We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
Advertiser Disclosure
Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.
How We Make Money
We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently of our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

What is a Paper Tiger?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
Our promise to you
Language & Humanities is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At Language & Humanities, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject-matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

The term paper tiger is thought to have been introduced to the English language in the 1950s. It is a translation from the Chinese term zhi laohu, which was in use long before the 50s. Chairman Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese government and communist party from 1949-1976, described the imperialistic actions of certain nations, and most specifically the US as a paper tiger. The paper tiger is something that looks threatening, but in actuality is merely made of paper; thus it can be destroyed or combated.

Phrases in English that predate the term include storm in a teacup, and the Shakespeare quote from Macbeth, “full of sound and fury; signifying nothing.” These aren’t specifically applied to imperialism. However, they do appear to suggest that some molehills appear as mountains, and are not as daunting as might be supposed.

Imperialism of the type Chairman Mao referred to meant two things, first, the attitude and attempt by larger, stronger nations to establish political domination over smaller nations, and also an attitude of larger, stronger nations that their way of life was better, and their governance was superior to smaller nations. By calling the US a paper tiger, Chairman Mao was establishing a Chinese propagandist philosophy that would dominate China for many years to come, and to a certain degree still exists.

It’s important to understand specifically what Chairman Mao meant when he used the term, since this is often glossed over and not given fullest definition. Paper tiger frequently referred to not only the policies of the US but the beliefs about imperialist policies (if they can be called such) of the US by its citizens and the rest of the world. Chairman Mao stated that the US runs up debts attempting to combat communism, and that its imperialistic policies are despised by other countries, and its own citizens. Because the policy of “oppression” as Mao saw it, was so disliked, it would collapse upon itself. This is what makes the tiger paper.

Chairman Mao did not claim that the paper tiger of the US was without any power, but merely that that power was transient and would be: “unable to withstand the wind and the rain.” Furthermore, even though the tiger was paper, it had to be fought, and Mao suggested all countries “oppressed” by US imperialism would probably continue to have to keep fighting and despising this tendency for the US to regard itself as somehow superior to other countries under different political organization.

Mao said strategically this tiger must be “despised,” but that, “Tactically, we must take it seriously.” This became a call, then, to all nations of communist persuasion to strengthen themselves and engage in battle with imperialism, standing strong in communist beliefs. This process would be time consuming, perhaps a battle existing until imperialism completely vanished, “battered by the wind and the rain.” Mao used the wind and rain as metaphor for the fight communist nations must put up to completely destroy the paper tiger.

In modern usage, the paper tiger can refer to anything that appears threatening but is really not so. We are back to Shakespeare’s idea of a thing being “full of sound and fury; signifying nothing.” The way the term is used now deviates from its purpose as used by Mao. It can apply to any large force that seems to pose a threat, or to the actual process of creating a threat where none exists in order to create fear and possibly influence people’s process of decision-making, or the political process.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By croydon — On Jun 28, 2014

@Iluviaporos - I actually never realized it was a political term. I've only ever heard it from that Beck song called "Paper Tiger" which talks about a paper tiger being torn apart by adult hands. So I always thought it was supposed to be a symbol of the magic of childhood that could be dismantled by adult logic or something like that.

By lluviaporos — On Jun 27, 2014

@clintflint - It's easy for us to say that with hindsight, but the point of that kind of propaganda was to inspire people who had no real idea of what the United States was like back then. When they talked about taming the paper tiger, they were imagining a country that was all talk and no power, because they had no way of knowing otherwise.

And people with experience of real tigers aren't going to be comforted by the idea of comparing a country with a real tiger. They would much rather compare it to a toy.

By clintflint — On Jun 26, 2014

It's a really good expression but I never realized it was supposed to originally refer to the United States. I guess it wouldn't really stick in that case, because it wasn't a particularly good way of describing them. The United States could never really be considered a storm in a teacup or a paper tiger. I think if anything, in the sense that Mao wanted to use, they are better describe as a real tiger, with power, but without will or direction. That's not how I see the States, or how most modern people would see it today, but that seems like the kind of metaphor Mao was aiming for.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
Learn more
Language & Humanities, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

Language & Humanities, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.