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A history of the Pekingese dog, the Imperial companion

By Alisa Chau 21 June 2021

Header image courtesy of Vianney Cahen (via Unsplash)

Mane of a lion, nose of a monkey, feet of a Tibetan yak. Squint, and the Pekingese dog (北京狗; bak1 ging1 gau2) at once resembles a strangely adorable cryptid that fuses together the fluffiest and cutest traits of several wild animal species. Bred by Chinese royalty to act as devoted court companions, the bushy maned Pekingese dog proudly bears a regal history that stretches back thousands of years. Read on for a look into its curious history.

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Origins of the Pekingese dog

Pekingese dogs bear striking likenesses towards lions, and that is no coincidence. By order of the monarchs, the pups were intentionally reared as a shrunken-down version of the savanna kings in order to be kept as pets. It is believed that the pedigree can trace its lineage back to early Maltese species that were brought to China by Muslim traders during approximately 200 BC.

One of the Chinese versions of its namesake (獅子狗; si1 ji2 gau2) literally translates to “lion dog.” This title references an old tale of a lion and marmoset that fell in love, but who were unable to be together because of their dangerously differing sizes, prompting them to ask the Buddha for help. The deity consents and scales down the great beast, but retains its majestic strength and big heart. From this unlikely couple descends the Pekingese, as well as the stone guardian lions (石獅; sek6 si1) erected to stand before imperial buildings.

Dynastic Dogs: Han dynasty and onwards

Although Asiatic lions were believed to once roam around on the loose, they were more or less extinct in China by the time the Han dynasty was instated in 206 BC. Still, the beast remained heavily prolific and highly esteemed in many Buddhist myths and texts as a symbol of royalty and leadership—perhaps a spillover from the influence of Indian sects within Buddhism, since lions were still present there. As a symbol, lions referenced the monarchic roots of Prince Siddartha, the former name of Gautama Buddha.

Bronze effigies of guardian lions (銅獅; tung4 si1) served as signs of the Pekingese’s eminence amongst the sphere of authority. In fact, Emperor Ling (漢靈帝; hon3 ling4 dai3) had even conferred a scholarly title to his favourite dog, to the chagrin of his ministers and civil officials. It is rumoured that the Chinese term “dog officer” (狗官; gau2 gun1), referring to a brown-nosing official, is derived from this bizarre order.

By the era of the Tang dynasty in 618 BC, Pekes had been condensed down to a size so tiny that they could fit inside the sleeves of a garment, transforming them into a full-fledged “sleeve dog” that maxed out at only six pounds. Some historical accounts describe them as ferocious surprises that were literally “up one’s sleeve,” akin to a protective gambit that could be used to scare off any attackers.

At the time, nobody outside the Imperial court was allowed to own a Pekingese, and kidnapping or maiming one would result in the death penalty. Obsessions ran deep, and Emperor Ming (唐玄宗; tong4 yun4 jung1) even requested for his Peke to be buried by his side, in hopes that the two could reincarnate together.

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China’s esteemed furball had a strong foothold in art from that time, and was often featured as a subject in paintings and illustrations. Even the Mongols were charmed, as evidenced in the ample amount of art pieces from the Yuan dynasty that starred the Pekingese dog as a focal point.

It was rumoured that whenever the emperor entered a room, he would be flanked by two barking Pekingese dogs that signalled his arrival, and followed by two that tailgated his long robes. In the lap of luxury, these pups had a better life than the average human of the time (and perhaps of today as well), dining on the highest grade of rice and meat whilst sleeping in marble kennels lined with the softest of silk. Within the palace, there were even squads of eunuch servants assigned to attend to the Pekingese’s every need.

Chinoiserie Canine Obsession: Qing dynasty & Western breeding

Established in 1368, the Ming dynasty that followed saw the relocation of the royal palace to Beijing by the Yongle Emperor (永樂帝; wing5 lok6 dai3), hence the term “Pekingese.” However, it is a name that was thrust upon the regal breed of dogs by the West in reference to the Pekingese’s homeland, an imperialist term used to mark and amplify its “exotic” roots to curious Westerners. It was not until 1860 that the West had their first point of contact with the Pekingese dog. To set the scene, it was during the Second Opium War, when French and British troops looted the Old Summer Palace, which, at the time, housed the clan of Emperor Xianfeng (咸豐帝; haam4 fung1 dai3).

Although the emperor had managed to escape, an elderly aunt of his was not so lucky. Rather than surrendering to foreign forces, she decided to take her own life, surrounded by her five beloved Pekes. Upon discovering the canines amongst the carnage, the British invaders stole the dogs as “prizes of war” and sent them to the United Kingdom. One such “souvenir” was gifted to Queen Victoria, who named her new, unique treasure “Looty.”

At the time of the Boxer Rebellion in the 1890s, a relationship that linked the East to the West began to form, and several more Pekingese were transported to America as a gift from the Empress Dowager Cixi as a gift to the JP Morgan himself and to Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, who named her fluffy companion “Manchu.”

Several litters of Pekingese were also brought over by smugglers, eventually leading to the breed becoming officially registered with the American Kennel Club in 1906, where the lapdog quickly became a frontrunner of pedigree shows. Influenced by the fascination with Chinoiserie at the turn of the century, its popularity spread. In fact, one in three of the dogs that survived the sinking of the Titanic was a Pekingese named “Sun Yat-sen!”

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However, back in China, there was a great shift that rocked the whole country. The fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 meant the overthrow of the upper sect, and the Forbidden City was thrown into turmoil. That also meant the Pekingese dogs were left in the hands of Chinese Nationalists, who perceived them as symbols of the ruling class they were working to overturn. It was the moment that marked the Pekingese’s fall from grace, and thus, the Pekes were survived by their Western kennels, transforming into a part of ordinary families everywhere.

Peke’s perfect dog care

As a lapdog categorised under the “toy group,” there are some special considerations to be aware of when taking care of your Pekingese. Their smaller stature means they require less intensive levels of physical activity, which is great for apartment owners and less mobile individuals, but it also means that they need to be handled more delicately. You can also expect to pay regular visits to the groomers, or at least investing in a good fur-care kit, as their double-layered coat calls for routine upkeep during its seasonal shedding.

Purebred dogs tend to be prone to chronic disease in general, and there is a risk of ocular diseases as well as respiratory diseases due to the Pekingese’s bulged eyes and flat nose. The latter characteristic is also responsible for causing constant wheezing, and potentially snoring issues with this particular breed. Whilst their elegant, rolling gait is something cute to coo at, it is, in fact, a result of their slight bow-leggedness, a characteristic that was bred into them to keep the dogs from wandering too far from the court and escaping.

Given all these concerns, and despite the undeniable cuteness of the Pekingese pup, it must be said that choosing to adopt dogs from a mixed heritage is the recommended route to take. Breeding in general is a practice that causes immense strain on a dog’s health and often leads to cruel practices.

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Alisa Chau

Junior editor

Always down for an adventure, Alisa’s general approach to life (and anything, really) is to “just go with the flow.” She believes that the most unforgettable moments are the most spontaneous ones. One thing she will always be certain of, however, is her love for the band My Chemical Romance and potato-based food.

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