“Let the Lion dog be small, with the swelling cape of dignity round its neck and the billowing standard of pomp above its back.” Thus begins C.A.S. Williams’ account in my big book on Chinese symbols and motifs of the 19th century Empress Dowager Tzu Hai’s edict for palace dogs. She was spelling out her royal expectations for the then popular Pekingese dog, or Buddhist Lion, as it had been called since the time of Confucius.
Williams notes that this quintessential Chinese dog has obscure roots back in the Chou dynasty (about 1000 BC). An early name for them was “Pai” meaning ‘short-headed, short-legged’ and belonging under the table. The Chinese used low tables until about 1000 years ago; under-the-table dogs were what we call ‘toy dogs’, those under seven inches high and 12 inches long.
I turned to studying the Pekingese dog as a painting subject, when I needed to complete my set of zodiac animal cards. The first dog I knew as a child was a Jack Russell terrier, followed by a collie. Later in life I admired a neighbor’s German shepherd and fell in love with both golden and black labs. I expected any of these familiar faces to become my choice for representing the zodiac sign of dog. While studying the relationship between calligraphy and Chinese brush painting I tripped over a delightful dry brush rendering of a Pekingese dog. His round luminous eyes and perky ears spoke to me.
First lesson, spell the name right
The Empress Dowager had much to say about her preferred doggie companion, the Pekingese (for some unclear reason I had ‘Pekinese’ in my head):
“Let its face be black, its forefront shaggy, its forehead straight and low. Eyes large and luminous. Ears like the sail of a war-junk. Nose like the monkey god of Hindus. Forelegs bent so that it shall not desire to wander far or leave the Imperial palace. Body like that of a hunting lion spying for its prey. Feet tufted with plenty of hair that its footfalls be soundless. Lively and pompous. Timid to avoid danger.
Color—golden sable (like a lion). To be carried in the sleeve of a yellow robe…”
She went on to prescribe its care and diet, the clothing it should wear, and even the manner in which it should wash its face—like a cat, dainty.
I found Williams’ explanation regarding the ‘Buddha lion dog’ a bit confusing. I thought at first it was just the reference to the preferred color similar to tawny lions, and maybe the shaggy mane. After several re-reads I finally grasped that the Pekingese dog was originally a gift to people of the Manchu dynasty, and they had taken their name from the Manjuari Buddha. They delighted in the little dog with lion-like looks, and it was highly favored among those living in the Imperial palace. The dog’s special status was thus reflected in its sobriquet.
The Wikipedia entry on Pekingese dogs quotes the Empress Dowager more fully than I have; it also provides more dog history and a few legends near the end. Folklore has it that the dog resulted from a cross between a lion (hence the color and shaggy coat) and a monkey (the ambling, bowed leg gait).
The dog is much valued for its fidelity, though despised for other reasons, says Williams. It fulfils the dual role of guardian and scavenger. And yes, there are some breeds (eg. chow dog) raised on a special diet on farms, destined for restaurants in China. (Chow dog, really?) Jane Dwight’s Chinese brush painting Bible tells us the dog figures in many Chinese folktales, including one that maintains the dog introduced rice to mankind. It is fittingly seen as symbolic of faithfulness.
Painting the Peke
My art books have few compositions showing dogs. Husky dogs are shown in Painting Cute Animals by Fang Zhwu-shiung. A generic-looking black and white puppy (maybe a spaniel) is Jane Dwight’s choice. Some older Chinese compositions show small, black or yellow-brown dogs with tails curled up over their backs; Williams’ book mentioned that these were the ancient choice for palace dogs, preceding the Pekingese breed which was brought in from Constantinople. In the few brush paintings I could find showing Pekingese dogs, they were tiny companions to the featured ‘beautiful lady’. I was on my own figuring out how to paint a Peke, except for the one dry brush painting by Kwo Da-Wai, the calligraphy scholar-artist.
Studying Kwo’s art I derived the following strategy:
1. Paint two very round black pupils, leaving white highlights or touch up with white paint. Use a detail brush and very black ink. Complete the eye shape around the pupils.
2. Sketch in a V-marking for ‘eye-brows’ above and between the eyes. Define a black nose with nostrils, and then place the distinctive curve from lower cheek up and around the nose, down to the other cheek that conveys that large fold of skin that seems to come from having a flattened face.
3. Paint tufty ears, chest hairs, forefeet, and body behind or to the side.
4. Add color if desired. I opted for shades of ‘lion fur’ achieved with yellow, ink and some burnt sienna.
Here are my first two under-the-table-dog paintings:
I also tried a composition showing a small beagle romping with a butterfly:
As fun as it is to play with puppies, my heart is still drawn more to horses, tigers and monkeys. Lucky me, 2016 will be a Year of the Monkey.