Chinese dogs: an overview

We look at the histories of China’s main dog breeds



Recent studies indicate that dogs first split from wolves and evolved into Canis lupus familiaris in China. Most of the world’s oldest breeds are in fact Chinese – even if some aren’t globally recognised as such. Here is a list of the breeds – recognised and unrecognised – that have Chinese origins:

The Tang Dog

The origins of the Tang Dog are lost in the mists of time. Indeed if recent research from the Institute of Zoology in Kunming is correct it might be the world’s first domestic dog – having evolved from the grey wolf some 33,000 years ago in southern China. Tangs got their name from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) when China’s trading with the rest of the world began to surge. That’s when owners started to distinguish that the dogs they had at home were uniquely Chinese breeds. As a side note, the Chinese word for a Chinatown is ‘Tang People’s Street’, because that was the period of history when many Chinese began to appear in other countries.

Tangs are not formally recognised as a breed but the Chinese Kennel Union issues a guide to their appearance: a dense coat, a ‘wedge shaped mouth’, brown or black colouring with white flecks, a crinkled forehead and almond-shaped eyes. They are about 50cm tall at the shoulder and weigh about 20 kilos. China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huangdi is said to have owned one.

Shar Pei

The Chowchow and the Shar Pei

At first glance these two dogs don’t appear related. The first is known for its thick fur and black tongue, and the second for its short hair and facial folds. But these two recognised breeds were both bred from the Tang – the Shar Pei for warmer climates and fighting, and the Chowchow for colder weather and herding.

Chowchows began appearing in Europe in the 1800s. Famous examples include Jofi – a cinnamon coloured female who used to sit in on Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis sessions. Shar Peis didn’t become popular outside China till much later. Up till 1949 they were still kept and bred as fighting dogs in southern China. But the incoming Communist Party government banned dog fighting pits and imposed taxes on the animals. Supporters of the breed in Hong Kong began smuggling animals out. About 200 Shar Peis were sent to the US in 1973. The breed’s name means Sand Skin in reference to its short, rough fur.

The Xian Hound or Xi Gou

Another ancient breed, the Xian hound looks a lot like a Saluki or Persian greyhound. They are a sight hound which means they chase and capture their prey. Like other sight hounds they function best on open, flat land. They are usually found on the loess plateau in Shaanxi. Their numbers have dwindled as the government has restricted peoples’ right to hunt. Skeletons belonging to this type of dog have been found in royal graves, often wearing precious collars. The Tang Dynasty mausoleum at Qianling in Shaanxi also contains murals depicting what appear to be Xian hounds. The China Kennel Union classifies them as ‘rare’ and is trying to bring the breed back.

Kunming Wolf Dog

The Kunming Wolf Dog and the Laizhou Red

The Kunming Wolf Dog and the Laizhou Red are far newer creations, bred from German shepherds and other, regional wolf dogs.

The Kunming was formally recognised in 1988 and today is widely used by the Chinese police and military.

The Laizhou – which is also mixed with the Great Dane – was first created in Shandong in the 1970s. Its deep russet fur led some dealers to rename it the Red Soviet dog to help boost sales. In this era it was the dog to own and prices rose above Rmb10,000 per animal. But as opening and reform deepened and an influx of other breeds became available the Laizhou quickly fell out of favour. Sadly, many of the dogs were sold for meat. The China Kennel Union is (again) trying to restore interest in the breed.

Chongqing Dog

The Chongqing or Chuandong hound

This fearless, muscular guard dog has been around since at least the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) because clay figurines depicting the breed have been found in tombs from that period. Specific to the southwestern province of Sichuan, its coat is the colour of the spicy red chilli peppers so widely used in the local cuisine. Other distinguishing features include a broad face, a short muzzle, upright triangular ears and a thin muscular tail known as a bamboo tail. Its overall physique is similar to a Pitbull’s. The breed began receiving protection in the 1970s but their numbers are still small. The Chongqing Dog Club estimates there are only 200 left.

Shi Tzu

Shi Tzu, Lhasa Apsos, Pekingese, Tibetan Spaniels, Imperials, Pugs and the Japanese Chin

Now we come to China’s toy dogs – the largest category of recognised breeds. They are all related, but which breed came first is sometimes a bone of contention.

Often a Tibetan breed has very close relations to an inland Chinese breed or breeds. The first pairing is Lhasa Apsos and Shi Tzu or Chrysanthemum dogs. Lhasas were bred in Tibet to be a companion animal for monks. The word “apso” means bearded and they have long hair and a droopy ‘moustache’. They were bred but were never sold and only ever given away as gifts. Genetic studies show Lhasas are most closely related to Shi Tzu, whose name means lion dog. In fact in Chinese the Lhasa, the Shi Tzu and the Pekingese have all been referred to as “lion dogs”.

The Shi Tzu appears to have been introduced to inland China from Tibet during the Tang Dynasty. By the seventeenth century they were royal dogs at the Manchu court in Beijing.

Lhasa Apsos

Lhasas began arriving in Europe in the mid-1800s. Shi Tzus, which are small and slightly flatter-nosed than Lhasas, didn’t arrive till the 1930s.

Today some international kennel clubs also recognise a miniature version of the Shi Tzu called the Imperial.


The third component to this story is the Pekingese – a long haired, snub-nosed lap dog beloved of Chinese royals going right back to Qin Shi Huangdi. Some suggest the Shi Tzu was created by mixing Pekingese with Lhasa Apsos. But as ever there is no clarity. Just like the two other breeds, Pekingese were kept by royalty and it was a crime for ordinary people to keep or raise them. Pekingese are also called “sleeve dogs” because nobles used to carry them round in their wide sleeves to help keep warm.

Japanese Chin

That brings us to the Tibetan Spaniel and Japanese Chin. The first thing to say is that the Tibetan Spaniel is not a spaniel in the true sense, they evolved much later. And despite its name, the Japanese Chin originated in China – but later became the dog of Japanese royalty. The German academic Ludwig von Schulmuth maintains these two dogs and the Pekingese evolved from the ‘Gobi Desert Kitchen Midden Dog’, a scavenger, which evolved into the ‘Small Soft-Coated Drop-Eared Hunting Dog’. Recent genetic studies appear to back that up.


Lastly, the Pug. Its origins are unclear and it arrived in Europe at least 300 years before the other Chinese breeds – perhaps suggesting Pugs were considered less valuable than the other royal dogs. However, the snub nosed lap dogs have a long lineage with similar dogs being mentioned as far back as 220 BC. Their English name comes from the Latin word for “clenched fist” – probably a reference to their foreshortened faces. In 1572 pugs became the official dog of the House of Orange. A Pug travelled with William and Mary when they left the Netherlands to accept the throne of England in 1688.

The Xiasi Quan

White, wire-haired, medium-sized and stockily built, the Xiasi looks a lot like a pale Shar Pei with longer fur. They are native to Guizhou where they have been raised by the Miao ethnic minority for thousands of years. Their colouring is particularly distinctive – they always have cream or white fur and a pale pink nose. There are currently only 270 pure bred Xiasi left.

Chinese Crested

Chinese Crested

This is where it get particularly controversial, because the Chinese Crested probably has it origins in Africa or Central America. While the China Kennel Union doesn’t claim it as a Chinese breed, world kennel club organisation the Fédération Cynologique Internationale does list China as the dog’s country of origin. Other explanations for why the largely hairless canine is called “Chinese” is that the quiff of fur on its head looks like an official headdress from the Qing Dynasty.

Tibetan Terrier

Tibetan Terrier

The Tibetan Terrier is also a misnomer. Though they are about the size of terriers – medium bodied – and shaggy. They are again much older. They are called Tsang Apso in Tibetan and were given the name Tibetan Terrier by European travelers. They are considered excellent companion dogs and they were used for retrieving things on mountains, being smaller than Tibetan Mastiffs and bigger than a Tibetan Spaniel.

Tibetan Mastiff

Tibetan Mastiff

There was a time, not too long ago, when Tibetan Mastiffs were the most expensive dogs in the world. In 2011 a coal baron from northern China spent more than Rmb10 million ($1.27 million) on an 11 month-old called Hong Dong or Big Splash.

But much of the demand was speculative – people buying them as investments and status symbols, not as pets. As the bubble burst, tens of thousands of these large, often aggressive animals have been sold for meat or released onto the streets. The problem is at its worst in areas such as Qinghai province, where Buddhist beliefs mean locals prefer not to kill the animals. As a result over 80,000 dogs are roaming free looking for food.

A documentary called Abandoned Tibetan Mastiff released last year shows people being bitten and older residents saying they fear going for walks because they fear being attacked – the dogs are often abandoned near monasteries because it is believed the monks will take care of them. In late 2016, one stray killed an eight year-old girl in Nagqian County as she left the house to use the outside bathroom. The Mastiffs also attack livestock – including yaks – and local wildlife such as snow leopards.

Life in the wild is a long way from their heyday during the Mastiff boom, when prize specimens would be fed delicacies such as a sea cucumber and abalone in an apparent bid to make them more valuable.

Because the dogs were valued for their heft, many were fed steroids and some were given plastic surgery to separate their skin from facial muscles so their cheeks would look more saggy – another coveted feature. Of course the Mastiff – one of the world’s oldest and hardiest dogs – is used to living outside. For thousands of years Tibetan nomads have used them to guard their herds against wolves. But as the nomadic way of life comes to an end there’s less and less call for these strong, fearless and incredibly independent animals.

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