The historical story of the Shar Pei is a story in two parts. To understand the Shar Pei today, one must know the breed's distinct history.
Shar Pei in China
According to Chinese legends, the Shar Pei is over 2000 years old and was native to all southern Chinese provinces. This is confirmed by eyewitness reports from older Chinese from various provinces. Some Shar Pei populations can be traced back, which stretched across all southern Chinese provinces up to 70 years ago. Interestingly, with two geographic focuses, southern Guangdong and northeastern Yunnan, between Sichuan and Guizhou.
Depending on the region, they were called Sha Pi Gou (沙皮狗) or Teng Gou (藤狗). Both names describe the only phenotypic characteristics that connected this type of dog. On the one hand, the extremely short, very harsh, upright fur, Sha Pi, in English sand skin. On the other hand, the slim and agile figure, which has been compared to a grapevine, teng. It wasn't until the middle of the last century that the name Sha Pi Gou, or Shar Pei, caught on.
There is no historical record of the breed itself found to date, but thanks to scientific research projects such as "The canine genome" we know that the Shar Pei is indeed a very ancient and original breed, according to scientists an age of over 2000 years is quite reasonable realistic.
The Shar-Pei was a versatile working dog that, depending on its ability, was used either as a hunting dog or as a farm dog for the rural population and was excellently adapted to the southern Chinese climate due to its short fur and darkly pigmented skin.
However, many historical events of the last century have almost made the Shar Pei extinct in China. Only in and around the small town of Dali, in the southwest of Guangzhou, did a larger Shar Pei population survive and are still proudly bred according to old traditions. This primitive and original type of Shar Pei is now known as the Dali Shar Pei. The main reason why the Shar Pei survived these times is that, as a hunting dog, it made a fundamental contribution to the income of its family and was therefore treated well. The luxury tax on pets introduced by the Mao Zedong government did not affect the working dogs of rural Dali, several families have confirmed to me. This primitive and original type of Shar Pei is now known as Dali Shar Pei which was granted the status of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Dali city in 2019.
Knowledge of this breed was passed on orally, primarily by the families who used and bred the Shar Pei as a hunting dog. Most of the information about the breed comes from Huang ZhaoTao, a Chinese born in 1900. He has lived with dogs all his life and was very familiar with the breed himself through lore. He was a friend and mentor to many of today's older, more experienced Shar Pei breeders.
Zhao Qi, or Uncle Ki, as everyone affectionately called him, was also able to inspire quite a few people for the breed. He was a well known Shar Pei connoisseur and respected in Hong Kong and Guangdong for his knowledge. Thanks to people like them, Dali Shar Pei are bred to the standard passed down and taught by Huang ZhaoTao and Zhao Qi to this day.
In the mid 1990's the Dali Shar Pei Club was formed with the aim of protecting the original Shar Pei against developments which some Shar Pei enthusiasts saw as a threat to the breed. Because of the forthcoming return of Hong Kong to China, the influence of dog dealers from Hong Kong increased and through them a completely different type of Shar Pei was propagated in China as a "real" Shar Pei. This Shar Pei was much more wrinkled, much "meatier" and was often visibly ill. The number of original Shar Pei has drastically decreased since that time and has almost entirely disappeared in some parts of the country. The population in southern Guangdong has been sustained thanks to a few breeders, albeit in small numbers, and remains the largest in the country to this day. In 2022, the Dali Shar Pei Club counted just around 200 dogs in the region, which, however, are facing a very uncertain future due to the current difficult economic situation.
Shar Pei in Hong Kong
Until 1898, rural outskirts of Hong Kong were part of the Chinese province of Guangdong. Through the lease negotiated in 1998, the British government declared sovereignty over these New Territories in 1899. For the Shar Pei population in the New Territories it meant a geographical separation from China for almost 100 years.
At that time, purebred breeding in primitive Chinese dog types was unknown. A Shar Pei is defined solely by its characteristic short, harsh coat. Other characteristics, such as the wrinkled skin of the puppies, also existed in other "breeds" such as the Sichuan dog that existed at the time and were not a special characteristic. Although there were oral traditions and descriptions at that time, these were understood as rough descriptions and not as the fixed standard as we know it today.
At that time, the Shar Pei was a primitive, slender dog, like most dogs in southern China, which differed mainly through its fur. In China and in the New Territories, which now belong to Hong Kong, only these primitive local dogs were available for breeding until 1899.
Due to its status as a British colony, more and more European dogs made their way to Hong Kong and the New Territories. Breeders used these newly available European breeds, such as mastiffs, bulldogs, pit bulls and others, to breed the local dogs to be stronger and more aggressive and thus more profitable for the then-popular dogfighting. Dog fighting was then a popular pastime on both sides of the new border. The only difference were the different dogs that were available for breeding and thus influenced the phenotype and genotype of the two populations differently.
The first attempts at backbreeding began in the 1960s, when the meanwhile high potential for aggression, the very small number of dogs available and the difficult economic situation in the outskirts of Hong Kong presented Shar Pei enthusiasts with great challenges. The originally very primitive Shar Pei type was almost non-existent in Hong Kong at that time. The possibilities to travel to China and to move freely there were very difficult. The first dogs used by some breeders in their backbreeding efforts came from dogfighting kennels, off the streets of Hong Kong and those of neighboring Macau.
First contacts with Chinese breeders were made in 1976 when a Shar Pei breeder from Hong Kong traveled to Dali in Guangdong. Between this first visit, however, there was only very sporadic exchange until the 1990s.
Due to the geographic separation and the associated different development of the Shar Pei populations, both sides of the border developed a different understanding of the breed over the course of time. Economic problems posed further difficulties for the few Shar Pei enthusiasts in Hong Kong who wanted to breed backwards. In Hong Kong, few people were interested in a local dog and breeders had trouble finding homes for their puppies. In order to be able to continue this breeding effort, one of the breeders, Matgo Law, asked American dog friends for help and a short time later, in 1973, the first dogs traveled to the US and from there spread further into the world. A step that is not seen without criticism to this day, the efforts to breed back were not yet at the point where the breed itself was stable enough. But in the difficult economic situation it seemed to be the only way out at the time.
In the late 1970's and 1980's, Shar Pei breeding in Hong Kong was significantly influenced by foreign demand. Some breeders now breed precisely for this market and its needs. New colors were created through targeted crossbreeding and the more wrinkled meatmouth type, which was highly valued in the US, was preferred. As in the US, recurring health problems also developed in Hong Kong, also without any consequences in breeding practices.
At the end of the 1980s, the demand for Shar Pei from Hong Kong ebbed away, because there were now enough breeders in the US and also the first ones in Europe who could meet the demand. This led some breeders to return to their original breeding goal, which was to breed back to the original, more primitive Shar Pei. Other breeders were betting on a new market. China. With the foreseeable return of Hong Kong to China and a more dovish Chinese policy in these years, an exchange with China was just a little easier again and Hong Kong dog dealers took advantage of this and began to sell, advertise and use meatmouth Shar Pei in China themselves to market as genuine original Shar Pei.
Today there are also a few breeders in Hong Kong who have remembered the original Chinese Shar Pei and breed it. Their dogs are mostly from more successful back breeding efforts and dogs that have been exported to Hong Kong from China in recent years. Although the phenotype often differs a little bit from the Dali Shar Pei known today, this is only due to the slightly different genotype caused by different genetic influences in the past.