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Chinese Dane

This is a painting that fascinated me ever since I first laid eyes on its image (click to see it in all its splendour). The “Ten Prized Dogs” is a series of silk paintings by Italian artist & Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione who went to China as a missionary in 1715, took the name Lang Shining and became a court painter for the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty in Beijing. He also designed some western-style palaces for his imperial patron.

Most of the paintings are of sighthounds or, rather,  gazehounds (there is a difference: the gazehound is the more primitive version of a dog hunting by sight – and often using scent as well, all dogs do – but the gazehound actively searches and locates the quarry gazing into the distance and therefore gazehounds tend to have more upright necks; the sighthound is the derivative developed in the west, where the dog is released or ‘slipped’ to pursue after the quarry was sighted or ‘sprang’, or driven by ‘beaters’ – humans making noises & beating the ground with sticks to force the quarry out of hiding – or other breeds of dog. So Gazehounds are also game finders, unlike sighthounds). The dogs represented in the paintings mostly resemble Saluki & Greyhound / Whippets and one is most definitely a Tibetan ‘Mastiff’ / type dog.

First things first, the ‘mastiff’ bit on the Tibetan breed’s name is a misnomer and shouldn’t be used: Tibetan Mountain dog, Himalayan mountain dog, Do-Khyi (watch dog, house dog), Bhote Kukur (in Nepali) or even Bankhar (see below) are more appropriate. (The Do-Kyi is the aboriginal, nomad or Bankhar type, while the Tsang-Kyi is the settled, heavier or ‘monastery’ type. Tsang is a Tibetan province). The breed is a mountain-type dog, a flock guardian primitive breed. It seems I will not avoid writing an article on this unfortunate and persistent misunderstanding about what is a mastiff and what is a molosser, after all…I am dreading it, because it’s a tedious area of pseudoscience like astrology, where dogma and fanciful poppycock combine to fill a huge hot air balloon with fictional theories. By Jove, I don’t know why these inaccuracies are perpetuated even by the most prominent experts.

To return to the paintings, they were portraits of dogs presented as tributes and courtly gifts to the Emperor on the occasion of the Chinese Year of the Dog, by various tribal headmen and dignitaries. Each painting is signed and they all bear inscriptions in three languages: Chinese, Mongolian and Manchu. The inscriptions give the name of each dog. Some of their meanings are not possible to translate but we get an idea: “Dark Blue Lion” (the Do-Khyi), “Looking at the Stars”, “Tiger-Cat in striped Brocade”, and “Magpie”…

There is one painting though that is very special for obvious reasons. The dog’s name is Xueluzhua (“White Foot with a Spot on Chest”) and I’m not the first person to notice that Xueluzhua doesn’t look quite like any of the other dogs in the set: he looks like a proto- Great Dane. Very much so, in fact.

Am I missing something ? You tell me.

Executed in a wonderful style that blends the traditional meticulous Chinese “Gong-bi” realism with Castiglione’s roots in western post-renaissance naturalism and Christian art of his period, the paintings look fresh and luminous. Exquisitely rendered with masterful confidence and sensibility, they became very popular and important art treasures for China. In traditional Chinese Silk painting, a preparation of alum & glue is first applied on the fabric surface, which is then colored using the same natural pigments that artists use since antiquity: they are made from plants and minerals; the bonding medium is animal-derived glue (from fish or the boiled skin, bone, horns/antlers and marrow, mainly from rabbits, stags and oxen). These mediums fix the pigment firmly on the surface and render the work practically indestructible from atmospheric corrosion and oxidization, protecting the colors from fading. They are the same basic materials I use for my tempera paintings. Unlike oil colors, the pigments have the marvelous quality of retaining their original hue, tint and tone almost indefinitely.

Bo Bengston offers several more interesting details about the paintings and about Chinese breeds that resemble Salukis in his article. I have not been able to find any references to the Xiguan or Xigou, other than geographical place names.* But I did find mentions of Zoroastrianism influences during the Northern Qi dynasty (550 – 577AD) which introduced Persian dogs (Salukis) to the Chinese. These dogs were sacred in the Zoroastrian worship and remained popular in China. * Update“Apparently the Whippet has also had a hand in creating the native XiQuan, a Saluki-like breed descending from ancient Asian Sighthounds crossed with Greyhounds imported from Australia and Macao in the beginning of the 1900s. Later, when Whippets were imported into the mainland of China, it was found that they are good coursers, able to change direction quickly. The XiQuan, the Greyhound and the Whippet are all popular in northern China, which consists mainly of level plains — good for coursing — with more hilly areas in the south. […]  We don’t think of the Chinese as having a long history in purebred dogs, but in fact they do. There are wonderful paintings of beautiful Salukis from hundreds of years ago, and in the 1700s the court painter Lang Shah-ning painted the famous “Ten Prized Dogs” for Emperor Qianlong (Ch’ienlung), of which most are Sighthounds and two are clearly Whippets or Greyhounds. (There’s no way to tell size.) “ [Bo Bengtson (from the Sept. 2011 issue of Whippet News, The Official Newsletter of the American Whippet Club)]. After some more searching I have managed to find some info on the net about the Chinese gazehounds Xigou / Saanxi (or, according to some Chinese sites, ‘Shanxi’). See further on for more.

I think all these paintings are stunning works of art but naturally the wonderful Xueluzhua has me captivated. I just can’t get over this dog. He is so different than the other hounds pictured. I have no real explanations to offer of course. The only plausible theory could be that he was indeed a mix of a heavier dog, maybe a type of mastiff like the Tibetan or the other varieties in the area, with a sighthound type like the one portrayed under the name Moyuli. The closest I can find in translating the name of this pretty bitch is ‘Magic Glass Dragon’ or the simple alternative of “glossy ink-black”. You can see all the pieces in this Wikimedia album.

The dogs are, the wonderfully-named “Looking at Stars” (Stargazer?), silk-eared Shanxing Wolf (Saluki type), the very elegant & contemplative, brindle Banjinbiao (sighthound type), the imposing Cangni (Tibetan Mtn dog type), the delicate, porcelain-like Cangshuiqiu (Saluki type), the soft-eyed, richly colored Jinchixian (“Golden-winged” Xian, Saluki type), the gentle Mukongque (“Magpie”, Saluki), the exquisite, sleek Moyuli (“Moyu glass” / “Inkspot”, sighthound), the soulful, impressive Ruhuangbao (“Huang Ru leopard”, heavier hound type), the beautifully poised, graceful Shuanghuayao (“Frosted Harrier” – Saluki) & finally, ‘our’ Xueluzhua (“Snow Claw spot”, proto-‘Great Dane’ type). There is one more (not part of the Ten prized Dogs commission), painted by Castiglione’s colleague, Ignatius Sichelbart, which can be seen here and is also of Saluki type. Interesting to compare them with this much older Chinese gazehound and with the two “Salukis” painted by the Xuande Emperor, dated 1427. Although we can’t attribute breed status to any of these dogs, some of them would not look out of place in the show rings today.

The red and white “Ruhuangbao” is particularly interesting to me too, as he actually looks like the early ‘blending’ between the Danish greyhound and the English mastiff that we have seen in Denmark. The black Xueluzhua though, looks much more advanced towards an early Great Dane phenotype. His painting was the offering from a Mongolian tribe . Too much of a coincidence. The Bankhar is an ancient Mongolian livestock guardian landrace, somewhat lighter than the Tibetan Do-Khyi. It would be a very likely hypothesis that Bankhars were bred with some of the gazehound / saluki types we see on the paintings and the result would be dogs very much like Xueluzhua.

Being a landrace, Bankhars vary considerably in phenotype.

I captured the still image on the right from this video

The dog on the left is from this page . Any of these dogs could have fathered our  Xueluzhua (I wish I knew how to pronounce this tongue-twister!), out of the pretty Moyuli (much easier to pronounce. What a lovely name !)

Check out this Bankhar, Baavgai (Bear): he weighs 110lbs and he is 31in tall.

This is another Mongolian dog:


I can see the hunting Molossian / proto-boarhound ancestor in this dog above.

What an absolutely exciting project this is, to protect the Bankhar and the Snow Leopard through a LGD program, while studying this ancient landrace of dogs. I am following the progress with great interest. I would love to take a field trip to Mongolia and see them for myself. I wonder what the DNA analysis will reveal ?

It wouldn’t be at all surprising to find the same ‘recipe’ (mixing mastiff & greyhound) in 1700s China, if that’s indeed what the dog was. In fact it would be surprising if those races didn’t mix at some point, to produce hunting dogs. Mongolians hunted Saiga antelopes, Argali mountain sheep, Musk and other deer species, black-tailed gazelle & wild boar. They also used dogs to protect themselves and their herds from snow leopards, Gobi bears and Mongolian / Tibetan wolves – a subspecies of the grey wolf. A hunting version of Bankhar / Tibetan Do-Khyi LGD, crossed with sighthounds, would have been very suitable for these combined uses, much as the Molossians had the two versions of mountain dogs, the livestock guardian (Molossus of Epirus) and the hunting variety (‘Suliot‘ boarhound). These traditional, fundamental, parallel uses are shared along the transhumance routes from the far East to Caucasus and from Asia into Europe. A recent study actually indicates that dogs may have originated in Mongolia or the mountains of Nepal. So the hypothesis that the Bankhar is the aboriginal Tibetan ‘Mastiff’ or Do-Khyi, (whereupon the Anglo Saxon dogca could be rooted?) seems plausible.

Update: The most exciting aspect of my further research into the native gazehounds of the greater region [Xigou (meaning simply “slim dog”), Menggu Xigou, Hebei, Saanxi & Hortaya) yielded, was evidence to suggest that my purely theoretical supposition (that there was a heavier hound in China / Mongolia) might have actually been spot on. According to a friend’s notes, written in 2009: “Mongolian ‘greyhounds’ confirmed as a separate entity. Heavier, stronger, drop- or cropped eared. Mostly originate in Manchuria of north-east China and especially bred by the Mongolian minority in Dongbei province. Also occur in Inner Mongolia. Except the whites, ivories or isabellas, a very strong colour component is variations on blue to almost but not quite merle, including Weimaraner silver, light gray, very dark almost black gray and medium blue/gray.”The Shandong sighthounds were mixed with the larger, stronger Mongolian hounds. Picture of hound from the Hebei region in Northern China. Picture of Menggu Xigou Mongolian sighthound from Manchuria. It would be interesting to examine and compare these dogs to Indian hounds, such as the Rajapalayam, which is described as a smaller Great Dane, boarhound and guard dog (more pictures here and here) and the Rampur hound of Northern India, a large strong hound which hunts boar and blue bull (Nilgai). Another interesting Indian is the Kombai, a fearless bear – and guard dog.

By far the most interesting types or landraces I discovered in this little venture, were these two Mongolian dogs. I thought that they could have been littermates to our Xueluzhua, what do you think ? The first is Tigon, a Mongolian hound that was given to an Australian and went to a big adventure with him. [Compare with the background image of a Mongolian Taiga hound on this stamp. Apparently, also, this painting by Castiglione is a Mongolian Taiga. It’s not one of the “Ten Prized Dogs” but very similar in style and it’s called “Dog by Bamboo”.  Compare also with the smooth ‘Sinai Salukis’ pictured by Hancock]. Tigon means “fast wind” or “hawk” and he confirmed my guess that herders still cross LGDs with sighthounds – or maybe they even still keep strains from such old traditional landraces. Looking at Tigon was like looking at a re-incarnation of Xueluzhua, after three centuries… Taigas look very typical LGD x hound still. This is a photo from a Mongolian breed festival in 2013, which took part in Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, in South Siberia, bordering with Mongolia. Then, another contemporary dog popped up on my screen, looking just as I had imagined a cross between a gazehound and a Bankhar would look. Author and biologist Stephen Bodio, an expert on gazehounds, confirms my suspicion with his comment on the photo: “tazi or taigan X flock protector I suspect”. I suspect more specifically, that the Mongolian flock protector in the mix is likely a Bankhar. And somehow I felt that my long journey had finally come at an end – or at least, a satisfying stop and a rest, right there…

I don’t want to get people too excited or to read too much into this. I’m just following my thoughts and associations into forming questions and guesswork. There seems to be an obvious route linking those ancestral Bankhars & Do-Khyis to our Danes, through India and Persia to the Greeks and then from Molossia with the Romans and over the Alps to a Roman town called Rottweil and leaving several ‘traces’ along the way, from Epirus to Helvetia and then to Germania and beyond. This route has been travelled a myriad of times in the thirty-some thousands of years since the human-dog interaction began.

Along these paths and highways the original proto-dogs were shaped and formed into landraces spanning the length and breadth of the ancestral lands; they spread into the Indus valley, Akkad and Egypt, moved into Sumerian, Hittite and Persian territories and from there to the Caucasus, and hence to the North and the West, south to the Mediterranean and the Aegean, spilling into Europe from many sides; Assyrians, Cimmerians and Phoenicians, Milesians, Myceneans, seafaring Greeks & nomadic Celts, Skythians & Sarmatians, Alans & Magyars and Norsemen, Arabs and North Africans and a plethora of other peoples took them and mixed them and scattered them everywhere they went, from Siberia to Iberia and beyond.

Today we have the descendants of these ancient seeds the Roman legions planted as they came they saw and they conquered, eventually to disappear but not without a trace: the Swiss Mountain dogs, the Saint Bernards, the Bernese and the Rottweiler, plus the Great Pyrenees and the Leonberger, are relatives according to DNA studies. The phylogenetic analysis which puts the Great Dane smack in the middle between Rottweiler and St Bernard practically draws the map for us. If we follow the similar evolutionary and migration travels of the sighthound from the East to the West and into Europe, we see how the basic elements combined and recombined along the way, giving rise to the hounds of the Gauls and the Scots and the Nordic peoples, beyond the primitive hounds and gazehounds that still occupy the areas around the Mediterranean basin and the Near East, the Arab peninsula and Africa; and we can follow how these mixes and admixes of the original stock were used in the Medieval hunt and were taken along by Romani and other migrating peoples, eventually settling down with us to become the breeds we know today. We must mention here the genetic study which groups the Greyhound proper (the western – and more accurately, ‘Celtic’ breed), not with the Asian / African family of gazehounds and other types, but within the same cluster as the Irish Wolfhound, the Borzoi and the Saint Bernard, as “these breeds are either progenitors to or descendants of herding types”. The mastiffs, in this study, are grouped in another cluster, including the “Mastiff, Bulldog, and Boxer, along with their close relatives, the Bullmastiff, French Bulldog, Miniature Bull Terrier, and Perro de Presa Canario (no Great Dane included amongst them ! Instead, our breed is included in the fourth cluster, with hunting dogs). Also included in the cluster are the Rottweiler, Newfoundland, and Bernese Mountain Dog, large breeds that are reported to have gained their size from ancient Mastiff-type ancestors. Less expected is the inclusion of the German Shepherd Dog”.

So, where does that leave the mastiff and the molossian?

As a child the first books that I read included the favorite theory of the revered Tibetan being the patriarch of all mastiffs. Later that was dismissed as naïve and over-simplistic and the Anatolian, Caucasian and Central Asian LGDs were put forward as ideal candidates for this elevated position. The ancient Greeks first wrote about the formidable Seres from the Himalayas and of the Indian dogs. To quote Hancock, these were “recommended by Xenophon for hunting deer and wild boar. From Persia in early B.C. came the Elymaean hounds (more precisely from the Gulf area), the fierce Carmanians, the savage mastiff-like Hyrcaneans (from the area where Tehran now is and probably more like today’s broad-mouthed breeds than any Molossian) and the fighting hounds, the Medians. In Asia Minor were the Carians (from the area where the hound-like Anatolian shepherd dogs of today come from), esteemed by Arrian as tracking hounds, with good nose, pace and cry. The much bigger variety of the Carian, the Magnesian, was a shield-bearer in war. And from the south of this region came the Lycaonian hounds, highly regarded for their admirable temperament. In North Africa, Aristotle tells us that the Egyptians favoured the smaller sighthound type, comparable with the so-called Pharoah hound and whippet of today” [the Basenji influence is worth noting].

“The Libyans had good hounds and the Cyrenean hounds were allegedly crossed with wolves, with lurcher-like all-purpose hunting dogs known to exist in central and southern Africa. In ancient Greece, Epirus in the extreme north-west, produced the Acarnanians, which unusually for those times ran mute, the Athamanians, the Chaonians (from which came the legendary Laelaps) and the longer-eared Molossian hound. Since the cynologist Otto Keller produced his personal theory which linked the latter with the big mountain dogs of Tibet and then with the Tibetan wolf, mastiff and Great Dane researchers have had a field day”.

And the field day continues. The ‘old wives tales’ about the Tibetan being the forefather of all molossians and mastiffs may still, in a loose sense, be proven to be true, only now we might call the patriarch by the Mongolian name Bankhar.

I don’t have the tendency of many (usually male) scholars for absolute certainty once their opinion is formed. I rather prefer skepticism and doubt, yet without restricting the free flow of thought or blocking the ‘female intuition’ (lateral thinking?) which can lead to original, alternative ideas and arrive at discoveries from a different direction. I’m a mere student that draws from all sources and puts forward propositions (that look reasonable to me) so I can afford to throw ideas about and make mistakes. Or even huge blunders. Be warned. So here goes. It looks likely that some of the original pre-Bankhar – type, wolflike dogs evolved into two basic clades, mastiffs and sighthound types, in a similar way that the elasticity of the dog genome allowed the development of a flock-guardian type (that looks, rather unsurprising, almost identical to the Iberian mountain dogs / mastins) and a big-game-hunting version of the Molossian, (which in turn, originally resembled a more massive, powerful, prick-eared dog, something between a dire wolf and an Alaskan Malamute, if you like), possibly with the help of the Laconian hound.

All dogs are related – but some are more related than others. It seems to me that the proto-Dane is the result of the original mixture and subsequent admixture between these two dominant morphologies (fixed in situ from evolutionary pressures, adapting to the terrain / climate / prey, as well as human intervention and use), occurring and reoccurring continuously and repeatedly through history. It’s no coincidence that whatever he particular and individual ingredients of mastiff and sight-hound you choose to recreate the mix, the end result is always something resembling a median, moderate, meso-ectomorphic ‘boarhound’, or proto-Dane Hound in morphology.

I suspect that this happens because of two factors: natural tendency towards moderation (thus slightly favoring the lighter type dog) and the pug/bull dog (extreme brachycephalic) mutation being a contaminant that many ‘original’ mastiff and molossian (mountain – type flock guardians that is) largely escaped and remained free of. Hence, no matter if you use a Molossian LGD and a Greyhound, or an English Mastiff and an Ibizan Hound, a St. Bernard and a Saluki, or a Mastino and a Whippet, their offspring will always be essentially a big-game-hunting model, looking rather boarhoundly, Great-Daneishly or proto-Daneishly familiar, if you prefer (irrespective of coat type and color).

Compare, if you wish, these tracings (left half & right half) of a very important mural unearthed in the first Macedonian capital of Aegaes (Vergina) in Northern Greece, the original seat of the famous dynasty founded upon the tempestuous marriage of the Molossian princess Olympias and Phillip the II of Macedonia. The painting depicts a royal hunt. The king is either Alexander the Great or his elder half brother, Phillip III Arrhidaeus of Macedon, who reigned after Alexander’s death. The scene shows the very typical proceedings of hunting deer, boar, lion and even a bear, on horse and with lances and dogs, just like these animals were hunted up to and including Medieval times. I did this tracing from a very high resolution photograph, which I used years ago in an article published in my own ‘doggy’ magazine, discussing the evolution of the molossians.

Some authors saw the presence of the lion as a strong indication that the mural was done after Alexander’s campaigns in Asia and therefore they suggested the tomb must be of Phillip the III rather than Alexander’s father. I am not convinced. The event could actually be taking place in Macedonia or other part of Greece – and the king depicted on horseback could indeed be Alexander the Great, on his beloved Bucephalus – for the simple reason that lions, after all, did exist up to some point in history in ancient Greece (yet not any longer at the time of this painting); Alexander’s favorite heroes were Achilles & Hercules, the latter being the mythological ancestor of Makedon, the legendary Molossian progenitor of the ancient Macedonians. As we know, the first Herculean feat was the slaying of the  Nemean lion. A less well known episode of the myth was the slaying of the Lion of Cithaeron, being the last and ‘apocryphal’, 13th feat. So Hercules’ adult heroic deeds, in a way, begin and end with a lion. The ‘king of beasts’ was strongly associated with the Macedonian dynasty. What more appropriate symbol, then, to depict in this mural, as Alexander himself was somewhat leonine in appearance (after all he was a Leo! Born in July – tongue firmly in cheek…) and duly exploited this regal aspect of his person. He was brought up to be exceptional, and he obliged.

So the artist, who has not been identified, could have been employing a simple anachronism, often used in art, to honor the fallen king, while staying true and paying homage to Alexander’s own, and very well known sympathies towards the heroic figures he consciously attempted to emulate throughout his larger-than-life existence. In any case, and more to the point, this splendid mural does show a great number of dogs in detail and I’m sure the reader can identify the same big-game-hunting model, or proto-Dane or proto-Dogo Argentino if you like, that Hancock and others predating him have correctly and accurately identified and documented throughout history, even before this particular piece of evidence emerged.

You will have noted I’m sure the Molossian elements in Alexander’s own heritage through his mother, as well as his lifelong association with powerful hunting, guard and war dogs, from Epirus to India and back. This included a campaign against Scythians which took him all the way through Media, Parthia, Bactria (Afghanistan) and other lands to Iaxartes (Jaxartes) river, in the Fergana Valley (modern Tajikistan); there he founded his furthest city, Alexandria Eschate (the last Alexandria) in Central Asia. The various episodes that have recorded his appreciation for fine canines indicate that Alexander did take time between ruling, fighting and conquests to hunt with dogs and admire & acquire the most impressive dogs among those he encountered, to cross with his Molossians and use in battles and send some back home to mommy dearest; she evidently also loved her doggies or their powerful symbolism for her Molossian people; Alexander kept sending loot back to the homeland, together with shields from the conquered enemies that were dedicated to the gods and presented to various temples so that divine favour stayed firmly on his side – until he either caught a fever or was poisoned and died, rather young, it must be said.

So I conclude with the one thing that I am positively certain about: if you put a Molossus of Epirus to a Cretan Hound or a Grecian (Grey)hound or a Laconian, a Cane Corso to a Cirneco, a Spanish Mastiff or a Mastin del Pirineo to a Pharaoh Hound or an Ibizan or a Galgo or a Podenco (or the other way around), you will get something like I’ve argued above; so if you put a Do-Kyhi to a Persian Saluki or Tazi, or Sloughi, or Azawakh even, the likelihood is that you will get something looking very much like our lovely Xueluzhua. Who could indeed be the lovechild of the Dark Blue Lion & the Moyuli, for all we know. Which brings us nicely back to these magnificent portraits after a long arduous journey through time and from Mongolia and Imperial China to Germany & Denmark.

Surely, to be chosen as imperial presents these ten individuals must have been outstanding; they look exceptionally stunning and represent a range of dogs suitable to guarding and to hunting a variety of prey, from big game to rabbits. Castiglione’s impressive skills evident from other paintings suggest that these portraits were a true likeness of real dogs and not generic or fuzzy attempts to paint types rather than individuals. So I’d say we are looking at the real thing. These valuable paintings were commissioned especially as the Emperor apparently was very fond of his dogs and a great patron of the arts. He honored Castiglione greatly and he obviously had a very keen eye for artistic quality. He was a massive art collector and had very specific preferences and tastes – he insisted, for example, that his Parisian prints were done in a particular style after a German engraver who’s work he was familiar with and not another. He was a very intelligent and well-educated man. He was the longest – living and most illustrious of Chinese rulers. I was half-prepared to like him, but for the small matter of the massacres and genocides that he ordered, against Mongolians and Tibetans. Oh well. It’s rather naïve to believe that all dog lovers are good people. We mustn’t confuse the ownership and use of dogs with genuine empathy and affection. Anyway. To this mass-murdering art-lover and dog collector we do owe the existence of these marvelous masterpieces.

So, small-scale copies of Castiglione / Lang Shining’s paintings & three more of his contemporaries, who were also working for the Manchu Emperor, were shipped to Paris, to be transferred on to copperplates, printed, and then sent back to China, along with the plates and prints. One wonders if some dogs like those pictured found their way into Europe too, during these cultural exchanges, largely undetected. Or if indeed western dogs were imported to China the same way. We will possibly never know. Or will we?

Fascinating dog this Xueluzhua, no ? Another one that makes you wish for a time machine…