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Japanese Tiger and Dragon

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 Arts

The tiger and dragon are ancient symbols of yin and yang, forces that combine to make up the universe.
Japanese ink painters in the 16th century borrowed ideas and art forms from China.
This pair of screens might have decorated the public areas of a Zen monastery.

What Would They Say?: Compose a conversation between the dragon and the tiger. What would they say to each other? How would their speaking style reflect their yin or yang nature? Consider vocabulary, tone of voice, volume, and other qualities. Compare your dialogue with someone else’s.  

Shades of Gray: Examine the screens closely. Where is each image the darkest? Where is it lightest? Where does you see shades of gray? Gather a piece of white watercolor paper, some black ink or paint, a brush, a bowl of water, and a saucer for mixing. How many different shades of gray can you make? How would you make a patch of bright white?  

Striped Like a Tiger: The painter of these screens most likely never saw a tiger firsthand. How similar is his picture of a tiger to a real tiger? Research the appearance and behavior of real tigers and list the similarities and differences you notice. Draw your own tiger based on what you learn from your research.  

March 2005