Meet the Breed
A Wrinkle in Time: In only 50 years, the Chinese Shar-Pei went from being nearly extinct to one of the world’s most recognizable breeds.
Kim Campbell Thornton
With its broad, full muzzle, small ears and scowling expression, the Chinese Shar-Pei bears more than a passing resemblance to a hippopotamus, but the physical characteristics for which the breed is best known are its wrinkled countenance and bluish-black tongue. A lordly manner keeps all but its family members at a distance. The Shar-Pei is a dignified dog that has a reputation for being snobbish toward strangers, belying the devoted nature that makes it a beloved companion.
An ancient past
A serious and independent attitude combined with its unusual looks are giveaways to the breed’s Chinese ancestry. It’s thought that the Shar-Pei originated in southern China, in the province of Guangdong. Documentation of the breed’s ancestors includes statues of dogs that resemble the Shar-Pei dating to 200 B.C., around the beginning of the Han Dynasty, and a 13th-century Chinese manuscript that mentions a wrinkled dog. Further, modern genetic research identifies the Shar-Pei as one of 14 breeds with ancient beginnings.
The dogs were noted for their short, rough coats (the name Shar-Pei translates as “sand-skin” or “rough, sandy coat”) and their bluish-black tongues, seen in only one other breed, the Chow Chow, which also originated in China. They were all-purpose dogs, used to guard property, hunt and fight. Whether they were hunting or fighting, their wrinkles and rough skin prevented other animals from getting a good grasp on them.
When the Chinese communist government was established in the early 20th century, most dogs were seen as symbols of a decadent past and were killed. Some were bred in Hong Kong, which was not yet governed by mainland China, and in Taiwan. A few of the dogs had been exported to the United States from Hong Kong in 1966, but by 1973, the Shar-Pei was in danger of disappearing.
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