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Paper tiger is a literal English translation of the Chinese phrase zhilaohu (紙老虎). The term refers to something that seems threatening but 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 its opponents, particularly the U.S. government.
In a 1956 interview with American journalist Anna Louise Strong, Mao Zedong used the phrase "paper tiger" to describe American imperialism. He said, "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 it is nothing but a paper tiger." In Mao's view, all reactionaries are paper tigers. They are superficially powerful but are prone to overextension that leads to sudden collapse. When Mao criticized Soviet appeasement of the United States during the Sino-Soviet split, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev reportedly said, "the paper tiger has nuclear teeth".
In The Resistance to Theory (1982), Paul de Man used the phrase to reflect upon the threat of literary theory to traditional literary scholarship in American academia. He said, "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".
As the President of the United States, Barack Obama was often referred to as a paper tiger to describe his foreign policy. In the Arab News, Abdulaziz Sager called Mr. Obama a “paper tiger president” for threatening to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for deploying chemical weapons against his opponents. Fox News commentator Judge Jeanine Pirro called Obama’s “feckless foreign policy” on the world stage a paper tiger, saying that “every time there’s an issue, we roar, but then turn tail and run.”
- The British post-punk band, The Chameleons, have a song titled "Paper Tigers" (track 11) on their album "Script of the Bridge" (1983).
- 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 (2013).
- The American singer, Owl City, wrote a demo song called "Paper Tigers".
- The American rock band, Spoon, has a song titled "Paper Tiger" on their album, Kill The Moonlight (2002).
- The American rock band, Thrice, has a song titled "Paper Tigers" from their album The Artist in the Ambulance (2003).
- The American rock band, Dry Kill Logic, has a song titled "Paper Tiger" from their album The Dead and Dreaming.
- The American alternative rock band, Anberlin, make reference to the term in their song 'The Resistance' on the album New Surrender (2008).
- The George Plimpton non-fiction book Paper Lion (1966) and 1968 movie adaptation offer a pun on the concept.
- The phrase also appears in Bill Waterson's comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, in which Calvin asks Hobbes what the phrase means. Hobbes responds that a "paper tiger" is like a "paper boy", that is, a tiger that delivers newspapers. Calvin complains that his textbook makes no sense.
- 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.'"
- Mao Tse-tung (July 14, 1956). "U.S. IMPERIALISM IS A PAPER TIGER".
- Mao Tse-tung (November 18, 1957). "ALL REACTIONARIES ARE PAPER TIGERS".
- "World: WHAT THEY ARE FIGHTING ABOUT". Time. 1963-07-12. Retrieved 2010-05-21.
- de Man, Paul (1986), The Resistance to Theory, University of Minnesota Press, p. 5, ISBN 978-0-8166-1294-9
- James Morrison (November 7, 2013). "Embassy Row: To Saudis, Obama a ‘paper tiger president’".
- Cheryl Carpenter Klimek (August 4, 2013). "Judge Jeanine: Obama’s a paper tiger, we are sitting ducks".
- Waterson, Bill (1991), Scientific Progress Goes "Boink", Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, p. 109, ISBN 978-0-8362-1878-7