Earlier today a television interviewer asked me some questions about War Pugs. As a long time Pug fancier I did my best to satisfy his curiosity but I realized there may be more people out there with questions. So I’ve set down this brief set of facts, tidbits, and trivia . . .
I’m often asked what the correct name is. Are they Imperial Chinese War Pugs, or simply Imperial War Pugs? In the western world it’s become common to add “Chinese” to the name, but in earlier times, they were simply Imperial War Pugs. There was no need to name China, because it was already known as the center of the world, and the home of the Emperor.
Everything changed with the arrival of the British invaders, off the Port of Hong Kong, 150-some years ago today.
People often ask the difference between a common pug and an Imperial War Pug. Basically it comes down to this: The Imperial War Pug is the pure line. The common pug – purebred as it may be, is a lesser creature.
The difference is readily apparent to an expert, as any dog show judge will attest. The War Pug has finer features, greater intelligence, and a cleaner odor when wet. It is, as they say, all a matter of breeding and culture.
Pugs of all sorts were unknown in the western world prior to the sacking of the summer palace by British soldiers in 1861. At that time soldiers captured some animals and took them back home as pets, not knowing their importance in Chinese society. After that, it was as if a dam had broken. It seemed like every China clipper captain had to have a pug, and an underground trade was quick to develop, despite the Imperial prohibitions on sale of the animals to the West.
Imperial War Pugs were long the property of the Emperor, who gave the animals to his favorite generals as a token of respect and appreciation. Common pugs – from whom the Imperial line was derived – were frequently kept by Chinese nobility but always forbidden to the common man.
In fact, a Chinese serf found in possession of a Pug might well be immediately put to death by the sword. As you can imagine, the sight of a Pug running loose in a village – rare as that may have been – was enough to inspire terror in the hearts of the peasantry, who lived their lives in the shadow of the Emperor. “Fear this, and tremblingly obey,” were the closing words of every Imperial proclamation, and the phrase was backed up with the threat of immediate decapitation. Even handling a Pug might subject the offender to punishment. The loss of a "hand that petted" was not at all uncommon.
Pugs were not to be trifled with.
Most pugs raised by breeders today are derived from the common pug stock that was acquired from traders in the 1880s, often as part of an exchange for opium. Many a pug dog sailed for a new home in the China clippers of the late nineteenth century. True descendants of the Imperial line are rare, and justifiably coveted.
When people hear the name – Imperial War Pug – they may mistakenly assume the animals are vicious. Far from it. War Pugs are peaceful creatures, devoted to a life of Zen and meditation. The image of a War Pug, meditating atop a field of fallen soldiers, is indeed iconic in Chinese literature of the early period.
War Pugs – like good generals – know war is always a last resort, and never desirable. Some say the Pugs acted to calm their masters; many of whom were not otherwise known for mercy on the battlefield.
When a general died it was common for his Pug to be buried beside him; hence their discovery in tombs. It was also common for likenesses of the Pugs to be carved from stone, and many tombs feature both soldiers and War Pugs – carved from living rock – both guarding their masters for all eternity.
Today most War Pugs live lives of leisure, passing their days on sofas and pillows. Few are called upon to reflect on the brutality of war. But they are there, ready, and we might be well advised to give them to our own generals, in Iraq and Afghanistan, as they search for peace in those troubled lands. Perhaps the Pugs could show them the way, as they did for so many years in China.