Paper Tiger

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 is really harmless. This Chinese colloquialism is similar to the English phrase "its bark is worse than its bite".

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 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 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 quote:

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.

In The Resistance to Theory, Paul de Man uses the phrase to reflect upon the initial threat of literary theory towards traditional literary scholarship in American academia. His pun runs as follows:

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.

Famous quotes related to paper tiger:

    All the reputedly powerful reactionaries are merely paper tigers. The reason is that they are divorced from the people. Look! Was not Hitler a paper tiger? Was Hitler not overthrown?... U.S. imperialism has not yet been overthrown and it has the atomic bomb. I believe it also will be overthrown. It, too, is a paper tiger.
    Mao Zedong (1893–1976)