The Dog in Traditional Chinese Paintings

It might be the Year of the Rabbit but at Cultural Keys we’ve been inspired by our two recent rescue dogs, Teddy and Mr. Percy, to look in more detail at the dog in Chinese history, art and legend. Each month we’ll look at a different aspect of the dog in traditional Chinese culture as well as introduce you to a few special pups who need your help!

This week we’ll look at some paintings of dogs that were created over the last 2000 or so years.

The dog isn’t one of the most common subjects of Chinese art – perhaps because for a long time it had no particular symbolic value, even though it was part of the Chinese zodiac – but it does appear in many paintings, often in scenes of hunting or in a domestic setting. Some of the earliest depictions of dogs in paintings are from the late Zhou or early Han Dynasty, such as dogs found in hunting scenes painted on shells.

Painted shell depicting a hunting scene, Late Zhou or Early Han Dynasty, c600 B.C.-9 A.D. Granger Historical Picture Archive
Hare chased by hawks and a dog. Painter unknown. Qing Dynasty. British Museum.
Chinese greyhound, from the Ten Prized Dogs Album by Guiseppe Castiglione (1688-1766). Qing Dynasty.

Hunting dogs were owned by most if not all emperors. When commissioned by the Emperor (either Yongzheng or Qianlong) to paint ten paintings of dogs, it was the hunting dogs (plus a Tibetan Mastiff) that court painter Guiseppe  Castiglione painted, not the small lap-dogs preferred by the ladies of the court. 

In addition to their use in hunting, from the Han Dynasty on, dogs were often kept as pets and many paintings show this. Two ‘fumo’ puppies are shown playing in the Tang Dynasty painting below. This type of dog might be the ancestor of the modern Pekingese. According to records, at that time these dogs were often presented as tribute by emperors, and were not kept by commoners. (See the full image here.)

Detail from ‘Court ladies adorning their hair with flowers’ attributed to Zhou Fang (c. 730–800). Liaoning Provincial Museum.
Detail from ‘A Palace Concert’, artist unknown. Tang Dynasty. National Palace Museum. See the full image here.

A very modern role of the dog might not be so modern after all, as has been suggested by John Ensminger of the Dog Law Reporter blog, who thinks he may have found a depiction of a guide dog of sorts in a scroll painted by Zhou Chen from 1516! See his article here. Whether or not this shows a dog guiding a blind man, Ensminger notes that, according to contemporary sources, blind men in China would train dogs to do tricks for money, so it may not be too much of a leap to guess that they learned to rely on their dogs in other ways as well. 

What do you think – could this be an early representation of a guide dog? Zhou Chen, 1516, from Valerie Hansen (1996). The Mystery of the Qingming Scroll and Its Subject: The Case Against Kaifeng. Journal of Sung-Yuan Studies, 26, 183-200

Although often painted in the context of a bigger scene, dogs were sometimes painted just for their own beauty. One of the most famous examples is by Li Di, painted during the reign of Emperor Huizong in the Northern Song Dynasty (23 February 1100 – 18 January 1126) when dogs became a specific category of painting in Huizong’s collection. See the full image here

Detail of ‘Hunting Dog’ by Li Di c. 12th Century. Palace Museum.
Painting of dogs by Zhao Fu, date unknown (Southern Song – Ming Dynasty). Tokyo National Museum.

Aside from sharing information about the dog in Chinese history, we also hope these pieces can serve as a gateway to helping dogs in modern China too! With every article we’ll introduce you to a few Beijing pups in need of your love and support. Please use the QR codes to contact the rescuer in question through WeChat for more information about these dogs in need! 

See the first article in the series here.

What’s your favourite painting of a dog? Let us know in the comments below. We would love to hear your thoughts and insights on traditional Chinese culture! 

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    Cultural Keys helps you access, understand and enjoy life in China through traditional Chinese culture. Click here to read more about Cultural Keys and what we can do for you, your school, company or group to help you get more out of your time in China!

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