Paper tiger

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Paper tiger is a literal English translation of the Chinese phrase zhǐlǎohǔ (紙老虎). The term essentially refers to something that seems threatening, but in reality is ineffectual and unable to withstand challenge. The expression became well known in the West as a slogan used by Mao Zedong's Chinese communist state against their opponents, particularly the US government. The term cannot be accredited to anyone in particular since it had existed as an idiom in Chinese language for some time.


Etymologically, 'paper tiger' was an ancient phrase used in Chinese culture, but sources differ as to when it entered the English vocabulary. It is found translated to English as early as 1836, in a work by John Francis Davis.[1]

In a 1956 interview with the American journalist Anna Louise Strong, Mao Zedong used the phrase to describe American imperialism: "In appearance it is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of; it is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain. I believe that is nothing but a paper tiger."[2]

In Mao Zedong's view, "all reactionaries are paper tigers"[3] — superficially powerful but prone to over extension leading to sudden collapse. When Mao criticized Soviet "appeasement" of the United States during the Sino-Soviet split, Premier Nikita Khrushchev reportedly pointed out, "the paper tiger has nuclear teeth."[4]

Osama bin Laden used the phrase to describe the American soldier:

We have religion, we have Islam. The American soldier may have the best weapons in the world, but on the inside, he is spiritually empty – a paper tiger.

Amelia Earhart used the phrase in this famous quotation:

The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward.

In The Resistance to Theory, Paul de Man used the phrase to reflect upon the initial threat of literary theory towards traditional literary scholarship in American academia. His pun runs as follows:

If a cat is called a tiger it can easily be dismissed as a paper tiger; the question remains however why one was so scared of the cat in the first place.[5]

Cultural references[edit]

  • The American rock band Anberlin refers to paper tigers in their song "The Resistance":
Speak for yourself you paper tigers. Too late to make demands when you've got a riot on your hands.
  • The phrase also appears in Bill Waterson's comic strip Calvin and Hobbes,[6] in which Calvin inquires of Hobbes what the phrase means. Hobbes responds that a "paper tiger" is like a "paper boy", that is, a tiger that delivers newspapers. Calvin subsequently complains that his text book makes no sense.
  • Allan David Ondash has a book entitled "The Paper Tigers," (a knock-down-drag-out look at modern martial arts).
  • The American rock band Thrice has a song titled "Paper Tigers" from their album The Artist in the Ambulance.
  • The American music artist Beck has a song titled "Paper Tiger" (track 2) on his album Sea Change.
  • The American punk rock band Face to Face has a song titled "Paper Tigers With Teeth" from their album Three Chords and a Half Truth.
  • The American rock band Spoon has a song titled "Paper Tiger" on their 2002 album, "Kill The Moonlight".
  • The American singer, Owl City wrote a demo song called "Paper Tigers".
  • The George Plimpton non-fiction book and subsequent movie, Paper Lion, pun on the concept.


  1. ^ Davis, John Francis (1836). The Chinese: A General Description of the Empire of China and Its Inhabitants 2. London: C. Knight. p. 163. OCLC 5720352. "Some of the ordinary expressions of the Chinese are pointed and sarcastic enough. A blustering, harmless fellow they call 'a paper tiger.'" 
  2. ^ Mao Tse-tung (July 14, 1956). "U.S. IMPERIALISM IS A PAPER TIGER". 
  3. ^ Mao Tse-tung (November 18, 1957). "ALL REACTIONARIES ARE PAPER TIGERS". 
  4. ^ "World: WHAT THEY ARE FIGHTING ABOUT". Time. 1963-07-12. Retrieved 2010-05-21. 
  5. ^ de Man, Paul (1986), The Resistance to Theory, University of Minnesota Press, p. 5, ISBN 978-0-8166-1294-9 
  6. ^ Waterson, Bill (1991), Scientific Progress Goes "Boink", Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, p. 109, ISBN 978-0-8362-1878-7