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the kanji for straw dog
figure 1  


straw dog. (chú gou in Pinyinreference 1) 1. Ceremonial props of no inherent value.

These straw dogs are not the same as straw men, though there are some similarities. Straw mensometimes called straw dogs as wellare rhetorical devices, weak stand-ins for disliked ideas which are then easily knocked down. These straw dogs were ceremonial props in an ancient Chinese ritual. As R.B. Blakney says in his translation of the Tao Tê Ching, the phrase “straw dogs” is “an easily recognizable metaphor for something worthless.”reference 2 You may or may not agree with the “easily” part of this statement. Some translators have elected to render this concept in more abstract terms. Because these “dogs” were treated with great reverence until the ritual was over and then discarded with indifference, Chang Chung-yuan simply uses that very word, “indifference,” in his translation.reference 3 However, Blakney thinks that the Chinese sacrificed real dogs at one time. “The straw dog was an economy,” he states unequivocally.reference 4 Since some real dogs took the fall here, I think its best to avoid euphemisms. Besides, even without the historical background, I agree that the concept is “easily” understood, at least in the context of the particular verse of the Tao. I include a modified version of my favorite translation of that section, the words of Whitter Bynner as he understood Lao Tzu:

Nature, immune as to a sacrifice of straw dogs,
Faces the decay of its fruits.
A sound person, immune as to a sacrifice of straw dogs,
Faces the passing of human generations.
The universe, like a bellows,
Is always emptying, always full:
The more it yields, the more it holds.
We come to our wit's end arguing about it
And had better meet it at the marrow.reference 5

1. Harbaugh, Rick. 2001. Chinese Characters and Culture. Accessed Sep 8 2001 from



2. Lao tzu, and Raymond Bernard Blakney. 1955. The Way of Life. A New Translation of the Tao Tê Ching, A Mentor Book, M129. New York: New American Library. 57.

3. Lao tzu, and Chung-Yuan Chang. 1977. Tao, a New Way of Thinking : A Translation of the Tao Te Ching, with an Introduction and Commentaries. New York: Harper & Row. 15.

4. Lao tzu and Blakney.




5. Lao tzu, and Witter Bynner. 1944. The Way of Life According to Laotzu; an American Version by Witter Bynner. New York: Perigee Books. 34.

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2. An incohate idea that may or may not develop fully.

A straw dog is a sample, intended to try something out, not to clearly define. The straw dog sorta-kinda looks like a dog, but no one expects it to fetch anything.reference 6 Not exactly trying it on the dog or running it up the flag pole to see who salutes, more like a rough prototype of the flag that you may one day run up a flag pole.

6. Schmaltz, David. 2007. Straw Dogs. Walla Walla See Eye Initiative. Blogger. Accessed Jan 13 2009 from http:// 2007 /06/ straw-dogs.html.
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figure 2
Now, I don't actually believe that this is a commonly bandied about metaphor in U.S. society, indeed, it's rather esoteric. However, the phrase was used by Sam Peckinpah as the name for his screen adaptation of the novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm by Gordon Williams. Its meaning in this context is probably linked to the straw man fallacy rather than the straw dogs of Asian liturgy.

About the illustrations: Figure 1 is digitally collaged by the author. Figure 2 shows a girl saluting a flag. © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation.

Figure 3 is excerpted from a still from the movie.reference 7

7. Peckinpah, Sam. G. Williams and D. Z. Goodman, writers. 1971. Straw Dogs. United States: Twentieth Century-Fox Video.117 min.
see also: straw dog fallacy
cf: try it on the dog
Last updated: January 13, 2009
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