and wolf ” all bring to mind images of greed and savageness. Some couplings are more neutral in China, such as “the back of a tiger and the waist of a bear,” which describes a large, well-built man, or “gauge like a wolf and swallow like a tiger,” used for “eating hungrily.”
Translated from Chinese to English by Nicholas Richards (芮尼克)