Sarah Albee: Lion Dogs

From: Sarah Albee
October 17, 2012 at 05:08AM

They really can be pretty silly-looking, especially the ones you see in the dog shows with their hair all fluffed out. But the Pekingese, originally from China, is one of the most ancient breeds of dog, and it has a pretty fascinating history.

There are several Chinese legends about how the dog came to be; according to one, a lion fell in love with a marmoset, and Buddha agreed to shrink it down. They’re also known as “lion dogs.” Another legend is that the lion fell in love with a butterfly, and Buddha created the Pekingese so they could meet in the middle.

Going back thousands of years, the breed was the exclusive playmate of Chinese emperors. Palace eunuchs took care of them, and the dogs had their own luxurious gilded kennels. They were called “sleeve dogs,” because Chinese royalty could carry them in the sleeves of their robes.

In 1860, during the Opium Wars, English and French soldiers were ransacking the Imperial Palace in Beijing. The accounts vary, but according to one source*, an English soldier found five small, flat-faced dogs whose owner, an elderly aunt of the Emperor, had committed suicide. Before the palace was burned, he took them away to safety.

One of these dogs was presented to Queen Victoria, who, (according to the same source) “without apparent irony, christened the dog Looty.” Yeah, Looty. You can’t make this stuff up.

From that point on, Pekingese became a fashionable breed among wealthy people in the U.S. and England.

Meanwhile, in China, the breed fell from favor, and during Mao’s rule, all dogs were condemned as a bourgeois luxury.


* Dennison, Matthew. “Not just for christmas: Matthew Dennison extols the virtues of a rare but distinguished breed.” Spectator 3 Jan. 2009: 38. Gale World History In Context. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.
Other info from: FAMOUS DOG-MOTHER.: The Story of “Looty,” Which Was Brought from China In 1861. New York Times (1857-1922); Feb 25, 1912; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York
Images: Top photo By Pleple2000 (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Bottom Photo: Pekingese, 1903, via Wikimedia

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