Paper tiger


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Paper tiger'?

A person who appears to have power but is in reality ineffectual.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Paper tiger'?

This expression became known in the West as a slogan that Mao’s Chinese communist state used against their opponents, particularly the US government. It appears as one of the quotations, or as he preferred to call them ‘supreme directives’ in the Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong – better known as The Little Red Book, first published in 1964:

“Imperialism and All Reactionaries Are Paper Tigers”

Mao didn’t coin the phrase; it had been an idiom in the Chinese language for some time. The first time it is recorded in print in English is in Sir John F. Davis’ book The Chinese, 1836:

“A blustering, harmless fellow they [the Chinese] call ‘a paper tiger’.”

Mao is credited with making many quotations. Here are a few:

Women hold up half the sky.

Political power grows out of the barrel of the gun.

Let a hundred flowers bloom.

To read too many books is harmful.

Trend of paper tiger in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.