Dictators Ride To and Fro Upon Tigers from Which They Dare Not Dismount

Winston Churchill? Harry Truman? Chinese Adage? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Anyone who was sitting atop a tiger would have a difficult time dismounting safely. Apparently, this scenario has been employed metaphorically by the political leaders Winston Churchill and Harry Truman. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1937 Winston Churchill delivered an address titled “Armistice—Or Peace?” He correctly perceived that political and military developments of that period were ominous, and emerging dictatorships were particularly dangerous. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Grim war-gods from remote ages have stalked upon the scene. International good faith; the public law of Europe; the greatest good of the greatest number; the ideal of a fertile, tolerant, progressive, demilitarized, infinitely varied society, is shattered. Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry.

Harry Truman also used this figurative language in a volume of his memoirs. Detailed information is given further below together with additional selected citations in chronological order.




The phrase “tiger by the tail” has been used to describe similar perilous dilemmas. The following non-metaphorical instance appeared in a Boston, Massachusetts periodical called “The Carpet-Bag: For the Amusement of the Reader” in 1852: 2

Question for a Western Debating Society.—“If a man has a tiger by the tail, which would be the best course for his personal safety—to hold on, or to let go!”—Ex.

In 1872 “A Vocabulary and Hand-Book of the Chinese Language” presented a germane expression in Chinese with an English translation: 3

it is impossible for him who rides a tiger to dismount.

In 1873 the “Chinese-English Dictionary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy” listed the following expressions: 4

… to bind a tiger is easy, the trouble is to let him loose …
he who rides a tiger cannot dismount

In 1874 “A Syllabic Dictionary of the Chinese Language” included the following: 5

he who rides a tiger has need of great skill to dismount.

In 1937 Winston Churchill crafted a cogent statement about dictators by using a pre-existing metaphorical framework as noted previously:

Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount.

In 1938 Frederick Macquisten speaking in the U.K. Parliament also applied the metaphor to dictators while mentioning the Chinese provenance: 6

Even Dictators are in a very delicate position and have in the main to take their people with them. We have had only one specimen of them in this country. We had Cromwell, and we were very glad to get rid of him. He endeavoured, by more or less violent measures, to suppress the liberties of the people, and they were very glad to go back to the old regime. It is very difficult for these people to get off their position of sitting on the throne. They are in the position of the Chinese, who say in their proverb, “Who rides on the back of a tiger can never dismount.”

In 1939 the Lord Teynham stated the following in the U.K. House of Lords: 7

There is an old Chinese proverb which says no man can dismount from the back of a tiger. I think there is little doubt that economic pressure in Germany was the driving force that pushed the Germans into Slovakia.

In 1956 Harry Truman published the second volume of his memoirs subtitled “Years of Trial and Hope”. He wrote about the difficulty of being the U.S. President: 8

Within the first few months I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed. The fantastically crowded nine months of 1945 taught me that a President either is constantly on top of events or, if he hesitates, events will soon be on top of him. I never felt that I could let up for a single moment.

In 1966 Kay Halle published the important reference “Irrepressible Churchill: A Treasury of Winston Churchill’s Wit”. She included an entry for the tiger quotation and pointed to the collection “Step By Step 1936-1939” which contained the speech “Armistice—Or Peace?” 9

In 1995 Ralph Keyes published the valuable reference “The Wit & Wisdom of Harry Truman” which included the tiger quotation and pointed to the second volume of Truman’s memoirs. 10

In conclusion, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman both employed the tiger riding metaphor in 1937 and 1956 respectively. However, the figurative language was already in use in China.

Image Notes: Picture of two tigers from mitzy123 at Pixabay. Winston Churchill and the ‘V’ for victory sign circa 1943 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to George Thompson whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to discussants Joel S. Berson and Charles C. Doyle.)

Notes:

  1. 1939 Copyright, Step By Step 1936-1939 by Winston S. Churchill, Essay: Armistice—Or Peace?, Date: November 11, 1937, Start Page 157, Quote Page 159, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1852 March 14, The Carpet-Bag: For the Amusement of the Reader, Volume 1, Number 50, The Tiger at a Pic-Nic, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1872, A Vocabulary and Hand-Book of the Chinese Language: Romanized in the Mandarin Dialect, In Two Volumes Comprised in Three Parts by Rev. Justus Doolittle, Volume 2 (Parts 2 and 3), Section: Metaphorical and Proverbial Sentences, Quote Page 573, Column 1, Rozario, Marcal and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1873, Chinese-English Dictionary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy with the Principal Variations of the Chang-chew and Chin-chew Dialects by Carstairs Douglas, Quote Page 139, Column 2, Trubner & Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1874, A Syllabic Dictionary of the Chinese Language Arranged According to the Wu-Fang Yuen Yin, Quote Page 345, Column 1, American Presbyterian Mission Press, Shanghai. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1938 November 2, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Commons, Anglo-Italian Agreement, Speaking: Mr. Frederick Macquisten (Argyll), HC Deb, volume 340, cc207-336. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on Feb 7 2017) link
  7. 1939 March 20, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Lords Sitting, Czecho-Slovakia, Speaking: Lord Teynham, HL Deb, volume 112, cc298-354. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on Feb 7 2017) link
  8. 1956, Memoirs: Volume 2: Years of Trial and Hope by Harry S. Truman, Chapter 1, Quote Page 1, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1966, Irrepressible Churchill: A Treasury of Winston Churchill’s Wit by Kay Halle, Page 136, World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York. (Verified on paper)
  10. 1995, The Wit & Wisdom of Harry Truman edited by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 56, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)