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March 25, 2023

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Smiling Tiger, Paper Tiger

The tiger is a very special animal in the Chinese language. In most cases, it embodies valiance, power and sovereignty. But sometimes it symbolizes ferocity and menace.

Then how about a smiling tiger? In China, xiaomianhu, or “tiger with a smiling face,” is used to describe people who appear to be kind, friendly and endearing but pursue their ambitions with dangerous intent and ruthless planning.

Zhilaohu, or “paper tiger,” is another Chinese term where the tiger appears in a less than favorable light.

Making paper models is a long-cherished, traditional folk art in China. People usually use bamboo sticks and paper to create all kinds of things. For instance, craftsmen make paper models of houses, furniture, cars, televisions, washing machines and even smartphones to be burned as offerings to the dead at funerals. They make large paper models of zodiac animals, such as the rabbit, ox, dragon, rooster and tiger, to celebrate the traditional Chinese Lantern Festival.

Naturally, the term “paper tiger” gradually found its way into Chinese colloquial language. Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong once used “paper tiger” to describe imperialism, reactionaries and the atomic bomb — connoting that they appear powerful and threatening but are actually weak or ineffective.

Today, this term is still widely used to describe one’s rivals and opponents.

So, in the eyes of Chinese people, a smiling tiger is a real threat and a paper tiger is a false threat.


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