A Dog's Tale

by Ben Schutz 6. June 2012 20:08

The expression 狗尾续貂 (gou3 wei3 xu4 diao1) literally means substituting a dog's tail for sable and comes from a story about a fierce and complex power struggle in the court of the Western Jin Dynasty (AD 265-316).

When Sima Yan became the first emperor of the Western Jin dynasty, he bestowed titles and territories upon a large number of nobles believing that this would shore-up his powerbase. However, his belief was mistaken. The decision led to factional strife, and after Sima Yan died in AD 290, the power struggled escalated out of control.

Finally, in AD 300, Sima Lun (the general of the royal army) led a successful coup to became the new ruler. However, Sima Lun ultimately followed the same round to ruin as his predecessor Sima Yan. In order to shore-up his popular support, Sima Lun offered titles to several thousand of his followers. As a result, the court quickly ran out of it supply of official seals needed for certificates of appointment as well as the sable used to decorate the hats of the royal officers.

To solve this problem, the emperor decided to use wooden plates to replace the metal seals and dog's tails as a substitute for the sable. People began to poke fun at the emperor (by coining the phrase substituting a dog's tail for sable) and he soon became a laughing stock. Needless to say, the Western Jin dynasty was short-lived.

Today, this Chinese idiom is used to criticize those who create an inferior sequel to a recognised masterpiece. In English, there are many idioms based on dogs - for example, as sick as a dog, work like a dog, fight like cat and dog and go to the dogs - but I have been unable to think of one that has an equivalent meaning to the Chinese idiom 狗尾续貂 (gou3 wei3 xu4 diao1).

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