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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.
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."
In Mao Zedong's view, "all reactionaries are paper tigers" — 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, PremierNikita Khrushchev reportedly pointed out, "the paper tiger has nuclear teeth."
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.
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, 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).