Jump to content

Paper tiger

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A paper tiger with a U.S. flag, symbolizing American imperialism (China Pictorial, August 1950 issue)

"Paper tiger" is a calque of the Chinese phrase zhǐlǎohǔ (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, former Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and paramount leader of China, against his political opponents, particularly the United States. It has since been used in various capacities and variations to describe many other opponents and entities.


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.[1][2] John Francis Davis translated the Chinese phrase as "paper tiger" in a book on Chinese history published in 1836.[3] In a meeting with Henry Kissinger in 1973, Mao Zedong claimed in a humorous aside to have coined the English phrase.[4]


Mao Zedong first introduced his idea of paper tigers to Americans in an August 1946 interview with American journalist Anna Louise Strong:[5]

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.[6]

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.[7]

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?[8]

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".[9]

The term was frequently used in Chinese Internet discourse regarding the trade war begun by United States President Donald Trump.[10]: 94  Internet users referred to Trump as a paper tiger, frequently observing that the United States economy depends heavily on Chinese companies for a host of necessities, electronics, and raw components.[10]: 94–95 

Other uses[edit]

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".[11]

Osama bin Laden described U.S. soldiers as "paper tigers".[12][13] This statement may reflect the influence of Maoism on the formation of the Taliban.[14][15][16]

The phrase was used in a 2006 speech by then-Senator Joe Biden to describe North Korea after a series of missile launches from the country that same year, defying the warnings of the international community while still incapable of directly harming the United States.[17][18]

China itself has been called a paper tiger. In 2021, Michael Beckley argued in his book Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower that China would not be able to overtake the United States, and that believing China is stronger than it really is, is detrimental to American perceptions and policy. According to Beckley, this is because "China’s economic, financial, technological, and military strength is hugely exaggerated by crude and inaccurate statistics": for example, Beckley states that high-scoring Chinese education statistics are actually cherry-picked, that the People's Liberation Army is not as strong as the United States Armed Forces due to their differing focuses, and that China's large GDP does not equate to their actual strength or power.[19][20]

Following the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Armed Forces was described by many commentators as a paper tiger. Steve Day, a retired Canadian Armed Forces Joint Task Force 2 commander, described Russian command and control as a "bit more of a paper tiger" than previously thought as it was "utterly inept" and suggested that the Russian military "may not be as invincible as we've believed for a number of decades".[21] The New Yorker described Russia as a paper tiger and analysed their performance during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. The paper said that the Russian military suffered from "disunity of command; logistical weaknesses; poorly trained, poorly motivated, poorly led troops; very poor quality of officer corps; very poor quality of campaign design and ability to plan", as well as "very poor integration within and among the armed services, including the synchronization of air and ground operations".[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Zimmer, Ben (23 February 2017). "The Chinese Origins of 'Paper Tiger'". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 21 May 2021.
  2. ^ Morrison, Robert (1828). Vocabulary of the Canton Dialect. Vol. I. Macao: East India Company's Press. p. 536.
  3. ^ Davis, John Francis (1836). The Chinese: A General Description of the Empire of China and Its Inhabitants. Vol. II. London: Charles Knight & Co. 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.'
  4. ^ "Memorandum of Conversation, Beijing, February 17–18, 1973, 11:30 p.m.–1:20 a.m." (PDF). National Security Archive. Retrieved 15 December 2016.
  5. ^ Lary, Diana (2015). China's Civil War: A Social History, 1945–1949. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 80. ISBN 978-1-107-05467-7.
  6. ^ Mao, Zedong (August 1946). "Talk with the American Correspondent Anna Luise Strong". Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung. Vol. IV. Peking: Foreign Languages Press. OCLC 898328894.
  7. ^ Mao, Zedong (14 July 1956). "U.S. Imperialism is a Paper Tiger". Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung. Vol. V. Peking: Foreign Languages Press.
  8. ^ Mao, Zedong (18 November 1957). "All Reactionaries Are Paper Tigers". Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung. Vol. V. Peking: Foreign Languages Press.
  9. ^ "The World: What They Are Fighting About". Time. Vol. 82, no. 2. 12 July 1963. pp. 24–25. Retrieved 21 May 2010.
  10. ^ a b Marquis, Christopher; Qiao, Kunyuan (2022). Mao and markets the communist roots of Chinese enterprise. Kunyuan Qiao. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-26883-6. OCLC 1348572572.
  11. ^ de Man, Paul (1986). The Resistance to Theory. Theory and History of Literature. Vol. 33. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. p. 5. ISBN 0-8166-1294-3.
  12. ^ "The World; Osama bin Laden, In His Own Words". The New York Times. 23 August 1998. Retrieved 24 August 2022.
  13. ^ Peter Bergen (19 August 2021) [2021-07-30]. "Five myths about Osama bin Laden". The Washington Post. Washington, D.C. ISSN 0190-8286. OCLC 1330888409.[please check these dates]
  14. ^ "The Taliban's Mao-inspired return to power in Afghanistan shows the US is failing to heed the lessons of history". ABC News. 18 August 2021. Retrieved 24 August 2022.
  15. ^ "How Chinese influence in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan poses fresh threat to India". Times of India. Retrieved 24 August 2022.
  16. ^ Han, Shepherd N. (10 June 2011). "By Understanding the Maoist Approach to Revolution and its Inherent Contradictions, Insights Will be Gained on Taliban Vulnerabilities".
  17. ^ "Campaign 2008: Joseph R. Biden, Jr". Council on Foreign Relations. Archived from the original on 6 February 2008.
  18. ^ "Sen. Biden On N. Korea Test". CBS News. 5 July 2006. Archived from the original on 5 October 2008.
  19. ^ Beckley, Michael (2018). Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World's Sole Superpower. Ithaca. ISBN 978-1-5017-2480-0. OCLC 1048609456.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  20. ^ Frum, David (3 May 2021). "China Is a Paper Dragon". The Atlantic. Retrieved 18 December 2022.
  21. ^ "Russian military a 'bit more of a paper tiger' than initially thought: former Canadian special forces officer". CBC.ca. Retrieved 31 August 2022.
  22. ^ "Is the Russian Military a Paper Tiger?". The New Yorker. 21 April 2022.