The history of the lapdog in China: From Chang’an to Buckingham Palace

The diminutive Pekingese dog was first reported to have arrived on English shores after the Second Opium War in 1862. Queen Victoria herself was even given one such dog, named Looty, in 1865, giving rise to a surge in popularity for the breed among upper-class English women.

Zhou Fang: Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses (46x180) Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang

These dogs were seen to encompass China and were widely believed to have hailed from Dowager Empress Ci Xi’s 慈禧 (1835–1908) own imperial collection.

However, are these dogs actually Chinese in origin? While many dog enthusiasts have argued for the illustrious history of these dogs as being the favoured pets of kings and emperors since at least the Han 漢 dynasty (206 BC-220 CE), this topic has largely been overlooked by academics. My PhD thesis centres on tracing the origins and history of Chinese lapdogs in order to ascertain when and how such dogs became ‘imperial lapdogs.’

Evidence for lapdogs – that is to say small dogs kept purely for companionship and entertainment – can be traced back to the early Tang 唐 dynasty (618-907) when they suddenly appeared in official records as exotic gifts from abroad given in tribute to the Chinese emperor. By the 6th century, they began to appear in paintings and ceramics as the decorated diminutive pets of court women, and even appeared in manuscripts from the frontiers of China in the late 9th century. As the pets of women and, increasingly, children, lapdogs represented a stark change in accepted roles for dogs which were, until that time, used primarily for hunting and guarding.

One Tang dynasty tale in particular swells with similar sentiments many of us feel towards our own pets. Taiping guangji 太平廣記 (Extensive Records Assembled in the Taiping Era) tells of a Madam Lu whose beloved lapdog Huazi 花子 (Flowery) goes missing and is killed. Madam Lu dies soon after, but Huazi seeks out her owner in the afterlife and, now in human form, wants to repay the kindness she received from Madam Lu by extending her life. As a result, Madam Lu lives for another twenty years and buries the dog with the same funeral rites as
a child.
The association of such dogs with Chinese emperors can first be seen in the Northern Song 北宋 (960-1126) period, and as such I am deeply fascinated by the transitions and reconfigurations these diminutive dogs underwent to go from an exotic plaything of court women to an imperial lapdog deeply associated with Chinese culture and, eventually, even embodying China in a system close to ‘panda diplomacy’ under Ci Xi’s regency.

Clarifying the contradictions and assumptions prevalent in current publications not only illuminates the history of the lapdog in China’s imperial courts, but also serves as a window into the changing conceptualisation of dogs, animals, and exotics in medieval China. A truly cosmopolitan time, this period also saw increased trade of glassware, silverware, perfumes and incense, as well as the arrival of foreign peoples, practices and religions. Within this context, the antecedents to the modern Pekingese symbolise the complexity and cosmopolitanism of China’s history.
While these dogs were to become the imperial pets of later Chinese emperors and eventually the Pekingese breed we know today, when they first arrived in China from abroad they were instead truly a woman’s best friend.

Kelsey Granger (2012)
PhD Candidate

This article was first published in the autumn 2019 edition of Front Court.