The Pekingese dog, often affectionately called the "Peke" by western pet-owners, has a long and illustrious history in China. Nobody knows quite when the Chinese first began to breed the Pekingese, but they have been associated with the emperors of China since at least the 700s CE.
According to an oft-repeated legend, long ago a lion fell in love with a marmoset. The disparity in their sizes made this an impossible love, so the heart-sore lion asked Ah Chu, the protector of animals, to shrink him down to the size of a marmoset so that the two animals could marry. Only his heart remained its original size. From this union, the Pekingese dog (or Fu Lin - Lion Dog) was born.
This charming legend reflects the courage and fierce temperament of the little Pekingese dog. The fact that such a "long ago, in the mists of time" story exists about the breed also points to its antiquity. In fact, DNA studies reveal that Pekingese dogs are among the closest, genetically, to wolves. Although they do not physically resemble wolves, due to intense artificial selection by generations of human keepers, Pekingese are among the least changed breeds of dogs at the level of their DNA. This supports the idea that they are in fact a very ancient breed.
Lion Dogs of the Han Court:
A more realistic theory on the origins of the Pekingese dog states that they were bred in the Chinese imperial court, perhaps as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) period. Stanley Coren advocates this early date in The Pawprints of History: Dogs and the Course of Human Events, and ties the development of the Peke to the introduction of Buddhism into China.
Actual Asiatic lions once roamed parts of China, thousands of years ago, but they had been extinct for millennia by the time of the Han Dynasty. Lions are included in many Buddhist myths and stories, since they are present in India; Chinese listeners, however, had only highly stylized carvings of lions to guide them in picturing these beasts. In the end, the Chinese concept of a lion resembled a dog more than anything, and the Tibetan mastiff, the Lhasa Apso and the Pekingese all were bred to resemble this re-imagined creature rather than authentic big cats.
According to Coren, the Chinese emperors of the Han Dynasty wanted to replicate the Buddha's experience of taming a wild lion, which symbolized passion and aggression. Buddha's tame lion would "follow at his heels like a faithful dog," according to the legend. In a somewhat circular story, then, the Han emperors bred a dog to make it look like a lion - a lion that acted like a dog. Coren reports, however, that the emperors had already created a small but fierce lap spaniel, forerunner of the Pekingese, and that some courtier simply pointed out that the dogs looked like small lions.
The perfect Lion Dog had a flattened face, large eyes, short and sometimes bowed legs, a relatively long body, a mane-like ruff of fur around the neck and a tufted tail. Despite its toy-like appearance, the Pekingese retains a rather wolf-like personality; these dogs were bred for their looks, and evidently their imperial masters appreciated the Lion Dogs' dominant behavior and made no effort to breed out that trait.
The little dogs seem to have taken their honored position to heart, and many emperors delighted in their furry counterparts. Coren states that Emperor Lingdi of Han (ruled 168 - 189 CE) conferred a scholarly title on his favorite Lion Dog, making that dog a member of the nobility, and starting a centuries-long trend of honoring imperial dogs with noble rank.
Tang Dynasty Imperial Dogs:
By the Tang Dynasty, this fascination with Lion Dogs was so great that Emperor Ming (c. 715 CE) even called his small white Lion Dog one of his wives - much to the irritation of his human courtiers.
Certainly by Tang Dynasty times (618 - 907 CE), the Pekingese dog was thoroughly aristocratic. Nobody outside of the imperial palace, then located in Chang'an (Xi'an) rather than Peking (Beijing), was allowed to own or breed the dog. If an ordinary person happened to cross paths with a Lion Dog, he or she had to bow, just as with human members of the court.
During this era, the palace also began to breed tinier and tinier lion dogs. The smallest, perhaps only six pounds in weight, were called "Sleeve Dogs," because their owners could carry the tiny creatures around concealed in the billowing sleeves of their silk robes.
Dogs of the Yuan Dynasty:
When the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan established the Yuan Dynasty in China, he adopted a number of Chinese cultural practices. Evidently, the keeping of Lion Dogs was one of them. Artwork from the Yuan era portrays fairly realistic Lion Dogs in ink drawings and in figurines of bronze or clay. The Mongols were known for their love of horses, of course, but in order to rule China, the Yuan Emperors developed an appreciation for these tinier imperial creatures.
Ethnic-Han Chinese rulers took the throne again in 1368 with the start of the Ming Dynasty. These changes did not diminish the Lion Dogs' position at court, however. Indeed, Ming art also shows an appreciation for the imperial dogs, which could legitimately be called "Pekingese" after the Yongle Emperor permanently moved the capital to Peking (now Beijing).
Pekingese Dogs During the Qing Era and After:
When the Manchu or Qing Dynasty overthrew the Ming in 1644, once more the Lion Dogs survived. Documentation on them is scarce for much of the era, until the time of the Empress Dowager Cixi (or Tzu Hsi). She was dotingly fond of Pekingese dogs, and during her rapprochement with westerners after the Boxer Rebellion, she gave Pekes as gifts to some European and American visitors. The empress herself had one particular favorite named Shadza, which means "Fool."
Under the Dowager Empress's rule, and perhaps long before, the Forbidden City had marble kennels lined with silk cushions for the Pekingese dogs to sleep in. The animals got the highest grade rice and meat for their meals, and had teams of eunuchs to look after and bathe them.
When the Qing Dynasty fell in 1911, the emperors' pampered dogs became targets of Chinese nationalist rage. Few survived the sacking of the Forbidden City. However, the breed lived on because of Cixi's gifts to the westerners - as souvenirs of a vanished world, the Pekingese became a favorite lapdog and show-dog in both Great Britain and the United States in the early to mid-twentieth century.
Today, you can occasionally spot a Pekingese dog in China. Of course, under Communist rule, they are no longer reserved for the imperial family - ordinary people are free to own them. The dogs themselves do not seem to realize that they have been demoted from imperial status, however. They still carry themselves with a pride and attitude that would be quite familiar, no doubt, to Emperor Lingdi of the Han Dynasty.
Cheang, Sarah. "Women, Pets, and Imperialism: The British Pekingese Dog and Nostalgia for Old China," Journal of British Studies, Vol. 45, No. 2 (April 2006), pp. 359-387.
Clutton-Brock, Juliet. A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Conway, D.J. Magickal, Mystical Creatures, Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2001.
Coren, Stanley. The Pawprints of History: Dogs and the Course of Human Events, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.
Hale, Rachael. Dogs: 101 Adorable Breeds, New York: Andrews McMeel, 2008.