Dogs in ancient China

Dogs in ancient China

Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), known in Classical Chinese as quan (Chinese: ; pinyin: quǎn; Wade–Giles: ch'üan), played an important role in ancient Chinese society.



Recent examination of the genetic evidence by Carles Vila and others confirms that the progenitor of the domestic dog is the wolf (Canis lupus).[1] The suggested date of their domestication is about 100,000 BP. While accepting the wolf as the ancestor, paleontologists and archaeologists believe domestication came much later. A reconstruction by a joint team of researchers from China and Sweden postulates that humans may have domesticated dogs from wolves as recently as 15,000 years ago. They found that, while most dogs share a common gene pool, genetic diversity is highest in East Asia, suggesting dogs have been domesticated there the longest. Genetic research suggests that all domestic dogs worldwide may have originated from possibly three female wolves.

The dog, along with the pig, were the earliest animals domesticated in China. Remains of both animals have been found in the oldest Neolithic settlements of the Yangshao (circa 4000 BC) and Hemudu (circa 5000 BC) cultures. Canine remains similar to the Dingo have been found in some early graves excavated in northern China.

Tests on neolothic dog bones show similarities between dogs from this era and modern-day Japanese dogs, especially the shiba inu.[2]

Dogs as ceremonial sacrifice

According to Bruno Schindler, the origin of using dogs as sacrificial animals dates back to a primitive cult in honour of a dog-shaped god of vegetation whose worship later became amalgamated with that of Shang Di, the reigning deity of the Shang pantheon.

Systematic excavation of Shang tombs around Anyang since 1928 have revealed a large number of animal and human sacrifices. There was hardly a tomb or a building consecrated without the sacrifice of a dog. At one site, Xiaotong, the bones of a total of 825 human victims, 15 horses, 10 oxen, 18 sheep and 35 dogs were unearthed. Dogs were usually buried wrapped in reed mats and sometimes in lacquer coffins. Small bells with clappers, called ling (鈴) have sometimes been found attached to the necks of dogs or horses. The fact that alone among domestic animals dogs and horses were buried demonstrates the importance of these two animals to ancient Chinese society. It's reflected in an idiom passed down to modern times: "to serve like a dog or a horse." (犬馬之勞).

Shang oracle bones mention questions concerning the whereabouts of lost dogs. They also refer to the ning (寧) rite during which a dog was dismembered to placate the four winds or honour the four directions. This sacrifice was carried over into Zhou times. The Er ya records a custom to dismember a dog to "bring the four winds to a halt." (止風). Other ceremonies involving dogs are mentioned in the Zhou li. In the nan (難) sacrifice to drive away pestilience, a dog was dismembered and his remains buried in front of the main gates of the capital. The ba (軷) sacrifice to ward off evil required the Son of Heaven, riding in a jade chariot, to crush a dog under the wheels of his carriage. The character ba gives a clue as to how the ceremony took place. It is written with the radical for chariot (車) and a phonetic element which originally meant an animal whose legs had been bound (发). It was the duty of a specially appointed official to supply a dog of one colour and without blemishes for the sacrifice. The blood of dogs were used for the swearing of covenants between nobles.

Towards the late fifth century BC, surrogates began to be used for sacrifice in lieu of real dogs. The Dao De Jing mentions the use of straw dogs as a metaphor:

     Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs;
     the sage is ruthless, and treats the people as straw dogs.[3]

However, the practice of burying actual dogs by no means died out. One Zhongshan royal mausoleum, for example, included two hunting dogs with gold and silver neck rings.

Later, clay figurines of dogs were buried in tombs. Large quantities of these sculptures have been unearthed from the Han dynasty onwards. Most show sickle-shaped tails not unlike the modern shiba inu or akita inu.

Dogs as food

Dogs, along with pigs, constituted the major source of animal protein in ancient China[citation needed]. "Dog butchers" (狗屠) was a specific (and lowly-regarded) profession. They are called "idle and untrustworthy" by Fan Ye. Dog butchers who rose to prominence include the strongman Zhu Hai, the musician Gao Jianli, and courtier Fan Kuai (all circa third century BC).

The ancient word for dog meat was ran (肰). Indeed, it was so common that the Old Chinese character meaning "to burn" or "to roast" showed dog meat on top of a fire (然).

The Zhou Li divides dogs into three categories: the tianquan (田犬) or watchdog, the feiquan (吠犬) or barking dog, and the shi-quan (食犬) or edible dog. With the exception of the liver every part of the animal was considered edible.

At the banquests of feudal lords a dish of dog's broth and glutinous rice was considered a great delicacy. For summer, dried fish fried in pungent dog's fat was thought to be cooling. When dog's meat was prepared as sacrificial meat it had first to be marinated in vinegar and pepper.

Dogs for hunting

Dogs were associated with hunting from very early times. Many words for hunting in the Chinese language are written with the radical for dog - for example, lie (獵: hunt), shou (狩: winter hunt), huo (獲: bird hunt).

The Shang kings recognised "Dog Officers" (犬) who were involved in hunting in a specific area beyond the royal domain. One oracle bone records: "If the king joins with Qin, the Dog Officer at Cheng, there will be no regrets and he will have no disasters."

There is one reference to dogs in the Shi Jing, China's earliest anthology of poetry:

     Dashing about is the crafty rabbit,
     But even a dumb dog can catch it.[4]

In the Warring States period, the kingdoms of Han and Yan were thought to produce the best hunting dogs.

Because of their importance and numbers, there was at Shanglin an "inspector of kennels" (狗監; goujian) who oversaw the raising and training of the hunting dogs for the Han court.

There is pictorial evidence from early Han tomb tiles of large dogs with collars in the typical pointing position - the body in a slightly crouching position, neck extended horiontally, and one forepaw being under and raised several inches above ground - standing before a flock of geese in flight and several running deer.[5]

Cultural perceptions

It is clear from the role of dogs in ceremony and as food that they were held in some esteem[citation needed]. Nevertheless, classical literature usually qualified dogs as hui treacherous, jiao crafty and si restless[citation needed]. The Quanrong (犬戎), literally "Dog nomad-tribe", were enemies of the settled civilizations from the time of the Zhou Dynasty onwards. The tribe claimed descendancy from two large white dogs and worshipped a totem in their honor.

The word for dog was sometimes used in human names. Sima Xiangru, for example, had the nickname Quanzi (犬子), meaning "pup".

Dogs in legend

According to ancient folk legends, solar eclipses take place because dogs in heaven eat the sun. In order to save the sun from demise, ancient people formed the habit of beating drums and gongs at the critical moment to drive away the dogs.

See also

  • Rhinoceroses in ancient China


  1. ^ J. A. Leonard, R. K. Wayne, J. Wheeler, R. Valadez, S. Guillén, C Vilà, (2002) "Ancient DNA evidence for Old World origin of New World dogs" Science 298: 1613-1616.
  2. ^ Nobuo Shigehara, Qi Guoqin, Hajime Komiya, Yuan Jing, "Morphological study of the ancient dogs from three neolithic sites in China" International Journal of Osteoarchaeology Vol. 8 Issue 1 (2008) pp. 11-22.
  3. ^ In Chinese: 天地不仁 以萬物為芻狗 聖人不仁 以百姓為芻狗. Chen Guying ed. Laozi zhu yi ji ping jie 老子注譯及評介 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1984) at 78. Incidentally the term "straw dogs" became the title of a book of philosophy by John Gray (Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals) and a 1971 film.
  4. ^ In Chinese: 躍躍毚兔 遇犬獲之. From Song 198, translated in Arthur Waley, The Book of Songs (New York: Grove Press, 1996) at 180.
  5. ^ Thomas T. Allsen, The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006) at 57.

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