There is significant research to suggest that Chow Chows, as we know them, were present in China more than 3,000 years ago. Some historians set the period of origin as far back as the 11th century BC, contending that the Chow Chow migrated from the Arctic Circle, through Mongolia and Siberia, where it may eventually have been crossed with the old Tibetan Mastiff and the Samoyed, finally reaching China.
A figurine from the Han Dynasty clearly depicting a Chow Chow dog - on display at the Berlin Museum.
The Chow Chow as it is known today is easily recognisable in pottery and bas-relief sculpture from the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) - the period widely recognised as being the era in which modern China was born.
The Chow Chow is considered to be China's only native hunting dog, where it was actually used for pointing and retrieving! The Chow Chow's uses were many, however, frequently used for sled-pulling, cattle herding, hunting, guarding and companionship. Early explorers described these powerful dogs "heavily built with harsh, bristly hair in a lion-like appearance, absolutely straight back legs and blue tongues, lips just touching, not overlapping". Horsemen would each have had one that hunted alongside the horse.
Most references to the Chow Chow have indicated its colour as red or black. In the Lamaistic Buddhist monasteries, the monks bred blue Chow Chows. These blue dogs were used as guard and herding dogs, and, as valuable workers, the monks fiercely guarded them.
Breeding practices in early China hardly bothered too much with breeding pure, and it was quite common to cross the early Chou with the Pi dog - a lighter, smaller dog, traditionally presented as gifts to visiting dignitaries and never sold.
The first Western person to mention and describe the Chow Chow was Marco Polo, who visited China as a guest of the Great Mogul in the 13th century.
The Chow Chow was unknown in the Western world until the late 15th century when it was brought back by sailors and merchants in the clipper ships of the East India Company. Writing in his book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Seaborne, the Rev. Gilbert White describes a pair of puppies from Canton imported by a young gentleman of the East India Company in great detail. These were "of the Chinese breed of Canton such as are fattened in this country to be eaten". He goes on to say "the hind legs are usually straight without any bend at the hock. The eyes are jet black, small and piercing, the inside of the lip and mouth the same colour and the tongue blue". Clearly these were definitely Chow Chows, probably amongst the first in England as this was in the early 1780s.
During the latter half of the 18th century and early years of the 19th century, it becamse very fashionable in England and France to acquire "anything Oriental" - Chinese porcelain, cloth, paintings, jewelry, and of course, Chow Chows.
Early reports mention that there were several Chow Chows being kept in the London Zoological Gardens, identified as "The wild dog of China" and were stared at constantly along with other foreign exotica such as snakes, parrots and monkeys.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
The word "chow" or "chou" is a colloquial term for 'food'. It is common knowledge that Chow Chows were bred to be eaten instead of mutton or lamb, with the smooth variety being preferred over the rough variety - the latter's coats most commonly used to make fur coats. At the time, dog meat was considered a delicacy by many different cultures, but fortunately, the public buying and selling of Chow Chow meat was prohibited by law in China during 1915. At one time, the trade in pickles and spices was known as "chow chow". Since early English travellers generally referred to all Chinese commodities as "chow", it was perhaps natural that the 'edible dogs' should become known as Chow Chows.
Another possible theory of origin refers to a section in the holds of trading clipper ships called "chow chow" which could store bits and pieces of this and that. It is surmised that when the Oriental dogs were first transported to England, they were carried in the "chow chow" hold and later came to be known by that name.
One of the Chow Chow's original names was "Cha" meaning "large, primitive, extraordinary dog of great strength" and the name "Ao" which occurs in the 17th century BC, is probably a corruption of this. Also at this time, it was called "Man Kout" meaning "dogs of the barbarians" or tartar dogs. Chinese names for the Chow Chow include "Lang Kou" (Wolf Dog), "Hsiung Kou" (Bear Dog), "Hei Shet Kou" (Black-tongued Dog) and "Kwantung Kou" (Dog of Canton). Around AD 100 the breed was variously referred to as "Mang" meaning "dog with much hair', "Chao" meaning "dog of great strength" or "Ti" meaning "red dog".
A BRIEF TIMELINE OF CHOW CHOW DEVELOPMENT IN THE UK
1780: The Chow Chow first arrived in Britain in 1780.
1865: Queen Victoria was given a Chow Chow imported from China. It was said that the queen loved her Chow's cuddly quality and "stuffed doll" appearance.
1880: A black Chow Chow bitch - Chinese Puzzle - was exhibited at the Crystal Palace show in London.
1888: The Marchioness of Huntley, considered to be the pioneer of the breed in England, imported a male - Periodot - who was put to a bitch - Peridot. A puppy from this litter was bought by Lady Granville Gordon, who established a well-known Chow Chow kennel, with her daughter, Lady Faudell Phillips, continuing the success as breeder and exhibitor until about 1989.
1894: The first Chow Chow was recorded in the English Kennel Club Stud Book.
1895: The first English Chow Chow Club was founded, which also established the standard of the breed. At the first Chow Club Show, there were 54 exhibits present.
1896: The Kennel Club in England granted Challenge Certificates for the first time, with Lady Granville Gordon's imported male - Blue Blood - taking the dog CC and the bitch CC going to Blue Bell - owned by W. Temple.
A sketch by R. M. Moore of Periodot and Ch. Blue Blood, both owned by Lady Granville Gordon and daughter, Lady Faudell Phillips.