"Paper tiger" is a literal English translation of the Chinese phrase zhilaohu (simplified Chinese: 纸老虎; traditional Chinese: 紙老虎). The term refers to something or someone that claims or appears to be powerful or threatening, but is actually ineffectual and unable to withstand challenge. The expression became well known internationally as a slogan used by Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and leader of the People's Republic of China, against his political opponents, particularly the U.S. government.
Zhilaohu is an ancient phrase. Robert Morrison, the British missionary and lexicographer, translated the phrase as "a paper tiger" in Vocabulary of the Canton Dialect in 1828. John Francis Davis translated the Chinese phrase as "paper tiger" in a book on Chinese history published in 1836. In a meeting with Henry Kissinger in 1973, Mao Zedong claimed in a humorous aside to have coined the English phrase, which provoked laughter all around.
The atom bomb is a paper tiger which the U.S. reactionaries use to scare people. It looks terrible, but in fact it isn't. Of course, the atom bomb is a weapon of mass slaughter, but the outcome of a war is decided by the people, not by one or two new types of weapon. All reactionaries are paper tigers. In appearance, the reactionaries are terrifying, but in reality they are not so powerful.
In a 1956 interview with Strong, Mao used the phrase "paper tiger" to describe American imperialism again:
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 1957, Mao reminisced about the original interview with Strong:
In an interview, I discussed many questions with her, including Chiang Kai-shek, Hitler, Japan, the United States and the atom bomb. I said all allegedly powerful reactionaries are merely paper tigers. The reason is that they are divorced from the people. Look! Wasn't Hitler a paper tiger? Wasn't he overthrown?
In this view, "paper tigers" 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".
The phrase was used in 2006 speech by then-Senator and future President Joe Biden describing the government of North Korea after a series of missile launches, defying the warnings of the international community while still incapable of doing direct harm to the United States.
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- Zimmer, Ben (23 February 2017). "The Chinese Origins of 'Paper Tiger'". Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved 21 May 2021.
- Robert Morrison (1828). Vocabulary of the Canton Dialect. East India comp. Press. pp. 536–.
- 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.'
- "Memorandum of Conversation, Beijing, February 17–18, 1973, 11:30 p.m.–1:20 a.m." (PDF). The National Security Archive of George Washington University. Retrieved 15 December 2016.
- Lary, Diana (2015). China's Civil War: A Social History, 1945-1949. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 80. ISBN 978-1-107-05467-7.
- Mao Zedong (August 1946). "Talk with the American Correspondent Anna Luise Strong". Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung. IV. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. OCLC 898328894.
- Mao Tse-tung (14 July 1956). "U.S. imperialism is a paper tiger".
- Mao Tse-tung (18 November 1957). "All reactionaries are paper tigers".
- "World: What they are fighting about". Time. 12 July 1963. Archived from the original on 7 July 2008. Retrieved 21 May 2010.
- de Man, Paul (1986), The Resistance to Theory, University of Minnesota Press, p. 5, ISBN 978-0-8166-1294-9
- "Joseph R. Biden, Jr. - Council on Foreign Relations". 6 February 2008. Archived from the original on 6 February 2008.
- "Sen. Biden On N. Korea Test Video - CBSNews.com". 5 October 2008. Archived from the original on 5 October 2008.