I knew the phrase straw dogs only as the title of the 1971 Sam Peckinpah movie. Now, thanks to Benjamin Zimmer at Language Log, I know the origin, a passage in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs;
the sage is ruthless, and treats the people as straw dogs.

Zimmer continues:

D.C. Lau’s translation of Tao Te Ching (Penguin Classics edition) explains in a footnote that “straw dogs were treated with the greatest deference before they were used as an offering, only to be discarded and trampled upon as soon as they had served their purpose.”

Any Sinologists out there know of other classic and/or interesting passages of Chinese literature that use this phrase? And what is the phrase in Chinese? (And, for extra credit, was the original Chinese phrase used as the title of the Peckinpah movie in Hong Kong or Taiwan—I assume it wasn’t shown in mainland China—or was a new title invented to avoid whatever distractions the original phrase might involve?)


  1. John Emerson says

    Zimmer / Lau’s explanation traces back to Huai Nan Tzu, ca. 150 BC — about 40 years after the oldest extant complete text, but probably considerably longer than that after the compilation of the book. The existence of his note suggests that the phrase was already not idiomatic. The commentator Wang Pi, ca. 200 AD, interprets the phrase as “straw and dogs”, which IIRC just means “two kinds of undignified, common things”. It seems to me that Wang Pi was either being original or reporting a different tradition; it seems unlikely that he was ignorant of the HNT interpretation. I could be wrong though. IIRC, the Ho-shang Kung commentary is quite far-fetched, but I’m not sure and I can’t look it up.
    In short, this has been a difficult passage for 2150 years, though I think that HNT’s interpretation is correct.
    Shakespeare, q. Thomas Hardy: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.”

  2. Ian Myles Slater says

    As a non-Sinologist, I pulled some volumes off the shelf, compared their explanations, and came back to find a more satisfactory answer from John Emerson. However, what I found may be of interest.
    Rudolf G. Wagner’s “A Chinese Reading of the Daodejing: Wang Bi’s Commentary on the Laozi with Critical Text and Translation” (SUNY, 2003) has a long note on *chu gou,* pages 429-430. Wagner traces the sacrificial-ritual reading of the phrase to the Tianyun chapter of Zhuangzi (in Watson’s translation, “The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu,” Columbia, 1968, chapter 14, “The Turning of Heaven,” pages 158-159).
    Wagner reports that “the Xiang Er, Wang Bi, and Heshang gong commentaries all agree to read it as “grass and dogs,” although his extended quotation of the Xiang Er passage seems to show that the idea of “straw dogs” was already current, and called for a homiletic gloss. (The custom is attributed to a symbolic admonition by Huangdi, foolishly copied without regard to the message.) Stephen Bokenkamp’s translation (as the Xiang’er Commentary) in “Early Daoist Scriptures” (UC Press, 1997, page 82) in fact reads “straw dogs” throughout the passage.
    I will leave it to Sinologists to untangle this! (And, for the rest of us, if you are as confused as I was at one point: Wang Bi = Wang Pi; Hsiang Erh = Xiang Er / Xiang’er; and Heshang gong = Ho-shang Kung.)

  3. I understood “paper tiger” to have exactly the same meaning – something valued before a ceremony, but destroyed afterwards, thus something whose power to cause fright is temporary.

  4. The translation of the title of the movie Straw Dogs, disappointingly, mentions neither straw nor dogs. Apparently in Hong Kong it was 大丈夫 or “Real Man”, and in Taiwan it was 我不是弱者, “I am not a weakling.” It’s known as 稻草狗 in the mainland now, a word-for-word translation, though not the same phrase as in Laozi – it’s adapted from 稻草人, “scarecrow”.

  5. Thanks, zhwj, you definitely get the full extra credit! But could you also provide the Laozi phrase in the original characters, just so my life will be complete?

  6. Not zhwj, but if it will complete your life…
    Note that the word translated “ruthless” is ??, ? being “not” or “without” and ? being that “jin” that Confucious was always banging on about. I’m not enough of a Sinologist to comment on whether that’s meaningful or just an unremarkable vocab thing though.

  7. Well, that was embarrassing. Trying one more time in Firefox:
    (And “Confucious” is of course the UK spelling of “Confucius”…)

  8. caffeind says

    Looks like the Sinorama article does use 芻 in the quote, but the more familiar 草 in the explanation.

  9. Thanks, guys!

  10. In this context it’s also worth noting that the title of the book _Cold Mountain_ comes from the Tang poet 寒山. There’s a quote from the one of this poems at the beginning of the book. Also, there is at least one passage in the book that is lifted from Laozi and put in the mind of Ruby. It reads, “In such a stable world as she envisioned, some might live many years hearing the bay of a distant neighbor’s dog and yet never venture out far enough from their own fields to see…”
    This is from Laozi’s 鄰國相望,雞犬之聲相聞,民至老死,不相往來。

  11. Oops, forgot to mention that in Taiwan at least, they translated the film and book title not into the 寒山 from whence it originally came, but as 冷山.

  12. Ron Tipping says

    It was my understanding the the farm hands in Britain were called “Straw Dogs” and it is interesting that someone referred to it as something that was someone whose power to create fright was only temporary. I think the nickname might have spawned that interpretation rather than the other way around. Why does it need to be so mysterious. It is just a nickname.

  13. It isn’t badly made, but what’s the point of rebooting Straw Dogs, if the only object is to repackage it, and make it marginally less offensive?

  14. Colin Reinagel says

    As someone who has not studied linguistics, but came here to continue my study of the The Book of the Way, the intetpretation of seeing all 10,000 things as an object to be celebrated, loved, and cared after, but only until its time is over paralles many other statements in the book such as (not verbatum) “when the master finishes their work, it is forgotton. That is why it lasts forever.” – as well as – “People often fail when they are very near sucess so take as much care at the end as at the beginning.” The book talks a lot about being careful, loving, patient, but also detached and knowing everything is ultimately temporary because it will all eventually return to the Dao. Based on my ideas and what I’ve read here the idea of a ritual item to be treated with great homage and resepct, then something to be discarded, destroyed and rejoined to the earth seems the most consitent interpretation. Im so grateful for your work because I can appreciate this incredible book even more for it.

  15. You should check out John Emerson’s blog Epigrues, where he analyzes the Daodejing in detail.

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