Mou Ngan

Mou-ngan (coat & eyes) of Shar-pei

By Eric T. Omura July 12, 2008



After years of discussion around the world on what constitute a Shar-pei, we have gather enough information and understanding today to say that there are generally a Western modern type meat-mouth and an original type traditional bone-mouth Shar-pei.  It has also been made clear today that the exaggerated skin folds of modern type Shar-pei was due purely to wrong breeding selection for the wrinkles based on mistaken myth on the appearance of Shar-pei.

How and where did it went wrong

Our understanding of evolution and genetics has led people into a “brave new world”.  Ever since Charles Darwin published his theory in1859 that life can evolve, over the years, we have also succeeded in making ourselves believe that we can also “help” life to evolve.  The word “help” is a self-approving word but in reality, we wrongfully try to play “god”.  Dog breeders began to think that we can make dogs evolve the way we wanted it, the way we think it should look like.  For example, if we human like to breed a dog with a long neck like a giraffe, we can do it today with our technology.  But why should we do this?  What stops us from doing so?  This is simply because based on sound biological and evolutionary common sense, we know that we don’t need a dog looking like a giraffe. 


Misconception on the appearance of Shar-pei leading to wrong selection criteria

Shar-pei started from obscurity when it was still tucked deeply inside the veil in China.  Western world knew little about it and have not seen any historical picture of the breed in historical literature.  Matgo Law wanted to save Shar-pei from extinction but the best intention was distorted by the market force and by the modern mass media.  Despite the growing fame of Shar-pei in modern times thanks to the growing power of printed mass media, the initial image imprint of Shar-pei in the Western mind was the meat-mouth Shar-pei with the exaggerated wrinkles on the body. 

 Things went wrong along the way when the breed was depicted in the West for its rareness, its exaggerated folding skin, its funny look, and as a fashionable "pet" dog.  When social ingredients such as the Guinness Book of World Records, rareness, celebrities, highlighted by magazines and newspapers etc. all came into play, Shar-pei turned into totally a different creature rather than a dog heading for extinction.    The image of Shar-pei was simplified and stereotyped by the media as a dog dressed in over-sized garment and the wrinkles became synonymous to the breed. As the name of the breed implies, the word Shar-pei is originally from the Cantonese dialect literally means “sand skin”.  So it specifically refers to the texture of its skin: abrasive, characterized by a short and harsh coat.  For traditional type, the only reference to wrinkles was in description of the skull and forehead.   Rarity provided the basis for handsome price tags, simple supply and demand.  The large profitable U.S. market had attracted some of the Hong Kong breeders to breed the "wrinkles"; to meet the demand of the gigantic U.S. pet market.  

Over the years, due to common practice of in-breeding within a narrow range of gene pool, the meat-mouth type today is burdened with numerous hereditary diseases.  Wrong selection for the superfluous wrinkles on the whole body including the head, and the Hippopotamus look of the face inevitably led to entropion.  After two major waves of influx of meat-mouth genes into Dali, Guangdong, China in the 70’s and 90’s, the meat-mouth genes with structural defect of the wrinkles and entropia were being passed-on in the genes today within the Shar-pei population regardless of meat or bone-mouth.  Although many responsible breeders have continue to try to correct the situation by reverse selection for the traditional type, thus vastly improving the health of the dog, the tragedy today remains that the hereditary gene that specifies the development of entropion is still prevalent among meat-mouth and sometimes still expresses itself in the traditional Shar-pei population.


Remedy for entropion in Shar-pei

We should treat a breed as an evolutionary population, and calls for maintaining a healthy population.  But geographical distance, customs quarantine rules, and kennel clubs breeding regulations discourage people from taking in new genetic materials from the original stock.


It is well known in agricultural breeding for both plants and animals that we often have to go back to the original primitive gene pool to help improving productivity and health of the current stock.  The more original types we kept in reserve, better the chance for continued evolution of a healthy stock. 

Mendel’s theory of independent assortment of genes tells us that given the right environment and combination of genes, traditional type can indeed re-establish itself in a modern population. 


Shar-pei is a working (guarding) and hunting breed so it needs to be an agile, moving dog with drive.  This dog should have the conformation and movement to do its duty.  There are some Chinese key words or Chinese special terms in describing a Shar-pei.  One very special and important term is “Mou Ngan”.  “Mou” in the Cantonese dialect literally means hair.  Shar-pei coat needs to be a short and harsh which gave Shar-pei its name.  “Ngan” means eyes which provide Shar-pei its Chinese expression or look.  One of the major proponents of this term is Mr. Li Fook Wah, and this term has been emphasized vehemently by him again and again during his time.


Three basic criteria in order of importance to judge whether a dog is a good Shar-pei are: (1) conformation, (2) “Mou-ngan” (coat and eyes), and (3) the two ends (head and tail).  “Mou-ngan” is a very key word and the shortest description that defines a “TRADITIONAL” Shar-pei.  The word is the litmus test for bone-mouth Shar-pei.  People often paid attention to the coat and skin, and as a matter of fact, understanding this very well but they often overlooked the eyes.  For bone-mouth Shar-pei, the eyes must be “Ming” meaning clean and clear with shape of almond or triangular in shape.  Meat-mouth standard used the word “sunken”, or “reasonably set deep” in some older standard had driven too far.  The word “deep” caused the eyes of many American Shar-pei to go too deep into the head.  Deep here should have meant deeper than usual dogs but not anything like to go deep and hidden inside.  We see not only Shar-pei but modern Chow Chow also has this similar problem with the eyes.

 The word “Ming” in Chinese does not give any meaning of “deepness”.  “Ming” is only relative to that of many “Tang dogs” we see over here in Southern China.  Over the years, Western breeding had paid due attention to the “Mou” but missed the “Ngan” totally.  The wrinkles exacerbated the problem of entropion as we see as a hereditary problem plaguing Shar-pei today.