Be it the history of Taiwan, the story of its economy or the various folk traditions found throughout the island, the Formosan Tiger is everywhere in the culture of the Taiwanese!

Fair—you might point out that no indigenous species of the largest feline in the world actually exists in Taiwan! But then, no lion exists anywhere in the British Isles, either. Yet, somehow, the British Lion is a national symbol of the UK, which inherited the symbol from its constituent England.

Though not quite the national symbol like the lion is to the English—at least not anymore (more on that later)—the tiger has remarkable connections to the Ilha Formosa, Taiwan. Keep reading to explore four remarkable pieces of Taiwan’s heritage referencing the tiger!

Photo: Two tigers in a swamp

1. The Tiger and a Taiwanese Nursery Rhyme

Let’s start with something lighthearted—a popular nursery rhyme in Taiwanese Mandarin called The Two Tigers.

It is catchy and, quite like The Song That Never Ends, it is very prone to going on forever. Of course, Taiwan’s kids just love that. Here’s how it goes:

Two tigers. Two tigers.

They run fast. They run fast.

One doesn’t have his ears.
The other is missing his tail.

Very strange. Very strange.

The Two Tigers

Simple.

The obvious problem, besides the unusual imagery, is that middle part of the song. Children love to tack on an endless list of missing parts—eyes, claws, stripes, you name it—and two tigers quickly become an army of the poor things battling various handicaps and ailments.

Flag of the 1895 Republic of Formosa featuring a tiger as the country's national symbol
Flag of the 1895 Republic of Formosa featuring a tiger as the country’s national symbol
Jeff Dahl [CC BY-SA]

2. The Tiger and the Taiwanese Republic

Now, that bit about the national symbol—and a bit of history.

In 1895, a certain Sino-Japanese treaty stipulated that Taiwan would henceforth become Japan’s first major overseas colony. This was, of course, much to the surprise of the Taiwanese people who, naturally, didn’t have a say in the matter. It’s not as if they lived there or anything….

Anyway, the people of Taiwan took matters into their own hands and proclaimed the independent Republic of Formosa. Remarkably, as far as this article is concerned, the adorable flag design they adopted featured an incredibly loveable Formosan Tiger as the republic’s symbol.

The people of Taiwan now had a banner to rally under in their resistance against Japanese rule. The disparate Han and Formosan ethnic groups of the island—the Hoklo, Hakka, Saisiyat, Seediq and others—came together in numerous uprisings against colonialism.

Alas, Japan’s Imperial Army was formidable, indeed, and Taiwan’s Republic of Formosa was crushed the same year it was founded. After several more large-scale revolts, Taiwan was gradually Japanized and became what Japan called its “model colony.” The Formosan Tiger was tamed—for now.

Japanese rule over Taiwan lasted for half a century until 1945.

Photo: Taipei streets at night

3. The Tiger and the Taiwan Miracle

The Formosan Tiger found renewed vigour in the second half of the 20th century as the Taiwanese Economic Miracle pumped on all cylinders.

Taiwan—and three other small Far Eastern economies all punching well above their weight—came to be called (by the West) the Four Asian Tigers. Alongside Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea, Taiwan’s economy regularly achieved double-digit growth from the 1960s through the 1990s.

By the 21st century, all four of the Asian Tigers had transformed, in virtually a single generation, from struggling states to advanced economies. As The Economist newspaper put it, “the tigers started by making cotton shirts, plastic flowers and black wigs. Before long, they were producing memory chips, laptops and equity derivatives.”

A generation that had toiled as farmers and labourers watched their grandchildren become some of the most educated people on the planet.

Special Report Asian Tigers
The Economist (December 7–13, 2019 issue)

Today, Taiwan possesses a robust and resilient economy. Investopedia’s Top 25 Developed and Developing Countries classifies Taiwan as a developed economy—remarking that “Taiwan’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is strong, and the country’s economy is diversified. Its citizens have a long life expectancy, low infant mortality rate and good access to quality health care and higher education.”

Oddly enough, the Taiwanese don’t refer to the Asian Tigers as tigers at all. In fact, in the Taiwanese, Mandarin, Cantonese and Korean languages, this impressive bloc is actually called, Asia’s (Little) Dragons!

Photo: The Flying Tiger Temple of Tainan, Taiwan
The Flying Tiger Temple of Tainan, Taiwan
茶葉蛋 [CC BY-SA]

4. The Flying Tiger and Taiwan’s Japanese Deity

Finally, back to Taiwanese folklore.

One pleasant thing about polytheistic faiths is how inclusive and accepting of new additions they can be. It’s like buying insurance—against bad harvests, natural disasters, divine displeasure and the like—with no premium. Why not?

But the following tale is probably one of the more bizarre cases. This curiosity has been reported by both Taiwanese and Japanese media.

Taiwan’s most dominant form of polytheistic folk religion—often labelled Daoism/Taoism despite its slim resemblance to the philosophical school of the same name—includes a local deity venerated in a small village temple in southwestern Taiwan. This minor god’s name? Sugiura Shigemine.

Second Lieutenant Sugiura of the Taiwan-based 201st Air Squadron in Japan’s Imperial Navy piloted the dreaded Mitsubishi Zero.

On October 12, 1944, the Lieutenant took off to engage US bombers who were subjecting Taiwan to heavy aerial bombardments. The fighting was fierce in the Pacific and Taiwan was a major Japanese military hub. Lieutenant Sugiura was sent as part of an effort to defend the Japanese Empire’s key southern territory. His plane would be shot down by US bomber escorts that day over the skies of Tainan City.

Instead of bailing, the Lieutenant carefully guided his spiralling aircraft away from local villages to prevent the further shedding of civilian blood. He ultimately crashed in nearby fields. His body was barely recognizable and he could only be identified by his boots.

The local Taiwanese villagers were thankful for the final acts of the Japanese airman and—although one of the foreign oppressors—were happy to enshrine and honour him.

For the nobility and bravery of his last act, Sugiura was given the nickname the Flying Tiger by grateful locals and worshippers still visit him today in Tainan’s Flying Tiger Temple.

Photo: Mitsubishi Zero
The Mitsubishi A6M Zero long-range fighter aircraft—operated by the Imperial Japanese Navy from 1940 to 1945.
Paul Richter (Photographer) / CC BY-SA

See Also!

From national and economic symbols to folk songs and religions, the Formosan Tiger is everywhere. But the tiger isn’t the only big-cat that commands a presence in Taiwanese life. Check out Bear and Leopard to learn about the most formidable hunters of Taiwan.

See also Holy Cow: Taiwan’s Bovine Folklore and learn all about Taiwanese traditions that centre around the island’s cows, oxen and buffalos!

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Posted by:The Island Folklore Society

A society for the collection, preservation, translation, promotion and celebration of Taiwanese Tales & Traditions. Visit islandfolklore.org to learn more.