The Chinese consider the tiger as a particularly powerful sign given the animal itself is seen as the king of all animals.
Indeed in ancient Chinese tales, it is not the lion that is the king of all animals as in the west, it is the tiger. One fable from the Warring States Period, 476 BC to 221 BC, tells of a clever fox that walks side by side with a tiger, convincing the tiger that it’s actually he, the fox, that the other creatures in the forest are afraid of. The idiom hújiǎhǔwēi (狐假虎威), or “a fox borrowing the airs of a tiger,” comes from this story, and refers to bullies who take shelter under a mightier power.
There are hundreds of Chinese idioms containing the character 虎 (hǔ) and the majority of them have to do with the mighty, fierce and dangerous image and attributes of the beast.
To describe a strong but honest-looking child, especially a boy, Chinese people often use the phrase hǔ tóu hǔ nǎo (虎头虎脑, lit. tiger head tiger brain). Following the similar structure and logic, “monkey head monkey brain”, or hóu tóu hóu nǎo (猴头猴脑), is used to describe impetuous and fidgety children. As for adults, “tiger’s back bear’s waist”, or hǔ bèi xióng yāo (虎背熊腰) is used to describe those with a stocky and imposing build.
There are many Chinese idioms carrying direct meanings. Tán hǔ sè biàn (谈虎色变, lit. talking about tiger, face colour changes) infers that people turn pale at the mere mention of something terrible. “Tiger’s head, snake’s tail,” or hǔ tóu shé wěi (虎头蛇尾) is to used describe something that might start off with a bang but end with a whimper.
Some Chinese tiger phrases are similar to those found in English, though the tiger replaces the lion. For example the English idiom to “twist the lion's tail,” used to describe something as being dangerous, becomes “touch the bottom of the tiger”, or mō lǎohǔ pìgu (摸老虎屁股) in Chinese.
Another danger might be found in a person who displays a smiling tiger face, or xiào miàn hǔ (笑面虎, lit smiling face tiger), as it suggests somebody who is kind and innocent in appearance but actually a wolf at heart.
Comparatively speaking, meeting a female tiger, or mǔ lǎo hǔ (母老虎), is much safer, though it is often used as a derogatory phrase, the English equivalent for a vixen or shrew. It is possible too that the phrase “tiger mum” is derived from this, which is used to describe Chinese women who demand their children to study or work very hard to meet their high expectations.
Whilst one might be fearful of tiger mums and those with a smiling tiger face there is no need to run from a “paper tiger”!
A well known idiom in the west, paper tiger, or zhǐ lǎo hǔ (纸老虎), is used to describe something less dangerous than it might appear.
This ancient phrase was much used by Mao Zedong to describe imperialism and reactionaries as paper tigers. Speaking to an American journalist in 1956 he said, “In appearance it [American Imperialism] is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of; it is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain. I believe that is nothing but a paper tiger.”
Another phrase is more well known as the title of the award winning Chinese film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” However the phrase wò hǔ cáng lóng (卧虎藏龙) is used to describe talented individuals in hiding or concealed talent. In English one might simply say someone had “hidden talents”, though should that rise to fame one might talk of a “dark horse” and which in translates almost directly into Chinese as Hēimǎ (黑马, black or dark horse).