Tang Dog (pictures missing on this article)

Third Paper presented to Midland Shar-Pei ClubOn

The Tang dog and their relation with Shar-Pei

By Eric T. Omura July 1, 2006



To look into the history of Shar-Pei, we always inevitably step into the territory of the “Tang dog”.  I had briefly touched on the subject in my previous paper titled “Development of Shar-Pei” and I shall expand this subject further in this paper.


Break through in genetic, biochemistry, archaeology and anthropology at the end of the last century have led us to the conclusion that all people (homo sapiens) originally came out from Africa migrating to all corners of the world. (1)  I believe that in much the same way, both Chow Chow and Shar-Pei developed from the “Tang dog”.  This view is also widely held by many traditional bone-mouth Shar-Pei breeders here in Hong Kong.  Before looking into the relationship between Shar-Pei and the “Tang dog”, we should first look into the “Tang dog” itself, their origin, how the Chinese use this word, and what exactly the type of dog they are referring to.

What the word “Tang” means in Chinese

The word “Tang” came from the word “Tang dynasty” referring to a period from 618 to 907 A.D. in China.  About four hundred years after the Han dynasty and regarded by many Chinese as the golden age in the history of China and the highest peak of Chinese civilization.  Even today, Chinese are proud of this dynasty the same way as the Western world highly regards the Greeks.  They like to use this dynasty prefix to refer to things Chinese; for example, when they say “Tang Ren Jie” or translated literally “Tang People Street”, it means “Chinatown” in the western world.

Mandarin Cantonese Literal translation English

Tang Ren Jie

Tong Yan Gai

Tang People Street


Tang Shan

Tong Saam

Dress of Tang

China dress

Tang Gou or To Gou

Tong Gau

Tang dog

Local dog


In southern China in Cantonese dialect, a common expression referring to local dog in general is “Tong Gau”.  Tong” means “Tang” and “gau” means dog.  People up north in northern China, however, would use the colloquial “To Gou” literally meaning “local dog” instead of the “Tong Gau” expression.  Why Tang dynasty and not Han or Song dynasty? This is further explained in the next section on “Tang” history.

A crash course on history of “Tang dynasty”

Han dynasty (200 BC to 220 AD) prospered through development of trade with the Western world over the terrestrial Silk Road leading from the Chinese capital of Chang-an (today’s Xian) going west through today’s Afghanistan to the Roman Empire.  But in the Tang dynasty (618-907), volume of trade received a tremendous boost by development of the maritime Silk Road originating from the seaport of Panyu (today Guangzhou).  Goods sailed along the coast of the Indian Ocean, to the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, reaching eventually to the world of Byzantine.  Tang dynasty marked the beginning for the port of Panyu (Guangzhou) with the blessing of the Emperor to trade with the outside world.  At its height of prosperity, there were about 200,000 Persians, Arabs, Indians, Malayans, etc. lived in the city. (2)  With this level of intense commercial and cultural exchange between the Chinese and the foreigners, it had to be quite natural for Chinese around Panyu (Guangzhou) to call themselves Tang people to differentiate themselves from the Persians and the Arabs etc.  In the same manner, they called their local dogs “Tang dog”. The name stayed until today.


Over the years from Tang (618-907) to Sung (1127-1279), Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1662), Ching (1616-1911) dynasties, the port of Panyu (Guangzhou) repeated the process of opening and closing depending on the geopolitical condition at the time, but overall, it had been always functioned as one of the few and the most important gateway to Imperial China.  At one point, as viewed from the point of the foreigners, Panyu was synonymous to China. (3)  Foreigners had been allowed from time to time to land in China but always limited to the vicinity of the trading ports and one of them was Guangzhou.

“Tang dog” and maritime sea trading

Despite the ups and downs of Imperial courts in China over the thousand years, maritime Silk Road continued to grow.  Trading activity between China and the West had always been driven by the profits in the “exchange” activities and never a function of who, what, when, where, and how any particular emperor’s desire.  We are looking here at products such as spices, tea, ceramic, raw silk, woven silk, musk and precious stones and metals etc. (4) all of them too lucrative for the daring maritime merchants to stay docile. 


Over the recent centuries, numerous war were being fought between European nations over these highly profitable Chinese commercial interests and even induced the birth of a great nation, the United State of America, over a few boxes of tea at Boston.  When the Imperial court outlawed trading, pirates and smuggling occurred; and when the Imperial court sanctioned trading, it became legitimate and spun out of Imperial court’s control and so forced the imperial court to clamp down on the trading activity again.  A never ending cycle regardless of who was the emperor. 


Most probably dogs were kept on many of those trading vessels for a very practical reason: guarding against intruder, security of the premises and protection of trading goods.  The least of all also served as a companion for the sailors.  The sea going vessels in those days before the advent of metal hull were much smaller than any of the ships we see today.  Smaller vessel has higher tendency to have dog on board because small vessel is much more accessible from land and other vessels.

Tang dog vs other similar dogs in other foreign countries

So in the maritime world, dogs were loaded or unloaded at various trading seaports for various reasons.  So it should not be surprising to see over the years since the Tang dynasty, that a pattern of similar phenotype of dogs (Plate 1) developed in different parts of the world, at various maritime seaports, coinciding with the pattern of movement of ocean vessels in maritime trading. 


In the beginning of 15th century and around the middle of 17th century (4) (at the beginning and the end of the Ming dynasty), Chinese vessels were already trading with all major Asian maritime countries and some even managed to travel as far as Australia, Africa, and America. (5)  Some Chinese vessels even reached North America almost half a century earlier than Christopher Columbus. (6)

  European merchants have set up their trading post or called “factories” in the vicinity of Guangzhou as early as the end of the 17th century.  In 1970, The Thirteen Hongs of Canton were officially recognized by the Emperor.  They included the Dutch, English, Danish, Swedish, French, Spanish, American, Greek, Thailand, Borneo, etc. (3).  This was the age of the famous Cutty Sark and the clipper ships.  

Plate 1: Different types of spitz-like dogs around the world. p7~8


Origin of the “Tang dog

For tea, we can pin-point the flow of goods from China to the Western world, but for dogs, the dispersion pattern is unknown.  Whether southern China was the center of worldwide dispersion of this category of dogs during the past 1,300 years, or the result of a much older pattern of migration of people over millions of years since pre-historic time is not certain.  Nevertheless, it has to be something more than mere coincidence that so many of this spitz-like type of dogs are so strikingly similar in general appearance in so many countries and places.  Most important of all, not only can we clearly identify a very strong overlapping of distribution pattern between this spitz-like category of dogs with the maritime trading activity during historic time, we can also see the pattern fits with the migration pattern of human since pre-historic time. (1)  Which is the more contributing factor is not certain at this point and requires further DNA dating research.

The “Tang dog” prototype

As mentioned in the Introduction, we know that homo sapiens left Africa about 50,000 years ago. (1)  The scientist Spencer Wells used the state of the art DNA technology to tract homo sapiens migration over millions of years.  One group of migration (the farmer-hunter-gatherer) took 10,000 years to reach Siberia and some of them eventually settled in Asia around 35,000 years ago. (1)  Then bout 15,000 years ago, some group in northeastern Asia crossed the Bering Strait and the Aleutian Islands into Alaska.  They continued to move on and finally settled as American Indians in North and South America. (1)  Another group of migration (sea migrant or the fisherman) also left Africa about the same time 50,000 years ago, sail along the coastal water and may have reached North America much earlier than the first group. (1)  Together with Chinese researchers, Spencer also identified two distinct migration groups in China, the Northern and Southern group, and for the Southern group, because of migration by sea, it is clearly an older group than the Northern group.  So for the American Indians, they might have come either from Siberia or by sea into North America and of course together with their dogs (see plate 2.1) (7).

Plate 2.1: American Indian dogs 

Keeping the migration of man in mind, now we can make a further brave but logical assumption here that dogs follow human migration, and human usually bring dogs along with them in migration.  This is always a “smart thing to do” because dogs help man to guard, track and hunt.  The relationship between dog and human has always been the least important subject in history and often left out in the narration, but men always assume dogs were there along always.


The migrant in Siberia and Alaska have spitz-like dogs, the Siberian Huskies, and the Alaskan malamute for sledge and hunting.  In Asia, we have the “Tang Dog” which could have follow the “fisherman” by sea from Africa or followed the “hunter-farmer” by land.  And then in America we have the American Indian Dog (7) which is also a spitz-like category of dog.  Working backward, we can also say that the American Indian Dog which is geographically isolated, with much lesser chance of “contamination” by the Asian maritime trading activity, confirmed the morphology of the original “Tang Dog”.  Therefore, the “Tang Dog” is indeed also a very old type which belongs to the larger spitz-like group of dogs spread around the world by human migration and by ships; fisherman boat in pre-historic time and ocean vessels in historic time.

Both Shar-Pei and Chow Chow are “Tang dog”

This view is widely held by the traditional Shar-Pei breeder community in Hong Kong.  In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, when Hong Kong Kennel Club was still using the name “Chinese Fighting Dog” instead of Shar-Pei in the registry.  In the community, the word “Tang dog” and “Shar-Pei” were often used inter- changeably.   This lax use of names was indeed a reflection of how people actually perceive the “Chinese Fighting Dog” at that time.  As the name implies, the line between a Shar-Pei and “Tang Dog” became diffused.  According to independent oral testimony by Wong King Kwok and Li Fook Wah on the “Chinese Fighting Dog”, the ratio of “Tang dog” to “Shar-Pei” ratio were respectively 60:40 and “more than 50%”.  A very general estimate but we can say that in old days, the “Tang dogs” were more common in the fighting ring than the Shar-Pei. 


In the 1960’s Hong Kong was still very much under-developed.  In those days, pet shops were non- existence and dogs were traded either in open market or in so called “birds and animals shop”.  Wong King Kwok testified that he traded many “Tang dogs” including Shar-Pei and Chow Chow in the market (8).  Tang dogs” in those days in Hong Kong were not sold as pets and therefore much cheaper, and more affordable by the local Chinese. (8)  Animal traders in those early days referred to the long hair “Tang dogs” in Cantonese as “Song Si” which means “hairy lion”.  The same name is still used today in Chinese for Chow Chow.  Plate 2.3 show some original Chow Chow.  It is more spitz-like than the Chow we see today.



Dogs follow where people go; this is exactly what domestication means.  So for people we have the Northern and Southern migration groups converging in China (1) and the same should have happened to dogs; they also converged in China.  For Chow Chow, the long coat must have acquired through the severe cold weather of the Northern migration through places like Siberia, Afghanistan, Tibet and into China.  For Shar-Pei the short coat may have come directly from Africa together with the sea migrant in pre-historic time.  Once converged in China, they formed the large “Tang Dog” category of dogs today. 

How to describe a “Tang dog”

Tang dog” is a general name for the local dogs in Southern China.  It is basically a spitz-like dog with long or short coat; ears usually pricked but may be flat.  Plate 3 illustrates the various range of “Tang dogs”.  In general, bushy tail goes with longer coat, and a whip tail goes with short coat.  Color can range from solid color (creamy white, fawn, red, brown, black etc.) to flower (piebald or parti-colored).

Plate 3.1 Samples of Tang dogs 

Shar-Pei vs. “Tang dog”
Although Shar-Pei is within the “Tang dog” family, it has a narrower and more restricted interpretation on some of the features.n              First of all, the color of Shar-Pei is by tradition and customarily refers to as a single color dog.  But a single color Shar-Pei also means a two tone color on specific part of the body.  For light color dogs (fawn and cream for example) they must have a darker color trace mark along the back similar to a Pug, and darker color around the ears than the rest of the body.  n              The ONE single most important feature that defined Shar-Pei from the “Tang dog” is the coat.  As the name says “skin of sand” so it is the short hard coat that gives this feeling.  In local Shar-Pei language, to look for “mou-ngan” or “coat-n-eyes” when selecting a Shar-Pei.  Hard and short coat plus a pair of triangular eyes first qualify a dog as Shar-Pei.  People then go on to select other features for a good Shar-Pei.  So all the soft coat and long coat make a “Tang dog”.n              After “mou-ngan” then go after the two ends; the head and the tail.  Special emphasis is put on the tail.  A Shar-Pei tail must have very short hair, tapering to a point, and the tip should be bald (no hair).  A Shar-Pei tail and a “Tang dog” tail is mutually exclusive, a Shar-Pei should not have a “Tang dog” tail, and a “Tang dog” will not have a Shar-Pei tail.n              Lastly, about the foot.  Even some breeders in Hong Kong sometimes mistakenly describe a Shar-Pei foot as “garlic foot”.  This is an old “Chinese Fighting Dog” terminology and not for describing the foot of Shar-Pei.  As mentioned before, in those days, more “Tang dogs” were used than Shar-Pei in the ring, and the Chinese term “garlic foot” is used simply to describe a good, strong, tight foot of a “Tang dogs”.    Shar-Pei has a distinctive knuckled foot with long second knuckle bones. The differences in features between Shar-Pei and “Tang dog” are summarized in the table below:
Features Tang dog Shar-Pei


Can have either solid or parti-color.

Only single color, with variation in color tone.


Long and short, soft in texture

Only short and harsh coat.


Pricked or flat ears.

Pricked ear (Chamfa ear) not preferred.


Round foot (garlic foot)



Pink, spotted or blue

Spotted or blue. Pink not preferred


Can be in many forms, bushy or with short coat.

Tapering sharply, narrowing to a point.

Very short hair with NO hair at the tip.


1.          Wells, Spencer, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, The Penguin Press, 2002. 

Simplified Chinese Edition by Oriental Press, 2004

By Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA analysis, it is certain that Chinese today is also descent from Africa and not from the Beijing cave man. (Chinese edition p.98)

2.          Levathes, Louise E., When China Ruled the Sea, Oxford University Press, 1994.

3.          Liang, Jia Bin(梁嘉彬), The Thirteen Hongs of Canton”, Guangdong People’s Publishing, 1st ed. 1895, reprint Dec. 1999.

4.          Chen, Wen De(陳文德), The Tale of Zheng Zhi Long, Yuan Liu Publication, 1998.  A powerful and rich maritime merchant who lived around the end of the Ming and beginning of Ching dynasty.  A rare character in history who had served two emperors of two different dynasties.  The maritime financial and naval power of Zheng Zhi Long’s private feet at his prime surpassed that of the emperor.  His merchant fleets protected by his own naval fire power traded with the Shogun (Japan), the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Siamese Kingdom (Thailand), etc. whoever at sea in the South China Sea.  His son Zheng Cheng Gong used the legacy of his sea power to reclaimed Formosa (Taiwan) from the Dutch occupation in 1661. 

5.          Menzies, Gavin, 1421 The Year China Discovered the World, Bantam Press, 2002.  Zheng He, a close aid of Emperor Zhu Di of the Ming dynasty, he managed to make seven recorded known voyages around the world.  Year 1421 was his sixth voyage and in the book, you see a map at the very beginning of the book titled “Voyages of the Treasure Fleets, 1421~3”.  The fleet separated into several task forces, sailing separately to south America, north America, Australia, Africa and all the way even to Greenland.

6.          Apple Daily news paper, 18th June, 2006 quoting Singapore Strait Times.  A bronze plate (7 cm in diameter) unearthed recently in North Carolina, U.S.A., with inscription in Chinese “Presented by the Great Ming Xuan De” (大明宣德委錫).  Xuan De was a period in Ming dynasty ruled by the fifth Emperor Xuan Zhong(宣宗)(1426-1436).  Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492.  It is known in historical record that the great Chinese navigator Zheng He (Chinese by name but originally from Uzubekistan) had made a total of seven expeditions during his lifetime for two Emperors, Yun Le and Xuan Zhong.  It is believe that he first landed in America during his fifth expedition (1417-1419) so that makes him 74 years ahead of Christopher Columbus.  Even counting from the first year of enthronement of Xuan Zhong (1426) requiring about a year to sail to America, that makes him 65 years ahead of Columbus.

7.          These two photos of American Indian Dog provided by courtesy of Kim La Flamme, founder/trustee of the American Indian Dog Breed at Song Dog Kennels, Selma, Oregon, U.S.A..  More photos in the following website: http://www.americanindiandogs.com/ and http://www.indiandogs.com/

8.          Omura, Eric, Development of Shar-Pei and its variation, paper presented to Midland Shar-Pei Club, June 18, 2001, p.5.

9.          This Chow is shown in the Hong Kong Kennel Club show book of 21st March, 1948.