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The History of Pugs in Ancient China

Jennifer Wilber is an author and freelance writer from Ohio. She holds a B.A. in creative writing and English.

Pugs were once the preferred companion of Chinese royalty and Tibetan monks.

Pugs were once the preferred companion of Chinese royalty and Tibetan monks.

Pugs: An Ancient Chinese Breed

Pugs are one of the most popular breeds of dogs in the United States today. What you may not know is that they were once just as popular in China where the breed originated amongst royalty and holy men alike. Because the breed is so ancient, there is some controversy surrounding its origins, but most people agree that pugs originated somewhere in China.

With a face like that, it's no wonder pugs became so loved throughout the world!

With a face like that, it's no wonder pugs became so loved throughout the world!

Pugs in Ancient China

Pugs were most likely originally bred as lapdogs for Chinese monarchs and were originally known as the lo-chiang-sze, or the foo dog. It is unclear as to how long ago the breed actually first appeared. Some believe that pugs date back to the Han and Tang Dynasty around 150 BCE, whereas others place the date back even further to the Shang Dynasty around 400 BCE (Pug). Some sources place the origins of the pug as far back as the Chou Dynasty between 827 and 782 BCE (Swainston-Goodger 11). Confucius may have referenced the breed around 551 BCE when he wrote about a breed of “short-mouthed dogs” (Sutherland).

The breed was “refined for centuries for the sole purpose of entertaining the inhabitants of the Imperial City” (Pug History). Many early emperors were known to have kept pugs in their company. Emperor Ling To was said to have given his female pugs the same rank as his wives (Sutherland). Emperor Qin Shi Huang is believed to have destroyed all records, scrolls, and art depicting the pug during his reign between 221 and 210 BCE (Pug). When pug puppies were born, their forehead wrinkles would be inspected for a W shape that resembled the Chinese character for "prince," which was the most highly favored wrinkle configuration (Sutherland).

The pug most likely shares a common ancestor with the Pekingese. The short-coated pug and the long-coated Pekingese share similar features, most notably their flat faces and coloring. The now-extinct Chinese Happa dog, which looked remarkably like the modern-day pug, is widely accepted as the forerunner of the Pekingese and is believed to have given rise to the pug as well. Chinese Happa dogs have been recorded in Chinese history as far back as 1115 BCE. Though the Chinese Happa dog isn’t well known, there is a specimen on display in the natural history section of the British Museum (Swainston-Goodger 12).

Pugs have a rich history that spans the globe.

Pugs have a rich history that spans the globe.

Pugs in Tibet

Another theory about the origin of pugs places the breed first in Buddhist monasteries in Tibet around 400 BCE. Monks may have used the pugs primarily as pets and possibly as guard dogs (Pug History). The pug bears a resemblance to Chinese Fu Lions, or Guardian Lions, and it is believed that the sculptors may have modeled the lions after the pug, or one of several other Chinese dog breeds that are similar in appearance (such as the Pekingese). Fu Lion statues stand outside of Chinese temples and are believed to have protective powers. Monks may have kept pugs because of their resemblance to the guardian lions (Sutherland).

In Tibet, pugs were called lags k’yi, which means “hand dog.” This comes from a Tibetan legend about the origins of pugs. According to the legend, if a human touches a young eagle right after it is hatched, it will be transformed into a pug dog (Swainston-Goodger 12).

There is some controversy as to whether pugs were originally bred in monasteries and temples or by the Chinese royalty. One theory claims that pugs were originally bred by Buddhist monks and that their popularity spread to the outsiders before being adopted by Chinese royalty (History of the Pug), but most sources place the breed first as lapdogs and “fashion accessories” for royalty before being introduced in Tibet to the Buddhist monks.

According to Tibetan legend, if you touch an eagle right after it hatches, it will be transformed into a pug dog.

According to Tibetan legend, if you touch an eagle right after it hatches, it will be transformed into a pug dog.

Outside of China

The popularity of the breed quickly spread outside of China in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 16th century, pugs were imported to Europe by the Dutch East India Trading Company. They were first traded in Holland and eventually to other countries in Europe. Pugs became popular in Holland, England, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, and France (Heathman).

Since the breed’s arrival in Europe, there have been several pugs who have gone on to make history. In 1572, a pug named Pompey saved the life of Prince William the Silent of the House of Orange when he alerted the prince to the presence of assassins. Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife, Josephine, had her pug, Fortune, carry concealed messages to her family when she was imprisoned (Heathman).

Pugs have been imported to countries all across the world since the 16th century. They remain popular pets across the Americas, Europe, and Asia today.

Pugs are strange creatures with a mysterious origin.

Pugs are strange creatures with a mysterious origin.

Pugs: Ancient and Mysterious

Pugs have a long and varied history tracing back thousands of years to ancient China. Though there is controversy surrounding the exact origins of the breed, the pug has been a popular pet throughout history and into the present day. The pug’s popularity as a lapdog will likely continue for centuries to come.


  • Heathman, Marcy. "The Pug FAQ." N.p., 2000. Web. 11 Oct. 2010.
  • "History of the Pug." PugSpot. N.p., 2010. Web. 11 Oct. 2010.
  • "Pug." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 10 Oct. 2010. Web. 11 Oct. 2010. .
  • "Pug History." PugCenter. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2010.
  • Sutherland, James. "The History of the Pug Dog." N.p., 28 July 2010. Web. 11 Oct. 2010.
  • Swainston-Goodger, Wilhelmina. The Pug-Dog - Its History and Origin. Cookhill: Read Country, 2005. Print.

© 2018 Jennifer Wilber


James and Robyn on March 06, 2020:


Thank you for the information. Our sweet baby Hannah had a “W” on her forehead as well. She left us too soon just two days ago at age 6 :( .

Larry W Fish from Raleigh on June 11, 2018:

Thanks for the great article on Pugs, Jennifer. They are the most adorable and sweet dogs. It was interesting to read the origin of those dogs.