A Loyal Companion and Much More: Dogs in Ancient China
It is generally accepted that the dog is one of the earliest animals that was domesticated by human beings. In today’s society, the dog is regarded by many as ‘man’s best friend’. This view has been shared by many ancient societies as well, including the ancient Chinese. In ancient Chinese society, the dog played a number of important roles, not only in the everyday life of the ancient Chinese, but also in their mythology.
Dogs in the Chinese Zodiac
The dog was honored by the Chinese for thousands of years as one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. People born under this sign are said to possess such character traits as loyalty, trustworthiness, and kindness, qualities often associated with the dog. For instance, there is a Chinese saying which highlights the faithfulness of the dog, ‘狗不嫌家贫，儿不嫌母丑’, which translates as ‘a dog would not mind if its master is poor, a son would not mind if his mother is ugly.’
A dog statue in the Kowloon Walled City Park in Kowloon City, Hong Kong. (Public Domain) The dog is one of the 12 Chinese Zodiac signs.
The respect for dogs is perhaps more pronounced in the mythologies of China’s ethnic groups. For instance, the Yao and She ethnic groups worship a dog by the name of Panhu as their ancestor. According to one of their myths, Panhu belonged to the legendary Emperor Ku. Once, when the emperor got into trouble during an invasion, Panhu slew the enemy general, and brought his head back. As a reward, Panhu was given the emperor’s daughter as his wife. The dog carried the princess to the mountains in southern China, where they had many children. Thus, the Yao and She ethnic groups have a taboo against eating dog meat.
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Statue of a dog from the Later Han Dynasty. (Public Domain)
Dogs as a Food Source and in Sacrifice
While the subject is controversial, dog meat has been considered by some Chinese as a delicacy. According to early Chinese written records, dogs served not only as hunting companions and guardians, but were also used in rituals and sacrifices, and were even a source of meat. It has been pointed out, for instance, that during the Shang Dynasty, dog sacrifices marked the conclusion of the construction of every palace, tomb, or royal building. Additionally, dogs were once killed and buried in front of homes, or before the city gates in order to ward off evil or bad luck. Over time, however, as the practice of sacrificing dogs became less popular, straw dogs were used instead.
As a food source, dogs were served at ceremonial dinners, and even eaten by kings. Many believed that the consumption of fish fried in dog fat is said to help reduce heat during the summer. Additionally, it has been claimed that the emperor ate dog meat during the autumn, as it was believed to reduce fatigue.
A Song dynasty painting of an outdoor banquet, possibly a remake of a Tang dynasty original. (Public Domain)
Not Always Man’s Best Friend
Although the dog has been honored, and was a useful animal in ancient Chinese society, this animal did have some negative connotations attached to it as well. For example, according to a myth explaining the occurrence of eclipses, there is a creature known as the Tiangou (literally meaning ‘Heavenly Dog’), who occasionally gets hungry, and devours the moon/sun. The creature’s arch-enemy is Zhang Xian, the Chinese god of childbirth who fires arrows at the Tiangou to ward him off.
Zhang Xian fires arrows at Tiangou in a painting from the Late Qing Dynasty (end of the 19th Century) (Public Domain)
In addition, there are a number of Chinese sayings which portray the dog negatively. For instance, the saying, ‘狗嘴里吐不出象牙’, which translates as ‘ivory will / does not come out of a dog’s mouth’, means that one should not expect evil people to utter anything good. Another saying, ‘狗咬吕洞宾，不识好人心’, translates as ‘the dog that bites Lu Dongbin (one of the eight Immortals’), does not know the heart of a good man’. This is often used to describe those who repay the kindness of others with evil.
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The Eight Immortals crossing the Sea.(Project Gutenberg) Lu Dongbin (at the back of the boat in yellow) is the subject of one negative saying that includes dogs.
To conclude, the dog is viewed both positively and negatively in ancient China and they had numerous roles. As an animal revered by the Chinese, it has a place amongst the 12 Chinese zodiacs. Yet, the dog is also depicted negatively, most notably in certain Chinese sayings. In everyday life, the Chinese dog played a similar role to its counterparts in other parts of the ancient role – as hunting companions and guardians. Nevertheless, dogs in China were also used in rituals and sacrifices, and were even consumed as food by their human masters.
In recent years, China has come under fire for its poor treatment of dogs. For example, in the Yulin Dog Meat Festival, an annual celebration in Yulin, Guangxi, it is estimated that 10,000 – 15,000 dogs are trapped, confined to small cages, butchered, and then eaten. Animal welfare groups both within China and abroad, have been campaigning to end the cruel festivities in which dogs face the harshest and most brutal of treatments.
Featured image: Artwork depicting a Tibetan Mastiff from the Qing Dynasty. Photo source: Public Domain.
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