Shih Tzu History

It is widely accepted that the Shih Tzu is descended from small dogs from Tibet, given as gifts to the Chinese Emperors and bred with Chinese dogs including the Pekinese. It was under the care and direction of the Dowager Empress, Tzu Hsi, who came into power in 1861 that the Shih Tzu developed into the breed we know today.

In the Imperial Palace in Peking, the Eunuchs were made responsible for the care and breeding of the Shih Tzu. These shaggy little dogs became the pampered darlings of the palace. The Empress insisted that complete pedigrees and descriptions of physical markings be kept for all dogs used for breeding and for all puppies whelped within the household. For aesthetic and religious reasons, parti-colors with perfect facial markings and perfect saddle were held in high esteem by the Empress, but solid colors were also prized by her. In fact, the only known photograph of her with any of her Shih Tzu is with a solid black male, one of her favorites, who followed her everywhere from her private apartments to the Palace of Heavenly Purity.

Tzu Hsi was wise to the laws of color inheritance and knew the importance of the darker shades of brindle, silver and black in maintaining pigmentation-of eye color and coat color. 

Because the Chinese considered the lion symbolic of Buddha, and because of a centuries old awe and respect for this most courageous of beasts, Chinese dogs were bred to resemble the lion. As the lion was not native to China, it is probable that sculptors carved lions from descriptions they had received about the beasts, and the dogs were bred to look like the statues instead of the real thing, i.e.: flattened muzzles, undershot bites, bowed legs (bowed legswere even intentionally bred into the Pekingese and are a characteristic of the breed!), protruding eyes, wrinkled faces, and fierce expressions. The two breeds most lion-like in their appearance are the Shih Tzu and the Pekingese. The eunuchs vied with each other to breed the most perfectly lion-like specimens.

The Empress jealously guarded her treasured Shih Tzu and was loath to let any leave the Palace. She entertained wives of ambassadors and diplomats for political reasons, but feared and hated these "foreign devils". She bestowed valuable gifts upon them but in the beginning Shih Tzu were not among the gifts- despite the interest the foreign ladies showed toward the dogs. 

However, in the early 1900's several Shih Tzu were brought into Europe by returning diplomats. Many of these original dogs died (it was rumored that they were fed broken glass so as not to be bred outside of the Imperial Palace). 

After the death of the Empress in 1908 and the ascension of the new child Emperor, Pu Yi, the fate of the dogs became tenuous. Many of the eunuchs who had become expert breeders were dismissed and many dogs were destroyed by fires in the Palace. It is also speculated that many of the eunuchs took prize specimens with them and sold them to Chinese noblemen and foreigners. 

In the early 1930’s, several Shih Tzu were imported into England and Scandinavia. Offspring of these dogs were imported into the US and Canada. On an interesting note, Elfreda Evans of Elfann Kennels in England (a successful breeder of Pekingese), although a newcomer to Shih Tzu, decided that the Shih Tzu in England were too big and rangy and plain in the face, so without so much as consulting any of the established breeders, in 1952 she mated a Shih Tzu bitch to a Pekingese dog who’s one ‘fault’ was straight front legs. (At that time, the English Kennel Club permitted the introduction of an outcross to another breed. The 4th generation from the outcross could be registered as purebred. The American Kennel Club required several more generations.) Twenty years later, the Pekingese outcross was in practically every British line of Shih Tzu.

Contributed by Carole Delaney