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Royal Pets: A Brief History of China’s Furry Friends

Did the Chinese royalty of ancient times have royal pets? Were these pets living as royals or just used as toys? Well, records show that the Chinese Imperialists had pets and were very fond of them, too. A diverse range of species is classified as ‘pets’ here. So, these consist of lions, giraffes, and even a dog bred specifically for the Royals themselves.

Now, let’s break down the history and the classifications of these royal pets in China.

Some royal pets of Chinese Imperialists
Many animals served as royal pets of the Chinese Imperialists

Royal Pets – a history 

Before we consider the lifestyles and the sheer swagger of these royal pets, let us consider how animals were in ancient China. 

One of the four most significant ancient civilizations, China has a rich and diverse history. Since ancient times, animals have played a vital part in human existence in Chinese history. But how do people in China treat animals? What did they do with them? Clearly, these issues merit discussion.

Animals in Ancient China

It is an important job to organize how people, nature, and animals interact. Even though nature and animals are essential to human growth, history also records the extinction of several creatures. All in all, animals were loyal and worthy companions to humans. So, this did not hurt their chances if they were cute and fluffy. In Ancient times, animals served several functions. These included:

  1. Herders and shepherds on farms, helping and guiding the livestock
  2. As guard companions, trained to sniff out and attack whoever posed a threat
  3. A source of food, the Chinese diet is too vast and diverse but was even more so in ancient times 
  4. As clothes, their pelts provided significant cover and warmth from the cold 

These animals were, of course, of use to the commoners. However, what about royalty? The noblemen? How did they put the animals to use when they already had all the luxuries these commoner animals provided? Simple. They used them as pets.

Royal Pets: Around The World

The nobility of any society, be it British, French, or Chinese, made sure they differentiated themselves from the commoners. This is because they thought themselves to be above these working-class people. It is because of this that they started adopting animals as pets. Not for use around the house or on their land, but as play things. The nobility treated these animals better than the commoners in every way of life. They ate better food, slept on silk pillows, and some even had butlers.

These pets had a certain allure to them. They were cute and delicate, and most had distinct features that only added to their cuteness. The royal families themselves then adopted several pets. These animals then went on to become royal pets.

China’s Imperial Royal Pets 

There are many tales of Chinese royals having pets that they adored beyond belief. 

Royal pets: The Pekingese

The Pekingese was the imperial court’s pet. This is because it is one of the oldest canine breeds. Moreover, it has the slightest genetic differences from the wolf itself, meaning that this little pooch is almost a wolf.

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The Pelkingese of China; a royal pet
The Pekingese was popular amongst the royal pets

Because of its likeness to Chinese guardian lions, people also call it the “Lion Dog.” Its genesis myth includes the lion as well. According to tradition, a lion and a marmoset fell in love, but the lion was too big. Naturally, the lion complained to the Buddha about his problems. The Buddha permitted the lion to shrink to the size of a marmoset. Thus, came the rise of the Pekingese.

Having come from the Buddha, the Pekingese was first a temple dog. For centuries, only imperial palace members could own the Pekingese.

East African Giraffes 

In one of the conquests, General Zheng He acquired a pair of giraffes. He was on a series of expeditions on orders of the Yongle Emperor in the early 15th Century. Naturally, these giraffes made it back as gifts to the emperor.

When these creatures arrived at the Chinese court, they were compared to the fabled Qilin. Their appearance, per Confucian tradition, indicated the presence of a sage of the highest knowledge and compassion. Their capture stated the magnitude of the emperor’s authority.

East African Giraffes
The giraffes in 1400s China were adored royal pets

They even went on to inspire poems in their wake. The poems boast of what a blessing the giraffes came to be and how they inspired a golden age in the kingdom.

The Shih Tzu

The playful Shih Tzu is a little toy dog that got its name from how much it resembled a lion. The Chinese word for lion derives its name. Chinese nobles prized Shih Tzus for generations upon generations. They were regarded as the noble dog of China, much like the Pekingese and pugs.

The Shih Tzu
The Shih Tzu was a cute royal pet

The Shih Tzu may be traced back to ancient canine breeds. However, unlike other dog breeds, they are more closely connected to wolves. 

Chickens, Eagles, and Horses 

The Northern Qi Dynasty’s Gao Wei (557–577) kept chickens, eagles, dogs, and horses. He provided them with the best food possible, far superior to the slop he fed his officers and lavishly housed them.

Gao left his police officers at home and brought his favorite animals to court. There, the animals listen to him talk about politics. He even granted them formal and official titles. Gao seemed to have a special affection for horses. As a result, he manufactured several silken saddles for his stable. It is said he even sometimes personally prepared their meals!

The most famous thing is Gao’s unusual fascination with his horses. He is said to have built a “bridal chamber” where they could mate. He was known around the court to have been a personal spectator when they mated, as one does.


In conclusion, yes, we adore royal pets. Take a look at Queen Elizabeth’s corgis and her swans. The world is still obsessed with how they are and how they are treated. Little has changed in how we look at royal pets between now and ancient times. It is a fascinating feat and one that is so cute to observe!

Did you enjoy reading about royal pets? They truly are fascinating subjects. While you’re here, why not keep reading? You can start with Chinese Gifts: How Not To Offend Chinese People, and Why Do Chinese Dumplings Hold A Cultural Significance? 

Happy reading!

Edited by: Syed Umar Bukhari.

By Hina Butt

Hina has spent a huge chunk of her life in China and considers it as her second home. She's a mommy of two perfect kids and now lives in Oman after moving in with her husband.
Before she started writing blog posts for SesameDisk, she got a graduate degree in Medicine(M.B.B.S) from Southeast University, Nanjing, China. During that time, just to shake things up, she went to Language school at the Shandong University in Jinan and ended up passing HSK Level 6 with flying colors.
She then worked as a GP and did a handful of practices, taught English in Chinese schools and later got into beauty blogging with some really important people who are way too dignified to be named here!
She now writes full-time.

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