Posts Tagged ‘Pekingese history’

From Country Life In America (December 1916):

Ch. Chu Jen of Toddington. Exhibited at New York in 1916.

Both of these dogs clearly resemble Pekingese, but they lack many of the extreme features that we associate with this breed today.

No one said that Pekes should resemble pariah dogs.

They just need to get closer to normal and healthy within their peculiar conformation.

To return to dogs of this type would be a major step forward in terms of health and welfare.

And yes, one can still find Pekes like these dogs. Just not in the show ring.

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This is Ah Cum. Well, this is him as a taxidermied specimen. He was imported to Great Britain from China in 1896 to breed with the very small population of pekes that were living in that country. A strain had been developed from those pekes that had been stolen and smuggled out of China following the Second Opium War. He weighed 5 pounds:

He resembles a smaller version of the Tibetan spaniel. Tibetan spaniels are not spaniels at all. They are actually very close relatives of the Pekingese.They likely derived from a similar landrace that was once quite common in East Asia. It is actually that dog that is quite ancient, and the modern peke–and several other breeds– likely descend from it.

The Empress Dowager Cixi is responsible for  taking that landrace and making the palace dogs of the Forbidden City a little bit different and a little bit smaller from this greater brachycephalic East Asian dog type. She actually had her own standard, which was augmented by regular drownings of puppies that didn’t meet her criteria and by breaking the muzzles of puppies so that they would grow even shorter.

But once Westerners got our mitts on these dogs, watch out out. The muzzle got even shorter. The head much more massive. The legs grew more crooked. And the coat touched the ground.

It became the dog about which I once wrote this little doggerel:

Weak-in-the-knees pekingese

The dog of the Chinese

And if you  so please

You can hear it wheeze.

Remember, though, that the party line is the West has always improved that dogs bred by the savages in foreign lands.

And if you can’t see it, you must be blind. Or have a logic that differs from Western pekingese fanciers.

But when a breed has no purpose other than to be cuddled and exhibited, it can evolve any sort of bizarre conformation.

That’s what happened to the small, long-haired, brachycephalic East Asian dogs that were bred in Forbidden City.

But once it got out China and met with the Western fancy’s very scientific methods of dog breeding, it became extreme very quickly.

If a dog has no metric beyond what it looks like, then it can look like anything that its breeder so desire.  It is comparatively easy to breed dogs to look a certain way.  You just have to select for it, and within a few generations, you’ll have it.

It just took a few decades to get from the Ah Cum type of peke to the modern Western dog. Dogs evolve very rapidly in type, especially if the selection pressures are aided by a closed registry and the use of just a few select sires.

It is really an amazing thing. Modern pekes in the West are not only so exaggerated in appearance, they are now typically quite a bit larger than the Ah Cum type. Many exceed 10 pounds in weight, and the largest individuals can be 14 or15 pounds– three times the weight of Ah Cum.

I don’t know how anyone can say that this dog has been improved through its experience with the Western fancy.

The dog has become a cartoon.

Whatever it once was has been lost to the whims and caprices of human vanity.






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The Dowager Empress Cixi wrote  a standard for the breed.

The Chinese wanted to turn their dogs into lions.

Westerners then turned them into animate cushions.

This piece tells us the conditions that allowed the modern fancy to develop.

The Industrial Revolution and the subsequent democratization made it possible for people to have both wealth and leisure time to spend money on breeding dogs with very little real economic utility.

The Pekingese was the dog of the Chinese nobility. It was bred to look like a lion and to be so short-legged that it would never run off.

Sound similar to the old Chinese tradition of foot-binding?

Women had their feet bound so that they would never be able to work.

It was a perverse way for wealthy men to show their love for their daughters.

I’ll make sure you’re deformed, so you’ll never have to work. And that will show the world that I have enough money to keep a wife who can sit around the house all day and be pretty.

In a sexist culture that viewed women as baby-makers and as workhorses, causing deformity was seen as both a term of endearment and a symbol of one’s economic success and power.

Of course, we in the West are no different when it comes to these customs.

Why else do we breed dogs that are so horribly deformed that they cannot breathe, run, mate, or whelp properly?

They are symbols of our own wealth and power. They are also symbols of our technological advancement, for they show our prowess in things like AI and C-section techniques.

We are advanced enough and wealthy enough that we don’t have to have all of our dogs working. In fact, very few of our dogs actually work at anything.

So we can breed all sorts of dogs for symbolic purposes.

Why do we do this?

It all goes back to Veblen.


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A taxidermied Happa dog.

A taxidermied Happa dog.

 Small short-faced dogs may be among the oldest forms of dog. These dogs have been found in kitchen middens in the Gobi desert, where ancient people threw their scraps and waste. The dogs have been carbon-dated to as early as 10,000 years ago.  DNA analysis has confirmed that East Asia is the ancestral home of domestic dogs, and other studies have suggested that the Pekingese is one of the oldest breeds.

Now, this finding is kind of interesting. At one time, we thought that dogs were bred for hunting when they were first domesticated. It is now more likely that as dogs evolved from those proto-wolves (the ancestors of modern wolves and dogs) that selection for small size was a very strong impulse. A little dog can live well on feces and bones, if that  is all that is available, and it is unlikely than anyone fed them. However, those that were particularly small or cute may have gotten some choice meat, simply because some of these ancient humans would have been moved by those characteristics. We are profoundly visual species. The peke got its start as a resourceful scavenger that used its “cuteness” as an adaptation to scavenging off of humans.

The dogs eventually became common pets in China and throughout East Asia. Dogs of this type were found in Chinese towns, some with short coats, others with long hair, and some with shih-tzu type hair. When Westerners began to penetrate China, some of the short-haired dogs were imported to Portugal (one of the first European counties to trade there).

These short-haired dogs were then traded in the Low Countries, where they became popular among the growing merchant class there. Those merchants would declare their independence from Spain, and their leader was William of Orange. The Spanish decided to assassinate him. They would have succeeded had William’s pug not alerted his bodyguards, barking that the assassins. The bodyguards dispatched the Spanish agents, thereby saving the Dutch Republican cause. These dogs would evolve into the pug, and because of their association with the Dutch, the dog was referred to as the Dutch Pug.

In China, though, the long-haired dogs  (Pekes and Shi Tzu) were kept in the Forbidden City, while the short-haired “Happa dogs”  could be found outside the city in the homes of lower ranking nobles. The Dowager Empress Cixi kept a pack of these dogs. The dogs had actually been bred from that common little flat-faced dog into a dog that resembled the lion.

The Empress even had a breed standard:

Let the Lion Dog be small; let it wear the swelling cape of dignity around its neck; let it display the billowing standard of pomp above its back.
So shall it remain – but if it dies, remember thou too art mortal
Let its face be black; let its forefront be shaggy; let its forehead be straight and low.
Let it be dainty in its food so that it shall be known as an Imperial dog by its fastidiousness; sharks fins and curlew livers and the breasts of quails, on these may it be fed; and for drink give it the tea that is brewed from the spring buds of the shrub that groweth in the province of Hankow, or the milk of the antelopes that pasture in the Imperial parks.
Let its eyes be large and luminous; let its ears be set like the sails of war junk; let its nose be like that of the monkey god of the Hindus.
Let its forelegs be bent; so that it shall not desire to wander far, or leave the Imperial precincts.
Let its body be shaped like that of a hunting lion spying for its prey.
Let it be lively that it may afford entertainment by its gambols; let it be timid that it may not involve itself in danger; let it be domestic in its habits that it may live in amity with the other beasts, fishes or birds that find protection in the Imperial Palace.
Let its feet be tufted with plentiful hair that its footfall may be soundless and for its standard of pomp let it rival the whick of the Tibetans’ yak, which is flourished to protect the imperial litter from flying insects.
Let it venerate its ancestors and deposit offerings in the canine cemetery of the Forbidden City on each new moon.
And for its colour, let it be that of the lion – a golden sable, to be carried in the sleeve of a yellow robe; or the colour of a red bear, or a black and white bear, or striped like a dragon, so that there may be dogs appropriate to every costume in the Imperial wardrobe.
Let it comport itself with dignity; let it learn to bite the foreign devils instantly.
Thus shall it preserve its integrity and self-respect; and for the day of sickness let it be anointed with the clarified fat of the legs of a sacred leopard, and give it to drink a throstle’s eggshell full of the juice of the custard apple in which has been dissolved three pinches of shredded rhinoceros horn, and apply it to piebald leeches.


Pekes were originally bred to resemble the Buddhist lion and were called Foo dogs.

Pekes were originally bred to resemble the Buddhist lion and were called Foo dogs.



When the Forbidden City was stormed during the Second Opium War, and several of these dogs were sent to Britain. My favorite dog of the ones sent out of the Forbidden City was named “Looty,” and he was given to Queen Victoria.

The dog show was becoming an upper class obsession in Britain, and the rising middle classes were joining them. The Peke, as this rare species from Asia, became a major fad in the dog world. Soon people were breeding Pekes for even more arbitrary standards than Empress Cixi’s.

The Tibetan breeds that are related to the Peke and the Shi Tzu, the Tibetan spaniel are related to these lines. However, the Lhasa Apso and Tibetan terrier are not that closely related the Shi-Tzu, which is really closely related to the Pug and Peke. The Tibetan spanel actually looks like the first Pekes that were imported to the West.

The Japanese Chin was related to these dogs, but it was owned by the rulers of Korea and given as tribute to the Japanese in the period from 700-1000 CE. These dogs were kept by the nobility, too, and were bred smaller than the Chinese dogs. These dogs were also kept in bird cages, which makes sense for dogs that have no real purpose other than pets.

All of these dogs hit the West at a time when dog shows were becoming major events, and these dogs became the stars in these early eugenics competitions.

Queen Victoria had her Pekes, but  Empress Alexandra of Russia had her “Japanese spaniels” (Chin). These were crossed into the once popular English toy spaniels, which originally looked a bit like a Phalene (a drop-eared Papillon), and within a few generations turned that breed into a brachycephalic one.

These dogs have come a long way from the resourceful scavengers they once were. They are quite removed from that animal. The caprice and whims of humans, which had once given them a leg up on other dogs around those ancient camps, may be their ultimate downfall. Modern man has bred these dogs into such flat-faced and crook-legged animals that the number of health problems they suffer from is already hig. And it unfortunately continues to grow every year.

After all of these years of breeding for “cuteness,” this is what the peke now looks like:

Today's Pekingese, now even more exaggerated than it was under Empress Cixi.

Today's Pekingese, now even more exaggerated than it was under Empress Cixi.

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