Paper tiger is a literal English translation of the Chinese phrase zhǐlǎohǔ (simplified Chinese: 纸老虎; traditional Chinese: 紙老虎), meaning something that seems as threatening as a tiger, but does not withstand challenge.
The phrase is an ancient one 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 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 overextension 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."
Osama bin Laden used the phrase describing 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.||”|
|“||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.||”|
The phrase also appears in Bill Waterson's comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, in which Calvin inquires of Hobbes what the meaning of the phrase is. 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.
There is a reference to paper tigers in the song 'The Resistance' by American rock band Anberlin.
The American music artist Beck has a song titled "Paper Tiger" (track 2) on his album "Sea Change."
"Speak for yourself you paper tigers. Too late to make demands when you've got a riot on your hands"
- 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
- Waterson, Bill (1991), Scientific Progress Goes "Boink", Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, p. 109, ISBN 978-0-8362-1878-7