Forbidden City

Hooray for the Pekingese

A sassy little Pekingese named Malachy won the Westminster Dog Kennel Show recently and from the disgruntled chatter on the internet you would have thought a new species from Mars won. But who can resist that face?

Many called it an overgrown rat, a ball of fur, or a dust mop. As a proud owner of a Pekingese, or Peke as they are commonly called, I must say they are a big ball of fur and their long, sweeping coat often does act as a dust mop collecting debris as it goes. But, their thick luxurious coat is one of the most desirable traits of the breed. My Gus, pictured above, has a beautiful coat that is so thick it is often difficult to see the skin below. The Peke coat is actually a double coat and it keeps them very warm in winter but can be a hazard in the summer causing them to overheat. The thick coat combined with the compromised breathing caused by their smooched-in face makes them vulnerable to heat stroke.

During shedding season in the summer I can run my fingers through Gus’s coat and come out with a handful of fur—so much so I could almost knit a sweater. A good brushing during shedding season can produce a large plastic bag full of fur.

One of the oldest known breeds

The Pekingese is one of the oldest breeds around going back over 2,000 years. Recent DNA tests confirm that the Peke is one of the oldest breeds and most closely related to the wolf genetically. It originated in China and for centuries they were owned by members of the Chinese Imperial Palace only. They were a passion of the Chinese Emperors and courtiers and anyone caught smuggling one out of the compound for sale suffered ruthless punishment and torture.

They made their first appearance outside of China after the Second Opium War in 1860 when British and French troops stormed the palace in the Forbidden City. When the troops arrived the emperor and his court had fled leaving behind an elderly aunt of the emperor. She had committed suicide and her five Pekingese were surrounding her body mourning her death. The dogs were removed and given to members of the British court—the Duchess of Wellington, the Duke and Duchess of Richmond and Gordon, and Queen Victoria.

Ferocious little dogs

Very small Pekes, those six pounds and under, are known as “sleeve dogs” after the custom of carrying them in the sleeves of their billowing garments. The Chinese hid them in their sleeves for protection. If attacked these ferocious dogs would come out of hiding to protect their owners—a predecessor of mace.

Pekes are perfect companions and guard dogs. Pekes were used to guard and protect the palace and temples of China. Despite their small size they can be extremely aggressive when it comes to protecting their owner. I once saw my Gus back a repairman into a corner and was barking and nipping him at his ankles. If that repairman had evil intentions he would have had to get past Gus first and that wasn’t happening.

The first “purse puppies”

Pekes are beautiful dogs and come in many different color combinations ranging from white to cream to red and grey and were carried to match their owners’ beautiful garments, thus becoming the perfect accessory dog long before Paris Hilton and her “purse puppies”.


Pekes seem to know they have been associated with the aristocracy throughout time. Their temperament is regal, intelligent and full of self-importance, they are opinionated and affectionate to those they love—or they deem worthy. They are also known as the “lion dog” because of a large ruffle or mane of fur around the neck but that name also is appropriate because they are certainly “king of their world”.

Gus is a typical Peke in every way and my loyal, faithful and constant companion. He came to us as a foster dog and became such a part of our family we couldn’t give him up for adoption. He had been transferred from a shelter where he had been for six months or longer and I picked him at a vet’s office after he had been cleared. It was a cold rainy day and as I lifted him into the seat next to me he nestled in and put his chin next to my hand that was resting on the gear shift of my sports car. He looked me in the eyes with those deep dark eyes as if to say “thank you for rescuing me and I love you.” He hasn’t left my side since that day. A special connection was established between us on that ride home and he has to be near me at all times. If I leave the house my husband says he paces and cries until I return. He follows me from room to room as I do my household chores. He is happiest when he is sleeping by my feet or in one of his several beds in the office or next to my TV chair. And, of course, he sleeps in our bed at my feet.

Gus is the typical fiercely loyal and protective Peke. He has also exhibited the traits of being courageous and bold. When he came to our home we already had another dog twenty pounds larger than Gus. Gus has now become the alpha dog by growling, attacking, and facing her down.


Another trait of the Peke is their unusual gait or walk which is a kind of rolling bounce. Their front legs are significantly bowed which contributes to this gait and it is thought this trait was bred into the breed to keep them from roaming away from the palace grounds. One legend of the Peke says it is the result of the mating of a lion and a marmoset monkey thus getting its nobleness and coat from the lion and its awkward walk from the monkey.

Another legend of the lion and the marmoset says a lion and a marmoset fell in love. The lion was too large so he went to Buddha for help. Buddha allowed the lion to shrink down to the size of the marmoset and the Pekingese was the result.

Because the Pekingese was believed to originate from Buddha they were used as temple dogs. They are not just a toy dog but were made small so they could go after and destroy little demons that might infest the palace or temple but with a big heart so they could destroy even the largest and fiercest.

“I pity the fool”

I can guarantee you that we have no demons in our house and, as Mr. T used to say—“I pity the fool” who might come to our place with evil intent. Gus the Pekingese is in control.


Below is the Standard for Pekingese written by Dowager Empress Tsu Hsi who died in 1911. This last version of the ancient Chinese standard for the Pekingese is attributed to her. The English, American, Canadian and FCI breed standards have evolved from this statement. As a Pekingese owner I feel it is a perfect description of not only the physical traits of the breed but also of its personality and temperament. As a writer, I also appreciate its poetic language.

Let the Pekingese be:

  • Let the Lion Dog be small; let it wear the swelling cape of dignity around its neck; let it display the billowing standard of pomp above its back.
  • Let its face be black; let its fore-front be shaggy; let its forehead be straight and low, like the brow of an Imperial righteous harmony boxer.
  • Let its eyes be large and luminous; let its ears be set like the sails of a war-junk; let its nose be like the monkey god of the Hindus.
  •  Let its forelegs be bent, so that it shall not desire to wander far, or leave the Imperial precincts. Let its body be shaped like that of a hunting lion spying for its prey.
  •  Let its feet be tufted with plentiful hair that its footfall may be soundless; and for its standard of pomp let it rival the whisk of the Tibetan’s yak, which flourished to protect the Imperial litter from the attacks of flying insects.
  •  Let it be lively that it may afford entertainment by its gambols; let it be timid that it may not involve itself in danger; let it be domestic in its habits that it may live in amity with other beasts, fishes or birds that find protection in the Imperial Palace.
  • Let it venerate its ancestors and deposit offerings in the Canine Cemetery of The Forbidden City on each new moon. And for its color – let it be that of a lion, a golden sable, to be carried in the sleeve of a yellow robe – or the color of a red bear, or a black and white bear – or stripped like a dragon – so that there may be dogs appropriate to every costume in the Imperial wardrobe.
  • Let it comport itself with dignity; let it learn to bite the foreign devils instantly.
  •  Let it be dainty with its food that it shall be known for an Imperial dog by its fastidiousness.
  • Shark fins and curlews’ liver and the breasts of quail – on these it may be fed; and for drink, give it the tea that is brewed from the spring buds of the shrub that grows in the province of the Habkow — or the milk of antelopes that pasture in the Imperial parks.
  • Thus it shall preserve its integrity and self-respect; and for the day of sickness, let it be anointed with the clarified fat of the leg of the sacred leopard – and give it to drink a throstle’s eggshell full of the juice of the custard apple in which there has been dissolved three pinches of shredded rhinoceros horn … and apply to it piebald leeches. So shall it remain. But if it dies, remember you too are mortal.


PS—may the Dowager Empress Tsu His forgive me. I do not give my Gus shark fins, curlews’ liver or breast of quail. Nor do I give him tea brewed from the spring buds of a shrub from the province of Habkow or milk of antelopes. Water and kibbles seem to do just fine.