Paper Tiger is the direct translation of the Canton Chinese word “Zhilaohu” and is used to refer to something that projects power and danger, but is, in fact, harmless and ineffective.
The expression has a long history in China, and has gained worldwide attention following a series of remarks, made by Mao Zedong in the 1950s.
“Paper Tiger” has been a popular rhetorical device in global politics since then, as a way of dismissing a commonly perceived danger.
The phrase is an old Cantonese idiom, which has been around in oral tradition for centuries.
It was first translated by Robert Morrison in his Vocabulary of the Canton Dialect, published in 1828.
Another definition of “Paper Tiger” comes from John Francis Davis‘ 1836 book, titled The Chinese: A General Description of the Empire of China and its Inhabitants. In it, a paragraph states that “A blustering, harmless fellow they call “a paper tiger.”
This excerpt was soon published in several contemporary newspapers in Great Britain.
Despite these publications, “Paper Tiger” didn’t become a globally used expression until more than a century later.
“Paper Tiger” was made popular globally by Mao Zedong in the middle of the 20th century, in several interviews and remarks made upon American imperialism and the atom bomb.
It was notably included in Mao Zedong‘s The Little Red Book, where he associated reactionaries with a “Paper Tiger.”
In 1973, during a meeting with Henry Kissinger, Mao even claimed to have coined the English version of the phrase, which was received with an explosion of laughter by everyone present.
Since Mao, “Paper Tiger” has been a widely embraced expression, used to dismiss a political opponent or a perceived threat, with notable uses being tied to figures like Osama bin Laden and Joe Biden.
It was also used in scholarly circles, in particular, by Paul de Man, who reflected upon the threat of literary theory upon the traditional school in America.
Overall, “Paper Tiger” is an expression that came far from the southern provinces of China, to dominate global politics, used for easing tension and dismissing the threat posed by opposing political forces.