Here is my work on translating and commenting on Chapter Five of the Tao Te Ching.You can see the earlier chapters here.

Chapter Five is partly controversial for its inclusion of the image of "straw dogs" which came to public attention through the 1971 film of the same name: Straw Dogs is a psychological thriller starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George, directed by Sam Peckinpah. It is also controversial among scholars because it is at the centre of various debates about the origin, coherence, and meaning of the Tao Te Ching. Was it written by one man or several? Is it a compilation of pre-existing fragments or a single work that includes some quotes from earlier works? How was it used in the earliest period of its history? And so on.

Here is the text, in Chinese and English. The English is my own translation after consulting a number of sources.

5. 老 子:  「道 德 經」 :  第 五 章

天 地 不 仁 , 以 萬 物 為 芻 狗 ﹔
聖 人 不 仁 , 以 百 姓 為 芻 狗 。

天 地 之 間 , 其 猶 橐 籥 乎 。
虛 而 不 屈 , 動 而 愈 出 。

多 言 數 窮 , 不 如 守 中 。

Heaven and Earth are not “benevolent”.
They treat the myriad things as acting as straw dogs
The sage is not “benevolent”.
He treats the people as acting as straw dogs

The space between Heaven and Earth - isn't it like a bagpipe?
Empty yet unfailing. The more you work it the more comes out.

Fancy speech adds nothing,
Not as if defending something central.


Coherence Problems
It seems quite possible that the sections of this chapter did not originally go together. Recent researches suggest, in fact, that Tao te Ching may have originally begun with what is now chapter 25 and that the middle lines of this chapter 5 may have followed on directly from 25. The beginning and end of this chapter would then belong elsewhere, or might not be part of the original book at all. Another possibility is that what we now have a one book was compiled from two previous books plus a variety of other short oddments. In any case, it can now be argued that the three sections that make up this “chapter” are not connected with each other in any original or thematic way. However, somebody at some stage did decide to put them together and presumably had some reason for doing so. D.C.Lau has suggested that the  first two sections were put together simply because both contain the phrase "Heaven and Earth". However, the third does not so this is possible, but not totally convincing.

The Straw Dogs Section
The image of straw dogs is universally agreed to be taken from traditional ritual in which dogs made of straw were used. Presumably this custom substituted for what had once been the sacrifice of live animals. Interpretation of the passage depends on how we take the character 仁 and what we think that the use of straw dogs implies. 仁 is a key term in Confucianism, meaning benevolent or humane. The character is made up of the symbols for a man and the number two, hence being about right conduct between two or more people. Thus 不 仁  can be construed as “ruthless”. This is not an impossible translation, though ruthlessness does not seem to be a normal characteristic of sages. One can take it that the sage needs to have a degree of objectivity that avoids being caught up in emotion, but the passage still strikes one as out of kilter with much of the rest of the work.

Most commentators take the meaning as being that straw dogs are used in ceremonies and then cast away (ruthlessly) when no longer needed. However, there is another possibility which is that the use of straw dogs was actually an act of compassion, sparing real dogs from slaughter.

Now Taoism is generally somewhat opposed to Confucianism regarding it as unnatural and hypocritical which is why I have put quotation marks around the word “benevolence” in my translation. So are there other possible readings of the meaning? I think so. If the sage is not “benevolent”, what is he? Perhaps, naturally sympathetic. If the people act as straw dogs, what does this mean? Perhaps that they are caught up in a situation that they have no control over. This is something that a modern person can also sympathise with. Get up in the morning, put on appropriate clothes, go to the office or factory, follow all the procedures, go home on the commuter train... is this not the life of a straw dog? Yet the common man or woman feels that they have little or no choice in the matter. Life is a big ritual from which the real animals have long since disappeared.

If we take it this way, it gives a much more compassionate picture of the sage, or good man, as somebody who sympathises with the fact that people are much of the time in the position of straw dogs, liable to be sacrificed, and therefore victims of a social system dominated by ritual. Taken this way, the verse constitutes a rather withering criticism of Confucian formalism – and, anachronistically, of much of modern society. To me this seems to ring more true to the Tao Te book as a whole and Taoist philosophy in general.

Bellows or Bagpipe
In the current stage of research, out of the material of this chapter, the middle lines have the best claim to antiquity, but this is not certain. The fact that something appears in the earliest version that we have got definitely tells us that this verse is at least that old, but it does not tell us whether the other parts were added later or whether the early version is just an extract from a more complete work.

In all the other translations that I have seen the image for these middle lines is a bellows. My researches suggest that it may have been a musical instrument of the bagpipe type. The Chinese characters suggest a bag open at both ends connected to a pipe or pipes. This clearly could be either bellows or bagpipe. It does not matter very much because the moral would be the same, though perhaps I could argue that Heaven and Earth producing music is more suitable and more Taoistic than it producing air to stoke a fire, but there is no way of clinching the point.

We can see that the underlying idea is that of a fertile void and that as you use it so you get something back. So this void is reliable.

Fancy Speech
This final section could be a stand alone saying, but it does not really look like one. It looks more like a final comment that could have been added later by whoever put the first two verses together. It certainly expresses a distinctly Taoist attitude, namely that things should be plain, simple and straight-forward and not wrapped up in high-sounding rhetoric nor fenced around with rules and regulations.

Another View
So if we defy the speculations and conventions of modern scholarship and take it for a minute that to somebody at some stage in its development this chapter in three verses did make sense as a single unit, what can we say for it?

If the play on the word benevolence in the first and third lines is indeed ironic, then there is a direct connection with the last verse. The meaning could be taken as...

The sage is not “benevolent”.
He feels real compassion for people as victims of the rituals of formal society
Fancy speech adds nothing,
Not as if defending something central.

and this would be perfectly coherent.

The middle section could then be understood as amplifying the 'not “benevolent”' idea. Heaven and Earth are not following a rule that “Thou shalt be benevolent”, they are simply by their natural capacity for allowing space and freedom, making it possible for harmony (music) to emerge from the ordinary efforts of ordinary people.

Perhaps this is too contrived, or perhaps not, but I don't think that we should despair of seeing deep meaning here, and a meaning of a naturally compassionate and not ruthless nature.

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Replies to This Discussion

This chapter does seem a bit disjointed compared to other chapters. Perhaps this character at end of first line "bu ren" which you have translated as "benevolent" could be translated as "impartial". And perhaps "straw dogs" is a metaphor pointing to our mortality, that we should not be too attached to our physical bodies, as they will end up in the compost as food for worms eventually. I like your change of bellows to bag pipes. The sense I have of this is that the tao is always generative and it is, like breath contracting and expanding at all levels, in the Cosmos as well as the biosphere. The last character usually means "center" or "middle" but in this context might also be translated as silence. So the sense is that when you see how chaotic society can be and hear the constant noise of the media and are flooded by too much information, there is no room left for reflection or wisdom so come back to the simplicity of silence. 

Yes, interesting possibilities.  Translating as "impartial" gives a hint of a different meaning, of course, but there is no clue to what the partiality of heaven and earth is in this chapter, except, as you say, that they accept the inevitability of dissolution.  There is a certain implication of ruthlessness, I think, so saying the powers are not benevolent does make some sense.



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