History Lessons

China’s most famous canine is…

It goes back to 1894…


Sunny with Captain Deng Shichang

The most famous dog in contemporary Chinese history is Taiyang, or Sunny. A fierce canine from Taiwan, Sunny was on board the Zhiyuan when the Chinese warship was sunk in 1894 during an epic sea battle with Japan.

Sunny is also probably the dog most commemorated by statues. A number of these feature across northeastern China to honour the Zhiyuan’s captain Deng Shichang, whose nautical sacrifice was made more tragic because of his fiercely loyal dog.

According to historical accounts Deng ordered his ship to ram the Japanese flagship – after he’d depleted all his shells – but was hit by a torpedo. As the British-built warship went down, the captain, in true maritime tradition, refused to be rescued, and Sunny refused to abandon Deng. Both were drowned in the Yellow Sea.

Only a handful of the 246 men survived. One of them was Philo McGiffen. The American, who worked as a junior sailor on the Zhiyuan, later blamed Deng’s drowning on his dog. His version of events, which were popularised by various English-language publications such as Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, suggested Deng was clinging onto a piece of debris but was unable to keep hold when Sunny swam over to climb on him.

McGiffen’s reliability as a witness, nevertheless, was diminished by his own claim to have been “the commander” of the Zhiyuan. Even historians from the Japanese side have disagreed with McGiffen and concurred with Chinese versions that Deng fought to his last bullet before going down with his ship and his dog.

A shipwreck discovered in 2015 was confirmed to be the remains of the Zhiyuan. Chinese archaeologists have so far retrieved more than 100 fragments from the sunken vessel.

Historians are trying to figure out if the Zhiyuan’s shells were stuffed with sand rather than explosives (a popular theory as to why some Chinese shells were ineffective in the battle is that corrupt officials siphoned off military funds by buying dud weapons). This might explain why practically the whole Chinese fleet was sunk that day – along with a very loyal dog.

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