Imagine finding yourself between these two creatures, each painted on a wide folding screen standing five feet tall.
On your right, a dragon shoots into view from a swirling cloud. His motion whips the water below into wild waves. The dragon opens his mouth to roar, as tufts of hair and whiskers fly in all directions.
On your left, a tiger crouches low to the rocky ground. Steady and strong in the wind that bends the bamboo behind her, she silently eyes the dragon in the heavens. Not even her whiskers twitch.
Standing between these screens in a room might give you a sense of being in the middle of something big. For Japanese in the 16th century, they might have suggested the powers of the cosmos.
Doan (Yamada Yorikiyo), Japanese
Tiger and Dragon, ink on paper, around 1560
The Minneapolis Institute of Art
The tiger and dragon are ancient symbols of yin and yang, forces that combine to make up the universe.
Ancient Chinese Taoist philosophy explains the world in terms of two forces yin (from the ancient Chinese word for shady) and yang (from the word for bright). Yang elements include light, fire, rain, and the heavens. Yin elements include darkness, water, wind, and the earth. Male traits are yang, and female traits are yin. Yang qualities are active, while yin qualities are passive. Everything in the universe results from the interaction of yin and yang.
The dragon and tiger have long been symbols of these two forces. The dragon, a mythical animal thought to reign over the heavens, stands for yang. The tiger, respected in ancient China as mightiest of the wild beasts, stands for yin. The screens illustrate why these two animals, both of them powerful and strong, are fitting symbols for yin and yang.
The tiger crouches low to the rocky ground, a sign that the yin earth is the tiger’s territory. Plants bend in the force of the wind, said to be created by the tiger’s mighty roar. But the tiger’s strength is a quiet power, held in her taut muscles. The dragon, on the other hand, is full of active energy. His head rises out of the yang heavens. His energy causes rain clouds to swirl and waves to form. But the tiger and dragon seem evenly matched. One will not dominate the other, just as the forces of yin and yang balance each other in the universe.