By Joseph Campbell
BEIJING (Reuters)

For centuries, owning the flat-faced Pekingese dog was a luxury to be enjoyed only by China’s royal family

After years of turmoil and the 1911 revolution that established China as a republic, however, the dog named after the Chinese capital became available to the masses, and by the 1990s, they were so common that the streets of Beijing, formerly Romanised as Peking, were teaming with strays.

 

Pekingese dog is pictured outside its owners house in Beijing
Pekingese dog, Xiaobai, is pictured outside its owners house in Beijing, China, January 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

But as the Lunar Year of the Dog begins this month, the most distinctive Chinese canine is almost nowhere to be found. Local pet owners today prefer foreign breeds such as poodles and Chihuahuas.

“Now there really are too few local Pekingese,” said Zhang Lei, a breeder in Beijing.

 

Hu Yujie poses for pictures with her Pekingese dog Xiaobai outside her house in Beijing
Hu Yujie poses for pictures with her Pekingese dog, Xiaobai, outside her house in Beijing, China, January 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

“If you want a local Pekingese then the only option is to crossbreed them with a foreign Pekingese. A lot of people don’t have them. I think the local Pekingese are now facing a crisis“.

 

Local-bred Pekingese dog stands in a cage at local animal breeder Zhang Lei in Beijing
A local-bred Pekingese dog stands in a cage at the compound of a local animal breeder Zhang Lei in Beijing, China, January 11, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

In 2003, Zhang adopted a few stray Pekingese and since then has bred them, mostly as a hobby. Some are for sale, ranging from 1,000-2,500 yuan (£112.5 – £281) each, but he said there are few buyers.

 

“ARISTOCRATIC”

Pekingese were first introduced to Europe when Western armies pillaged the Summer Palace in Beijing and stole several of the Qing court’s dogs during the Second Opium War in the late 1850s. The breed was seen in the West as an exotic luxury and a favourite at dog shows.

 

Qian Hao's imported Pekingese dog Mixiu runs in a park in Beijing
Qian Hao’s imported Pekingese dog, Mixiu, runs in a park in Beijing, China, February 8, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

Although the local breed is fading from view, some Chinese pet owners are buying longer-haired imported Pekingese because of their perceived purity.

“They have aristocratic mannerisms,” said Beijing native Qian Hao, who takes his four long-haired imported Pekingese on daily walks in a stroller.

A foreign Pekingese can cost as much as 100,000 yuan.

 

Qian Hao poses with his imported Pekingese dogs in the park in Beijing
Qian Hao poses with his imported Pekingese dogs Mixiu, Doudou, Namei and Qiaoba in the park where he takes them for a walk in Beijing, China, February 8, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

While there are no official statistics on domestic Pekingese ownership, Zhang Xuesong, who has bred imported Pekingese for 26 years, said that the breed’s “bad genes” and a general lack of interest have kept pet owners away from the animal.

 

Qian Hao takes his long-haired imported Pekingese dogs on a walk in Beijing
Qian Hao takes his long-haired imported Pekingese dogs on a walk, in a stroller, at a park in Beijing, China, February 8, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

After years of inbreeding, local Pekingese are perceived as having an array of health and other issues, including constant shedding, a lack of intelligence, and a susceptibility for slipped spinal discs.

Wang Fei, who owns a four-year-old white local Pekingese named Jianjian, said the breed became a victim of its own popularity.

 

Local-bred Pekingese dogs stand at local animal breeder Zhang Lei in Beijing
Local-bred Pekingese dogs stand in a cage at the compound of a local animal breeder Zhang Lei in Beijing, China, January 11, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

In the past, there were way too many local Pekingese. Everyone wants to raise something different. And now there are fewer and fewer local Pekingese. But I think they’ll rise again in popularity,” said Wang Fei.

 

(Editing by Tony Munroe and Neil Fullick)

 

 

Wang Fei poses for pictures with her Pekingese dog near her house in Beijing
Wang Fei poses for pictures with her local-bred Pekingese dog, Jianjian, near her house in Beijing, China, January 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

Dog breeder Zhang Xuesong poses for pictures with Pekingese dogs in Beijing
Dog breeder Zhang Xuesong poses for pictures with his imported Pekingese dogs, Xiaofei (R) and James, at his house in Beijing, China, February 9, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

Pekingese dog sits on a chair in Beijing
Pekingese dog, Maimai, sits on a chair in front of tiles in the style of a traditional Chinese landscape painting in the courtyard of its owners house in Beijing, China, January 7, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

 

Dog breeder Zhang Xuesong grooms Pekingese dog at his house in Beijing
Dog breeder Zhang Xuesong grooms a Pekingese dog, Xiaofei, at his house in Beijing, China, February 9, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

 

Pekingese dogs are pictured at breeder's house in Beijing
Imported Pekingese dogs, James and Xiaofei, are pictured at the house of breeder Zhang Xuesong in Beijing, China, February 9, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter