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.