Journal 09. The beautiful legend behind the tiger head hat

The tiger head hat 虎头帽 Hǔtóumào is a traditional Chinese children’s hat design, which represents a tiger as the name suggests. The Chinese proverb 虎头虎脑 Hǔtóuhǔnǎo, which literally means “tiger head and brain”, is commonly used to describe a young child who is cute and strong. It is not surprising then that the custom of using the symbolism of the tiger as a hat on a child’s head has emerged. The Chinese believe that the tiger head hat has the power to ward off evil spirits and bring health and prosperity to the child. 

The representation of a child wearing a tiger head hat first appeared in Chinese murals of the Tang Dynasty. Also, a Tang Dynasty figurine wearing a tiger head hat was discovered in Xi’an. This terracotta figurine depicts a young child with a tiger head hat on his head and his body is wrapped in swaddling clothes. This is the first tangible evidence of Hǔtóumào known to this day. 

A baby wearing a tiger head hat and tiger head shoes (left) – A baby wearing a tiger head hat made of silk (right)

Regarding the origins of the tiger head hat, there are still differing views.

According to Chinese astrology, four celestial animals are the symbols and guardians of the four cardinal directions. The red phoenix symbolizes the South, the black tortoise the North, the blue-green dragon is the guardian of the East and the white tiger is the guardian of the West. Since ancient times, China has been a traditional agricultural society, which relies on Nature for its survival. The people of this land of China have experienced many hardships over the years. They needed to find a safe place in the worship of many divine creatures that gave them strength and hope. They honored the figure of the tiger in particular, which symbolizes bravery and power. According to ancestral beliefs, the totemic figure of the tiger offered great protection to the peasants and warded off disasters. The tiger was considered by the ancients as the monarch of the earth, the king of all beasts. A hat with its image could only protect children from evil spirits and bring them peace and serenity. 

According to a second theory, the Chinese tiger head hat is a heritage of the ancient Greek lion-headed war helmet. In Greek mythology, the lion-headed helmet was originally worn by the demigod Heracles. Later, as a great admirer of the figure of Heracles, Alexander the Great proudly wore the lion-headed helmet during his conquest of the Persian Empire. The lands conquered by the belligerent stretched from present-day Turkey to the eastern Pamir Mountains, just at the borders with China. Later, it was the Buddhist pilgrims who crossed the hostile Pamir plateaus. These lands were the cradle of the spread of Buddhism in China. Thus, the lion-headed war helmet of Heracles was used for the first time in Buddhist iconographic art. With the introduction of Buddhism in China during the Eastern Han period, these lion-headed war helmets were transformed into the form of protective divinities for Dharma. During the Sui and Tang dynasties, these protective deities evolved more locally and the lion helmet gradually became a tiger-headed helmet. The lions had already disappeared for a long time from the lands of China, the Chinese preferred the tiger, an animal more familiar and venerated by the people. This cult of the protective deity gradually infused in everyday life as a new shared belief, which led to the development of distinctive clothing for children, such as the tiger head hat.

Terracotta figurine from Tang Dynasty representing a baby with a tiger head hat (left) Figurine from Tang Dynasty representing a protective divinity wearing a war helmet with the head of the tiger (middle ) – Greek sculpture of Heracles wearing a lion’s head war helmet (right)

At the beginning of the 20th century, at the end of the Qing dynasty, China was troubled by conflicts, social disorders, famine… In this difficult context, the mortality rate of young children was high. Families turned to the figure of the powerful tiger to protect their children from hardships and the tiger head hat became popular again. However, nowadays, Chinese people’s clothing habits have gradually become westernized. The custom of wearing a Hǔtóumào has been gradually forgotten. Only in some remote villages and cities in China, one can still see children wearing the cute tiger head hat.

In traditional Chinese culture, the tiger is feared for its bravery, strength and intimidating power. But mothers also perceive in the figure of the tiger a being with profound emotions: as the Chinese saying goes “虎毒不食子” Hǔ dú bù shí zǐ, “Even the tiger does not eat its cubs”. Sewing a tiger head hat demonstrates the love Chinese mothers have for their children. In the eyes of mothers, as soon as they put the tiger head cap on their children’s heads, the tiger and the child become one. Their beloved children will be safe from harm and will grow up healthy and happy.

The second theory about the origins of the tiger head hat reflects the cultural differences between the East and the West. The lion-headed war helmet originated in Greece and was worn by Alexander the Great, turning him into a demigod, who built a huge military empire by conquering the lands from the West to the East. The lion-headed war helmet thus embodied violence and domination, but when it reached the Buddhist lands of the East, the belligerent and tyrannical heart of the lion was tempered and tamed by the benevolent heart of Buddha. The lion head figure became a protector of the Dharma, we see here a form of redemption. It is interesting to note that the Chinese transformed the frightening figure of the lion into a benevolent and friendly tiger. The Chinese mothers were even more imaginative, they are the ones who completely transformed the old war helmet into a charming hat that protects their tender children, such are the genuine power and charm of Chinese culture !

Article written by Zhang Xing

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