The monk vs. the tigers: A story of Chinese environmental change

Society & Culture

A compassionate monk arrived at an abandoned temple near Hangzhou with the task of making the area safe from tiger attacks. His tactics weren’t groundbreaking, but his results — at least for historians — tell us more about the region than we could have otherwise known.

This Week in China’s History: November 1596

In China, the tiger is “king of the beasts.” In the West, this label applies to lions, for reasons I don’t really understand — apparently they look regal? But the tiger’s claim to this crown in Chinese culture makes sense on its face: the tiger’s forehead carries quite clearly the character 王 wángking.

Tigers have a long history in China. Until the 19th century, tigers — there are eight subspecies in China — could be found at all latitudes from the Russian border to the Vietnamese. In the Ming dynasty, reports of tiger attacks were common. Historian Tim Brook, in his history of the Yuan and Ming, The Troubled Empire, describes how in Huizhou prefecture, Anhui, sources lamented the “catastrophe” and “disaster” of the tigers. Officials across China embarked on programs of trapping and hunting tigers. This was part of a widespread concern with protecting human settlement from tigers. And on this week in 1596, a south China monk named Zhuhong undertook a multi-day ceremony that, it was said, would placate the tigers.

Briefly, a personal interlude: The closest I have come to a tiger in China was in the summer of 2000. I had returned to Harbin, where I had studied and researched as a doctoral student, and my mentor from Heilongjiang University suggested a day out with his family. And that was how I wound up at the Siberian Tiger Park.

The scene needed only David Attenborough announcing “Welcome to Siberian Tiger Park.” Our city bus, customized with bars over the windows, rode through a reinforced chain-link fence and ambled around for a few minutes until two pick-up trucks appeared, one with two goats in the bed, the other carrying a cow — available for sale at the entrance in the same way petting zoos have gumball machines filled with food. The unlucky herbivores were prodded out of the beds by the drivers, who then quickly sped off.

Soon, a half-dozen tigers appeared and stalked their prey for a few minutes before, to cheers, gasps, and screams from the packed bus, the scene reached its predictably gruesome end.

You can get acquainted with the park pretty easily on the internet. Its legitimacy as a preservation facility is controversial — though there is a more highly regarded reserve for both Siberian tigers and Amur leopards a few hundred miles east, near the border with North Korea. Effective or not, the facilities are reminders that tigers are a part of China’s ecology, with a long history of interactions with people.

In the outskirts of Harbin, that interaction has been monetized and managed, but in earlier eras, tiger attacks worried people. That worry led people near Hangzhou to enlist, in 1596, a Buddhist monk to conduct a days-long ceremony in hopes of pacifying the big cats and protecting the human population.

In the 10th century, a Buddhist monastery was established on Yunqi mountain, near Hangzhou, where the abbot appeased the region’s tigers by feeding them meat so that they would not attack people. The abbot became known as the “Tiger Tamer Master,” and his solution enabled him to establish a monastery in the mountains despite the big cats. The tigers, though outlasted the monastery, which was destroyed by a flood in 1494.

Historian Robert Marks used the tiger as a way to understand China’s environmental history over the last several centuries in his book Tigers, Rice, Silk, and Silt. Apex predators and (borrowing E.O. Wilson’s label) ”star species,” tigers are a useful — if non-traditional — way to track China’s development. Marks cites scholarship suggesting that a single tiger needs as many as 100 square kilometers of territory — ideally forests filled with deer — to survive. Unlike some other “star species” (the elephant is one), the tiger “has managed to avoid extinction and therefore appears periodically in the written historical record. Wherever and whenever tigers appear” — tiger sightings and attacks recur throughout the reports of local officials — “we can be certain that sufficient forest provided those tigers with the habitat necessary to sustain the species. On the other hand, when tigers begin to disappear from the historical record, we can begin to suspect that their habitat too has disappeared.”

In the interim — between abundant habitat to sustain the predators and its destruction by humans — Marks uses increases in tiger attacks to track the expansion of human population into the tigers’ domain. Before their habitat was completely destroyed and their food supply eliminated, pressure brought humans and tigers into a shared space, with unhappy results for both.

This was the situation near Hangzhou that the monk Zhuhong was trying to address. He had come to the region in the 1570s to revive the monastery that had been built by the Tiger Tamer Master 500 years earlier. Although the temple had been destroyed for decades, the tigers had remained, menacing the local population. Tigers were killing 20 people each year, and devouring livestock as well.

In order to re-establish the monastery, Zhuhong needed to address the tiger problem.

He approached the problem from his position as a Buddhist monk, with concern for the tigers’ enlightenment. The tigers were not acting immorally: tigers will be tigers. They had no choice but to devour other living beings. And because of this, tigers — like all predators — were incapable of advancing toward enlightenment because their survival depended on violence. Moreover, since all life was interconnected, the spirits who in this life were tigers were suffering the punishment of transgressions committed in previous lives. Tigers needed compassion, not extermination.

To illustrate his compassion, Zhuhong performed a ritual that would placate the “hungry ghosts” that compelled the tigers to harm people. As scholar Chün-fang Yü recorded in her pathbreaking book on Zhuhong, The Renewal of Buddhism in China, once the ritual was complete, Zhuhong “claimed that the tigers were pacified and no longer harmed people.”

But reports of the tigers’ pacification were apparently exaggerated. Several years later, Zhuhong responded to continuing complaints about tiger attacks by organizing a five-day ceremony that would placate the creatures.

For five days and nights, a gathering of monks offered prayers, chanting, and food and drink. Zhuhong “prayed to all the saints who had tamed tigers since ancient times, asking them to carry this prayer to the gods of the mountains and the earth in all directions.” As Yu writes, Zhuhong said, “I beseeched those who had harmed the lives of tigers in their previous lives to renounce their anger and resentment, so that the tigers would not seek retribution.”

Zhuhong’s tiger pacification was celebrated in his community (he was also credited with bringing rain and ending a drought). And reports of tiger attacks did dwindle in the region. But was this down to prayer? As Marks succinctly observes, “no forests, no tigers” — and the urbanization of south China was relentless.

Marks’s work shows the creativity of a skilled historian handling sources. Records from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries rarely spoke of deforestation or the development of wild lands. That wasn’t interesting to the people keeping track, but tiger attacks: those were interesting. Marks’s research focuses on the far south — Guangdong and Guangxi — where he shows (not only with tiger attacks) the impact of deforestation on the ecology of south China. Hunting, often for traditional remedies and elixirs made with tiger parts, also took a toll.

Today, there are scarcely any wild tigers in China at all: a handful of Amoy tigers in the south, and a small number of Amur tigers in the northeastern mountains, near the border with North Korea and Russia. It is estimated that there are fewer than 20 tigers living in the wild in south China. One can imagine that Zhuhong — and perhaps the Tiger Tamer Master before him — despite wanting the tigers gone, may have mourned the fate of the “king of the beasts.”

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.