They really can be pretty silly-looking, especially the ones you see in the dog shows with their hair all fluffed out. But the Pekingese, originally from China, is one of the most ancient breeds of dog, and it has a pretty fascinating history.
There are several Chinese legends about how the dog came to be; according to one, a lion fell in love with a marmoset, and Buddha agreed to shrink it down. They’re also known as “lion dogs.” Another legend is that the lion fell in love with a butterfly, and Buddha created the Pekingese so they could meet in the middle.
Going back thousands of years, the breed was the exclusive playmate of Chinese emperors. Palace eunuchs took care of them, and the dogs had their own luxurious gilded kennels. They were called “sleeve dogs,” because Chinese royalty could carry them in the sleeves of their robes.
In 1860, during the Opium Wars, English and French soldiers were ransacking the Imperial Palace in Beijing. The accounts vary, but according to one source*, an English soldier found five small, flat-faced dogs whose owner, an elderly aunt of the Emperor, had committed suicide. Before the palace was burned, he took them away to safety.
From that point on, Pekingese became a fashionable breed among wealthy people in the U.S. and England.
Meanwhile, in China, the breed fell from favor, and during Mao’s rule, all dogs were condemned as a bourgeois luxury.