And yet, these funny looking, questionably bright, short legged, curly tailed wonders were the delight of Chinese royalty. In fact, in ancient China, only the emperor’s household, aside from Buddhist monks, were allowed to own pugs unless the prestigious pup was received as a gift from royalty.
All this and more has been noted in easily accessible histories. My favorite, by Juliette Cunliffe, can be found here. Even Juliette, though, despite the fine job that she’s done, could not answer my most basic question about pugs.
“Why? Just, why?”
Yes, they are so ugly that they are adorable. Yes, they are sweet and companionable. But what about them made them so special to the Chinese? The pugs themselves were treated as royalty in the Chinese courts, and in some cases they were even awarded their own palaces and guards! One normally has to be a person (or a cat) to receive such honors. Moreover, what about the pugs’ Buddhist nature so appealed to the monks that they favored them over all other expressions of Buddha in canine form?
I know why I like them. They are sweet and silly looking; and, one of the many reasons I love Molly is due to her absolutely unabashed, uncompromising, and uncomplicated love for me. But emperors were adored all the time, and Buddhist monks, surely, didn’t need such constant affirmation.
As a student of Chinese philosophy, I have long pondered the pug popularity question, and last weekend I finally got my answer. I took Molly and my daughters on a GERM field trip to the Milton House Museum (look for Elizabeth’s write-up for GERM coming in February!), and we found a pet friendly hotel so that our pug could join us. Molly is just a year old now and has led a sheltered life. Besides her Newfoundland nanny, Izzy, and the five cats that she lives with, her experience is pretty limited and her manners remain unestablished. I was both excited and a bit apprehensive about the trip. Would she bark and growl at everyone who came near the girls? Molly is very proud that her fierceness has prevented all of the dogs from even daring to come out of the TV to get near her humans.
What actually happened was quite instructive, and it revealed, I believe, a portion of the ancient Chinese secret of the pug’s privilege. In the early morning on the second day of our trip, I took Molly with me to partake in the hotel’s complimentary continental breakfast. Other than the early rising staff, she and I were the first ones there. Molly met, sniffed, and approved all of the staff members with no problem. Soon, the next early risers stumbled in, looking scruffy, rough, and grumpy. They included truckers getting ready for the day’s haul and linemen bundled up for the -35 degree wind chills that we would face that day. We couldn’t blame them, and Molly didn’t judge. Again, all snuffles –no trouble. She met everyone, visited those tables in range of her lead, inspected the ground for offerings, and came back to lie down. She seemed to cheer people up a bit and create a loose sense of community. People talked a bit about their dogs, asked her name, and complimented her. She liked that.
The news was playing, and after the weather, the local politics aired. The atmosphere subtly changed, and like a propriety barometer, Molly grew a little bit more watchful. Those present began to comment upon the wisdom (or lack thereof, in the opinion of some) of our local politicians and the effect of their policies on working families. Work is hard to come by; if it weren’t, there wouldn’t be so many people getting ready to go work outside in such weather. You don’t have to be particularly political to understand that. One gentleman (I thought of him as “Overalls” in lieu of knowing his name) was particularly passionate in his views — and that is when Molly sprang to action.
Overalls was not disorderly or offensive, but as he rose to get a refill on his coffee, he raised his voice, and his tone had gained intensity as he expressed his opinion about the governor. Molly jumped up and strained at her harness, growled, hackles up, and issued several sharp barks followed by more growls. Shock and awe followed. After we regained our composure, Overalls, truly apologetic, said, “I’m sorry, Molly.” He sat down and finished his breakfast without coffee. Molly settled back down by my feet, but she kept a watchful eye on him. Before he left, he came back over to apologize to Molly again and to pet her. “I didn’t mean to upset your puppy,” he said, chagrined. “I didn’t even realize I was raising my voice.” He looked at me, “She sure shut me down, though.” He smiled at her. “Keeping us minding our manners. Good dog, Molly.”
Then, I understood why the ancient Chinese loved their pugs. Pugs guarded palace protocol. I imagine that in the Inner Court, these precious companions kept the conversations respectful and the demeanor courteous. Anyone who spoke in a manner non-decorous risked an embarrassingly pugnacious rebuke. The dogmatic enforcement of etiquette would bring shame upon the speaker in the emperor’s presence. Thousands of years later, in our little food court, Molly was fulfilling her ancient heritage as the guardian of good manners. Although Overalls had vexed the carefully balanced accord of the room, Molly re-established the friendliness of the meal with her pointed reprimand. Overalls was suitably contrite, and comradery was restored. Nobody wants to be the person at the table that sets off the “big dog in a little body.” That is why I believe that the pug was not only adored, but it also played a vital role in Chinese court — an environment so imbued with ritual and tradition that a raised voice or out of place gesture might risk deadly disgrace or evoke the wrath of the Lion Dog.