Modern China is still a long way from being a major country for purebred dogs. There were no dog shows in China until the country started to open up to the rest of the world in the 1990s, and there is still no truly national Chinese kennel club.
For much of the 1900s the Communist regime condemned pet dogs as a decadent, bourgeois concept, even going so far as outlawing dog ownership. Before the overthrow of the last emperor in 1911, conditions were very different, but since contact with the outside world had been kept to a minimum for centuries, very little is still known in the West about dogs in China prior to the mid-1800s, when the country was forcibly opened up during the Opium Wars.
It is clear, however, that purebred, beautiful dogs were as highly prized in ancient China as anywhere else in the world. There is abundant evidence of this in Chinese art and literature, nowhere more clearly than in the famous “Ten Prized Dogs” series of silk scroll paintings, executed in the 1700s by the artist Lang Shih-ning at the court of Emperor Qianlong.
So who were these dogs? A correspondent in Shanghai, Gu Zhongguang, explains that they had been presented to the emperor in the Chinese Year of the Dog as tributes by local tribes and officials. There is an inscription on each painting — in Chinese, Mongolian and Manchu — which Mr. Gu has endeavored to translate, although he warns that the names of the dogs are “charming, but very difficult to translate accurately.”
Several of the dogs are obviously Sighthounds, closely resembling today’s Salukis and Greyhounds (or Whippets; size is difficult to ascertain). There is, in fact, a type of dog in China today that looks like a purebred Saluki, but is claimed as a native breed, the Xiquan, which originates from the Shaanxi province in central China. (Another spelling I have seen is Xigou, pronounced “see-gow,” which reportedly means “slender dog.”) One of the dogs is unquestionably a very typical Tibetan Mastiff; one looks like an early Great Dane, and one perhaps most closely resembles a kind of Foxhound.
Numerous other paintings of clearly highly bred dogs, especially Sighthounds, abound in Chinese art. As early as in the 6th century A.D. the Emperor Kao Wei owned a dog that very much resembled a present-day Saluki which he called Ch’ih Hu, “Red Tiger.” The dog was fed the choicest meat and rice and, in true Saluki style, rode horseback on a mat placed before the Emperor’s saddle.
The painter of the “Ten Prized Dogs,” Lang Shih-ning, signed each painting in the lower right-hand corner. He did not paint alone, however. Another Chinese court painter completed the background plants, which accounts for the mix of painting styles.
Lang Shih-ning’s experience was one of those larger-than-life stories that could be turned into a movie, and his life was, in fact, made into a 2005 TV series (“Palace Artist in China”).
Emperor Qianlong (Ch’ien-lung) was the fourth emperor of the Qing dynasty; most of his more than 60-year-long rule is regarded as an era of peace, prosperity and cultural achievement. He was a great supporter of the arts, favored Castiglione in every possible way, and is said to have taken particular pleasure in his dogs as well as in his dog paintings.
To see the original “Ten Prized Dogs” paintings, you have to travel to the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan. Even that may not be sufficient: the museum can only display 60,000 works of art at any one time and has so many objects that, although they switch collections every three months, it takes 12 years to display all of them.
Castiglione’s animal paintings have had a major influence on China’s best-known contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei. (His incarceration for political reasons in China earlier this year made front-page news worldwide.) Weiwei’s “Zodiac project” of 12 large bronze animal heads, currently touring the US (New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Pittsburgh, Washington), is a recreation of a similar group designed by Castiglione circa 1750 for the Old Summer Palace outside Beijing.
Most of the animal heads were destroyed when the Summer Palace was looted by French and British troops in 1860. When the only two remaining bronze heads were offered (for approximately $10 million each) at the Yves Saint Laurent auction in Paris in 2009, the Chinese government tried to stop the sale, because the bronzes had been taken illegally from the palace in 1860.