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February 16th marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year also known as the Lunar New Year, a 15-day festival that gives families a chance to gather and celebrate the passing of another year. Unlike Western New Year festivities, which take place at the stroke of midnight on January 1st, the Chinese New Year is centered around the lunar calendar and begins on the second new moon after the Winter Solstice (sometime between January 21st and February 20th).

Chinese culture is rich in beliefs, customs, and superstitions that vary from those in the West. Writer ShaoLan Hsueh believes that the philosophies of Chinese culture are deeply rooted in the Chinese zodiac (Sheng Xiao). When combined with the principles of yin and yang and the five elements— metal, wood, water, fire, and earth— Hsueh explains how the Chinese Zodiac can assert a remarkable influence over people’s decisions and beliefs.

According to Chinese tradition, each year is named for one of the 12 animal signs associated with the Chinese zodiac. Legend has it that before leaving earth, Buddha held a grand race among all of the animals in the kingdom. The rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig showed up to the race and crossed the finish line in the aforementioned order. Today, they are the animal signs that make up the Chinese zodiac. Like the western astrological symbols that correlate to a person’s specific birthdate, the animal sign of one’s birth year is said to provide insight about their personality, career, love prospects, and future good (or bad) fortune” (Hsueh, 2016).

2018 is the year of the earth dog (translated in mandarin to 狗 – gǒu) and those born under the sign are said to possess such character traits as loyalty, trustworthiness, and kindness, qualities often associated with dogs.

Photo of a giant dog sculpture made of snow to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Shenyang, capital of northeast China’s Liaoning Province, 2018.

Dogs in Ancient China 

In China, dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) have been domesticated for more than 12,000 years.  The exact origin of their domestication is unknown, but written records and ancient art depict early domestic dogs as agricultural assistants, hunters, and companions to the wealthy. In ancient Chinese history, large breed dogs like the Tibetan Mastiff (pictured below) were increasingly domesticated as hunting companions and watch dogs. Able to withstand extreme cold, guard livestock, and groups of people living in hostile landscapes, the Chinese revered Mastiffs as protective deities. Recently, DNA sampling has determined that  the English sheepdog, Rottweiler, and Saint Bernard share lineage with the Tibetan Mastiff. In Northeast China’s colder climates, muscular dogs with thick fur coats (Chow Chows and Huskies) were often used to pull sleds through snow covered mountains. Today, the world governing body of dog breeds—the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI)—recognizes around 340 dog breeds. Dogs have more variety in shape, size, shape and behavior than any other living mammal, yet most experts agree that all dogs originated exclusively from a single species: the gray wolf (Canis lupus) of central Asia.

Artistic rendering of a Tibetan-Mastiff.

Around 700 BCE, small breeds, like the Pekingese—a dog who resembles a lion—enjoyed the ultimate affection and special treatment by members of the Chinese Imperial Court, including the emperor. Despite their toy-like appearance—flattened faces, large eyes, short legs, and a mane of fur around the neck— the Pekingese retains a dominant, somewhat wolfish personality. Though the Pekingese can now be found throughout the world, there was a time when ownership of a Pekingese was strictly prohibited by anyone outside of the Chinese Imperial Palace.

Photo of a contemporary Pekingese.

Ancient Chinese Mythology

The respect for dogs is perhaps most pronounced in the mythologies of China’s ethnic groups Yao, She and Maio.  Though details from each culture’s story vary, the general framework remains the same. According to legend, when Emperor Ku’s people came under attack, his dog Pan Hu snuck into the enemy’s military camp and returned with the head of the enemy’s general in his mouth. As a reward, Pan Hu (who became part man and part dog) was given the emperor’s daughter as his wife. The dog carried the princess to the mountains in southern China, where they had many children. Panhu beings are still worshipped as ancestors of the She and Yao ethnics.

Dogs—A Person’s Best Friend

For many around the world, the value of a dog is found in more than their ability to offer protection— though a barking dog is undoubtedly a wonderful deterrent for break-ins. So the beginning of the year of the dog is a perfect time to celebrate some of the most fiercely loyal animals on the planet! I share my life (and often, regrettably my bed) with two furry pups who are some of my most beloved companions. If you too are a self-proclaimed dog lover, then perhaps you echo the same feeling of joy when you see a dog happily sniff every last inch of dirt and grass in search of the perfect pee spot, or bound through a grassy field with insatiable curiosity, or sleepily tip-toe through your home to greet you after you’ve called their name. Dogs are extraordinary companions who find joy in the simple things— a new ball, a warm blanket, table scraps, and head rubs. In their short lives, dogs remind us to appreciate the little things, to practice empathy and responsibility, and with the wag of a tail, to get outside and explore the world.

Happy year of the dog everyone!

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