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History of the Shar Pei

Ancient Shar Pei
Ancient Shar Pei
Matgo Law

Pronounced 'shah pay', this dog's name means 'sandy paper' or 'sand skin' and should have a bristle feel to its coat. Affectionately called 'Mr. Wrinkles', the Shar Pei has been likened to a dog wearing very baggy clothes.

Regardless of whether one is referring to one dog or to several, the word is still the same 'Shar Pei' since the Chinese language has no plurals.


Known in China for the past two thousand years, the Shar Pei is a hunting and watchdog, originating in a region near Guangzhou (Canton) in the village of Dai Lek. It is interesting to note that the Chinese call any dog which is used to protect property or people as 'fighting dogs' unlike the UK or US designation as 'working dogs'. These dogs were, however, at one time bred and used mainly by the working class Chinese and gamblers for the fighting ring. This was, fortunately for the breed, eventually ceased after other fighting breeds were brought into China from the West. Prior to the mid-1960's there were sufficient numbers of the traditional type of Shar Pei in Hong Kong. Because Hong Kong is the first and only place of origin from which these dogs were originally shipped to other parts of the world, the Hong Kong Kennel Club has a natural desire to protect and promote this breed.


The Chinese describe the Shar Pei head as "Wo Lo Tau" or "Calabash"-shaped head. The wrinkles on the forehead form a marking which closely resembles the Chinese symbol for Longevity. While the marking of 'Longevity' appears in the large cat family such as tigers and lions, it only appears in the mastiff breeds of canines. The mouth when viewed from the top should either be in the shape of a roundish roof tile, commonly known as "Roof Tile Mouth" or should be shaped with a wide jaw in the shape of a toad's mouth, known appropriately as "Toad Mouth." Both types of mouths were developed to give the dog a firm bite. Since 1949, the traditional Shar Pei has lost its size, becoming smaller in stature. The Cantonese still prefer the larger size dog which they call "High Head Big Horse”


Early History:

Over 2,000 years ago the Shar Pei was prized as the all-purpose, general utility dog kept by peasant farmers in the southern Provinces of China, bordering the South China Sea. The Shar Pei was used for hunting wild boar, and protecting the livestock from predators, but mostly he served as guardian of his master's home. He was bred for intelligence, for strength, and for the valued "Warrior Scowl" that increased his menacing appearance and helped to frighten the barbarian thieves, against whom the farmers were always at war.


The Shar Pei was used at one time for dogfighting in the gambler's haven in one of the villages, Dai Lek, near Canton in Southern China's Kwantung Province. Because the Shar Pei had strength, stamina and determination, they were frequent favoured contestants. Given alcohol and other stimulants, the dogs were pitted against each other as a popular sport. Fortunately for the breed, some of the gamblers and fight promoters brought in dogs from the west, including Mastiffs, Bulldogs and other similar breeds. They selected dogs with vicious temperaments and crossbred these dogs to produce bigger, stronger and more ferocious dogs. Since the native

Shar Pei proved to be no match for these fiercely aggressive dogs, breeding of Shar Pei was neglected and their numbers decreased rapidly.


The following excerpt from the book The Chinese Shar Pei by Paul Strand and Eve C. Olsen, in 1980

has this to say about the history of the Shar Pei:


"During the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220), artistic fired-clay statues and statuettes depicting the life of the era were very popular, and the dog was a favourite subject. Fortunately, many of these Han statuettes have survived to this day and may be seen in such places as the Louvre and the British Museum. One such statuette is on display in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Avery Brundage Collection, as the "Chinese Tomb Dog." And there are others in private collections. Anyone who harbours a tendency to doubt the antiquity of the Shar Pei has but to examine the Han dog figurines. These dogs portray, unmistakably, the same breed we know today. Although then not quite so wrinkled as now, the rugged, foursquare look, the tail wheeled over the back, and the celebrated warrior scowl are lifelike to an amazing degree.


It is interesting to note that the time of the Han Dynasty in China corresponds rather closely to the time of the Roman Empire in Europe. Under the Romans, European dogs were often trained as fighters, matched either against others of their kind or against bears and lions. But in China there is no record of the dogs of the Han Dynasty ever being used in such fashion.


Jean Yu, Orientalist of Washington, D. C., has researched ancient Chinese manuscripts and insists that the Sharp Pei's original purpose was for use as hunting dogs and that their principal quarry was the mongoose. Nevertheless, because of their strength and appearance, these dogs were introduced to a combat role at a later time in history. The village of Dah Let, in Southern China's Kwangtung Province near Canton, was at one time known as a gambler's haven. Betting on dog fights was a popular pastime and the Han dog became a favourite contestant. Dah Let dog breeders, anxious to improve the breed's ability and its chances in the ring, set out to perfect some of the main characteristics we know today. The bristly coat was developed to make it distasteful in an opponent's mouth; the very loose skin to enable a dog to turn and twist in the grasp of his opponent, making it difficult for the enemy to get to the Sharp-Pei's flesh; and their curved canine teeth to provide a hook-like hold on

the antagonist. He possessed stamina and determination, but before a battle, the canine contender was given wine and stimulating drugs to heighten his aggressiveness.


But while these developments were taking place in our breed, other fight promoters and gamblers were proceeding along a different line. Mastiffs, Bulldogs, and other breeds were brought to China from the West, crossbred, and selected for vicious temperament. The native fighting Han dog of Dah Let proved to be no match for these bigger, stronger, more ferocious dogs. No longer in demand, their breeding was neglected and the numbers of the Dah Let fighting dogs rapidly decreased. But what was to be the near fatal blow to the breed occurred when the Chinese Communists came to power. One of their first moves was to impose such a heavy tax on dogs that only the extremely wealthy could afford the luxury of canine companionship. And then a further edict declared dogs a "decadent bourgeois luxury" and banned dog breeding. In 1947 the tax on dogs that still survived was sharply increased. As a result of all this Communist Party pressure, by 1950 only scattered specimens of the noble dog of the Han Dynasty were left. From isolated South China villages, fanciers in Macao (Portuguese China) and Hong Kong were able to secure an occasional specimen, but the breed was on the brink of being lost forever."


The South African Shar Pei Clubs have this to say about the re-emergence of the Shar Pei:


"Just how close the Shar Pei came to losing its battle for survival is mirrored in the May 1971 issue of the magazine "DOGS" (published in New York). This issue carried an article on rare breeds and included a picture of a Shar Pei, describing it as "possibly the last surviving specimen of the breed". The article came close to the truth and if a copy of the magazine had not accidentally fallen into the hands of a Mr. Matgo Law in Hong Kong, the Shar Pei might well have been lost forever.


Matgo Law, a young, energetic Hong Kong dog fancier owned several Shar Pei. He and Mr. Chung Ching, another fancier, had already conceived the idea of a rescue operation. They feared that Hong Kong might someday become a part of the People's Republic of China and that the wholesale destruction of dogs would be repeated in Hong Kong. The odds seemed hopeless, but reading the "DOGS" article gave Mr. Law an idea.


With the typical Hong Kong flair for intelligent planning and superior execution, Matgo Law composed a letter to Margaret Fansworth, editor of "DOGS". In his letter Law outlined their plans and enclosed pictures of the few Shar Pei they had been able to rescue. He ended with a plea for help and co-operation from interested American fanciers.


Publication of his letter in the April 1973 issue rocketed the Shar Pei from obscurity and possible oblivion to instant fame and star-status. More than 200 letters poured in - most from buyers anxious to obtain puppies or breeding stock. But, the entire number of Shar Pei known to exist at that time totalled only a dozen or so individuals and it was some months before any orders could be filled.


Matgo Law managed to discover a few more isolated dogs in Macao and Taiwan and eventually American enthusiasts began to receive a trickle of pups from him. Within a couple of years of the Shar Pei's premature obituary, kennels had been established in various parts of America and today the breed is loved and owned worldwide."


Recent History:

In the early years of the Chinese Shar Pei Club of America, secretary of the club Shirley Rafferty sent out the following:

"A few years ago these dogs were listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's rarest breed, and in 1975 there were less than forty in the United States. The Hong Kong Kennel Club, affiliated with the London Kennel Club, registered Shar Pei as late as 1966. The Shar Pei is certainly the world's most extraordinary dog,

the press has dubbed him Mr. Wrinkles. The head is deeply furrowed, and the back and sides are more or less pleated with loose skin which often extends down the legs, giving a droopy-drawers effect on the hindquarters, or that of oversize pantyhose. Puppies are more wrinkled than adults. The skin tightens up over the lower half of the body as a pup matures, with full size being reached at six to eight months. The Shar Pei is strongly built, the body is short-coupled and well-balanced, with a broad, deep chest giving the dog a strong solid, square appearance. Colours range from light to dark fawn, red fawn, cream, black, chocolate and sable. The coat is not slick or glossy and should have a gritty feel because of its stiff and bristly texture. Coat types are the very short bristly harsh coat and the brush coat which is not over one inch in length and stands off from the skin at 90 degrees over the wrinkle. The name Shar Pei means sandy coat.


The tongue has the distinction of being either all blue-black or flowered, meaning one with spots of various sizes. Also many have black flews and roof of mouth. Because of the profuse skin above the eyes, eyes have to be watched closely for any turning or rolling in of eyelashes which can irritate the cornea. This condition is treatable with little effort on the part of the owner. The distinctive head displays a blunt muzzle, even more so in the males, a description which accurately applies to no other breed. The ears, small and triangular, lay tight to the head and point toward the eyes.


The average size is 18 to 20 inches at the shoulder with weight from 40 to 55 pounds. Shar Pei puppies housebreak themselves at a very early age, which adds to their list of desirable qualities as house companions. They are devoted to the owner who really loves them, and they want to please and to be close to their master whenever possible. As watchdogs they are outstanding, as their sense of smell and sight are superior to most breeds. Grooming is no chore either, for they are very clean dogs. Their average life-span in China is 12 to 14 years, with the oldest known Shar Pei living to be 18. They have not been in our Country long enough for owners to see if better foods and medical attention will lengthen the life-span.


Being sturdy, compact, active and intelligent the Shar Pei is perfectly suited to city, suburban or country living. The dog is outgoing by nature and happy indoors or out. The Shar Pei loves to ride in cars, and is not a barker. They are homebodies and do not like to stray. Because of his stay-at-home nature and his deep loyalty to family

and friends, the Shar Pei makes a natural watchdog. Being both calm and obedient, he does not tend to overreact. The Shar Pei is an enchanting creature, possessing so many qualities sought after in an all-around dog for security as well as companionship."


In 1978, listed in the World Book of Guinness, the Shar Pei fortunately no longer holds the dubious

honour of being designated as the world's rarest breed.


The following text is provided by Chinaman Chinese Shar Pei Kennel:


Care and Training The Chinese Shar Pei is a low maintenance dog. If they are provided a clean environment they will take little upkeep to maintain. An occasional bath, perhaps every 8 to 12 weeks (or per your veterinarian's instructions if there is a problem), routine coat brushing, ear cleaning, nail clipping and cleaning of the face and

eyes with a damp cloth will keep them looking good. Their exercise requirements are usually provided for by following family members around in the daily activities of the household, but a fenced yard or turnout area is essential for good health if regular daily walks are not scheduled. Any dog needs time to attend to his toilet needs and some dogs also like a little time on their own. All dogs, including Shar Pei, need good nutrition and preventive health care by a qualified veterinarian, with regular check-ups to insure that no problems go



Crate training is important for safe travel and can keep your Shar Pei out of harms way when some event or activity in the home might interrupt his regular routine or access to the run of the house. Properly done, crate training produces a personal space for the dog that he will seek out to get some peace and quiet.


The Shar Pei, just like any other dog, should receive basic obedience training that will make him a good companion for the whole family and a joy to have in your home. Shar Pei learn quickly and are easy to train, but they often do not appreciate being drilled on a task that they already are proficient at. Attendance in dog training classes with your Shar Pei is an excellent way to get help with training problems and to continue the socialization of your Shar Pei to include new dogs and people outside your home.


Shar Pei Health The Shar Pei can fall prey to all the health problems that are found in dogs of all breeds. Many other breeds of dogs have some of the health concerns that have unfairly been labelled "Shar Pei Problems." An example is entropion of the eyelid, which does occur in the Shar Pei, but is also found in other breeds. Entropion, which is the turning in of the eyelid, should be diagnosed and treated by your veterinarian. Skin fold dermatitis is just what it sounds like, the wrinkles overlap and create an environment that can cause irritation of the skin. See your veterinarian for any suspected problems. For the Shar Pei, choosing your veterinarian can be especially important. Look for a veterinarian that has a number of years experience with the Shar Pei and treats your breed with the same concern as all other breeds, without blaming the breed for every problem that your Shar Pei might have.


Living With Your Shar Pei Shar Pei are focused on their owners. Their life revolves around you, not hunting or retrieving. They are finely tuned to your moods and adjust themselves to your needs, but they are individuals and some are more laid back, while others are more outgoing and active. Getting started with a Shar Pei that suits your personality and lifestyle will make the best foundation for your future. If you are considering the purchase of a Shar Pei, consult breeders about their bloodlines and tell them honestly what you would like in a dog. Reputable breeders will give you sound advice and are able to help you select a dog from their breeding program that will suit you. Buying from a pet shop, puppy mill, or backyard breeder does not offer the advantage of experience and advice that the knowledgeable breeder can provide. Many breeders advertise in breed publications, such as The Barker, which is published by the Chinese Shar Pei Club of America.


The South Africa Shar Pei Club assesses the Shar Pei's character and inherent traits as follows:



The Shar Pei is regal, aloof, dignified and essentially a very independent dog that is stand-offish to strangers. However, some Shar Pei love everyone!! Generalization as to temperament is difficult as each is an individual, moulded by it's own heritage and environment, much as humans are. In general the breed has proved itself to be a loving, devoted family dog. Shar Pei are often described as "people dogs", preferring human companionship to that of other dogs. Their quick intelligence may play a part in this. Perhaps they sense our own intelligence and prefer the inventiveness and creativity we bring to situations. Or maybe they just prefer their master's love and attention!


Most often the Shar Pei owner will find his dog by his side - wherever he may be. Shar Pei seem to be "in tune" with their owners - sometimes sensing our innermost thoughts. The breed is quite capable to use this gift to the point of manipulation!! With this in mind Shar Pei owners must be at least a little more intelligent than their dogs.


Once the proper hierarchy is established, there is no better canine companion. A mutual understanding matures into a loving relationship in which verbal communication seems unnecessary.


Those who have lived with and loved a Shar Pei know that they are indeed very special dogs. They are super-intelligent, intuitive and deserving of the opportunity to take their rightful place in the canine society.


One of the best qualities of the Shar Pei is that they are very easy to housetrain. By nature they are very clean and will prefer to "go" outside in a private place, leaving your garden and lawn "mine" free!


Shar Pei Dominance

Shar Pei are very dominant and protective and may get along only with other dogs who will not challenge their dominance. Females seem to be even more dominant than males and the ideal is to have one male and one female. Three or more dogs tend to gang up in fights. Like many fighting breeds Shar Pei lock their jaws making it very difficult to separate them if and when they fight.


Mixing Shar Pei with other breeds can be difficult and should only be done by owners that have a good knowledge of dominance, pack order and general canine behaviour. It is of the utmost importance to socialize Shar Pei - not only with people, but also with other dog breeds. If socialization and training is neglected a Shar Pei may become over-protective of their owners and property.


While they have the reputation as being an 'unhealthy' breed, this reputation may be unjustly earned. During the 1970's because veterinarians began to see these dogs for the first time in many cases, they began to diagnose exotic and wild ailments. These ailments were often published in journals on regular basis due, in part, to a readership interest in "new" breeds ailments and diseases. In general, the Shar Pei is no more 'unhealthy' than many breeds. It is a fallacy that the folds between the wrinkles have to be dried out with a cotton swab after baths or that they must be powdered after bathing. Like any dog, they require a good drying, but no other special care. Because of the folds in the facial area, there can be eye problems and dermatitis if not properly kept.


Copyright 2001 Sierra Milton. All rights reserved. However, you are encouraged to copy and distribute this article for non-commercial use with the following restrictions: You may not modify the article in any way. You must include the entire article including the copyright notice. You may not charge any fee for use, copying, nor distribution of the product with the following exceptions: Non-profit organisations may charge a nominal fee (not to exceed $5.00) until and unless notified by the author this is not the case.

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