Must love DOGS

The legend, imagery and reality of Taiwan's Year of the Dog

Must love DOGS

Dogs are everywhere. They are on street-side billboards, on lanterns children bring home from school, on telephone cards and MRT tickets, and on just about every item of commercial packaging imaginable. Even when not present, the "woof-woof" of a dog, "wang-wang" in Chinese, is represented by an identically pronounced character meaning prosperity.

A person would need to stay home 24 hours a day to not know that on the 29th of January 2006, as the Lunar New Year begins, the rooster is being ousted in favor of the dog.

Something else "everyone knows," or thinks they know, is that the dog is one of the twelve signs ("sheng-xiao"; literally "living symbols" or "animal symbols") of the Chinese zodiac, which together form a system of fortune-telling and prognostication that dates back to prehistoric times.

But do they? Where did these animals and the zodiac come from? And what do local people really think about these super-symbolic animals, in this year's case, the dog.

Obscure parentage

According to popular legend, the Jade Emperor, Daoism's preeminent deity, invited all the animals to a banquet in heaven, but only 12 turned up. These he honored by giving them each a year of their own. Buddhists, naturally, replace the Jade Emperor with the historical Buddha, while others tell a story about a competition held by China's legendary Yellow Emperor, who needed twelve animals to act as palace guards. All these legends, at least the Chinese versions, end with the same twelve animals.

There are associated accounts of why certain animals missed selection. The cat, for example, wanted to sleep a little longer so asked its erstwhile buddy, the rat, to reserve it a place. The rat forgot, the cat was omitted, and the two have been enemies ever since. At another stage, the rat hid in the elephant's trunk, scaring the elephant, which ran off.

Yet other details describe how the animals' order was decided. The rat hitched a ride on the ox's head as it swam toward the finishing line, jumping off at the last minute to become the first in the cycle of twelve. The hare beat the dragon in a running race, so precedes it, and the pig and dog were punished with the last two places for complaining.

Academics are scarcely more coherent than these legends. Some suggest the twelve animals have the same origins as the twelve earthly branches ("di zhi"), which really have been used since ancient times, along with ten heavenly stems ("tian gan"), to form a sixty-fold cycle applied to the measuring of hours, days, and years. Others trace the zodiacal animals to nomadic people to the north of China or to further afield, ancient Babylon perhaps.

The earthly branches are found widely throughout the Oracle Bone Script, China's earliest systematic writing, which dates from the latter half of the 3rd century BCE. The earliest mention of the "animal symbols," however, is said to come from the "Book of Odes" probably dating from the first half of the 1st century BCE. This is circumstantial, however, as it merely states, "The geng-wu day is auspicious for

The legend, imagery and reality of Taiwan's Year of the Dog

leaping on a horse and going hunting." Although this merely mentions the earthly branch "wu" and the animal now associated with it, the horse, some people like to cite this as the earliest reference to the Chinese zodiac.

For a reliable reference, historians have to wait until the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 CE), in which each earthly branch is listed, followed by its element (metal, wood, water, fire or earth,), and then by its related animal. Surprisingly, only eleven branches and animals are listed; the "chen" branch and dragon, the most auspicious animal in the zodiac, are introduced in a separate section.

With establishment of the full twelve (rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig), the floodgates opened and written documents are awash with horoscopic predictions based on the "personalities" of these animals.

The language of dogs

Dogs, like the other animals in the cycle, also participate in a parallel but much larger symbolic world in the language, art and imaginations of Taiwanese and Chinese people. Dragons, tigers and even horses, for example, fare well in this world, becoming synonymous with power, prestige, and wisdom.

Despite being humankind's oldest and closest companion, however, the dog, like the rooster that precedes it, barely registers on the Chinese cultural horizon. When it does, it is mostly an object of contempt.

In the Chinese language, for example, in which the modern word "gou" is often replaced by the classical "quan," a man will humbly refer to his son as a "quan-zi" (dog-son). Similarly, to reassure a man about to have children, one may say "hu-fu wu quan-zi" (a tiger-father will not have dog-sons).

"Gou tou" (dog's head) is a general term of abuse; "gou shi" (dog's droppings) refers to something utterly worthless; "gou qi" (dog-like manner) describes the fawning over superiors while bullying subordinates; and "gou ming" (a dog's life) is of almost no worth.

One of few positive attributes is "gou dan" (dog-like courage), which actually borders on extreme audacity.

Longer literary and colloquial idioms are no kinder: "gou yao Lu Dong-bin, bu shi hao-ren xin" (the dog bites Lu Dong-bin [a Daoist Immortal], not recognizing a good person's heart) suggests that dogs cannot tell good from bad, and "gou zui tu bu xiang ya" (ivory tusks do not emerge from a dog's mouth) that a mean person never speaks fine words.

A bad husband is also dog-like: "jia gou sui gou" (marry a dog and [you'll] follow a dog); as are friends and relatives who are hangers on: "yi-ren de-dao, ji-quan sheng tian" ([when] a person attains the Way, even his chickens and dogs ascend to heaven).


Speaking of heaven, although Taiwanese do not generally worship animals, there are a couple of famous dogs deified in local temples. The most famous of these is located just south of Shihmen Town on Taiwan's north coast beyond Danshuei. Although the Shih-ba Wang Gong (Eighteen Nobles Temple) is dedicated to seventeen drowned seafarers and their dog who washed ashore nearby, it is the dog that receives all the attention.

As these are "yin" deities, representing the forces of shade, the temple is most busy late at night. Adherents, especially those starting a business, buying a house, or simply wanting to make money, rub their hands, clothes, talismans or lottery tickets on the head and back of one of the many dog statues at the temple.

Common offerings include incense, chicken cooked with sesame-oil, fried glutinous rice and, for some reason, lit cigarettes.

What's in a name

A majority of Chinese characters are composed of two elements: one, called the significant or radical, generally indicates something of the word's meaning, the other, the phonetic, about its pronunciation. The classic word for dog, "quan," is also a significant for many other words, even though today we might wonder what connection they have to dogs.

Many animals, some of which are closely related to dogs and others less so, are all classified under the "quan" radical. "Lang" (wolf), "yao" (jackal) and "hu" (fox) are reasonable inclusions, perhaps, as are dog-like characteristics such as "hua" (cunning) and "dai" (foolish), even if these may seem contradictory.

The ancients' understanding of biological classification is clearly remiss, however, since "shi" (lion), "hou" (monkey) and "fei" (baboon) are also included. More pernicious is the use of dog-significant characters for the names of various minority peoples found around the edge of the Chinese empire. These include the Liao, Tong, Mu, Di, and Yao (jackal) peoples. To the credit of language reformers in the PRC, the simplified characters now in use have dropped the dog element from many of these names.

For this same reason, there is currently a campaign in Taiwan to replace the "you" character, which also includes "quan," in the word "you-tai" (Jew) with a less offensive alternative.

Scientific origins

Much more is now known about the origins of dogs, their genetic relationships to other species, and their mutually beneficial relationships with homo sapiens.

Dogs "canis lupus familiaris" are the oldest of all humankind's domesticated animals and plants, being derived from wild gray wolves "canis lupus," of which they are still considered a subspecies as they can interbreed. This probably occurred in the Levant and probably around 10-15,000 years ago. Based on DNA evidence, however, some scientists now claim that the relationship with hominids might date back as long as 150,000 years, which would suggest that dogs might have accompanied humans and their earlier relatives through much of prehistory.

With the possible exception of early beekeeping, the next animals to be domesticated were the goat, sheep and pig, all of which took place around 8000 BC and all in Asia.

It is estimated that the current global population of domestic dogs is as high as 500 million.

Initial domestication of the dog was probably as a food source (squeamish readers might want to miss this bit) and for assistance first in hunting and then agriculture. It seems that only later were they kept for guard duty and companionship.

While Taiwan's indigenous peoples still value dogs primarily for their hunting skills, and most Han Taiwanese keep dogs for companionship, until recently dog meat was still on local menus, albeit in rather out of the way restaurants. It was particularly popularly in the colder months as a "yang" meat that could ward off winter illnesses.

'Fragrant meat'

Appearing under the euphemism of "xiang rou" (fragrant meat) or identified by the habit of "hanging a sheep's head to sell dog meat," sometimes dogs were bred especially for the pot. Animal rights activists, on the other hand, claim that as many as one-third of all Taiwan's stray dogs used to end up being sold to these restaurants at prices varying from NT$300 to NT$3,000.

Legislation to curb the practice was first introduced in 2000 and tightened further in 2003 when the Legislative Yuan passed new rules under the Animal Protection Act. These made the selling of dog meat, dogs and other companion animals to be used as food illegal throughout Taiwan.

Previously the law, which banned that the killing of dogs and cats for their skin, meat or other parts, had failed to stop vendors from selling these animals to restaurants as the vendors were not killing the animals themselves. The new rules also raised the maximum fine for killing dogs and cats to NT$250,000. Activists say that dog meat restaurants continue to exist, however, they have merely gone underground.


Another problem of great concern to animal rights activists has, ironically, a quite opposite cause. Strays, of which a decade ago there are estimated to be around 1.3 million in Taiwan (out of a total canine population of about 4 million), result from dogs escaping from captivity but, far more commonly, from intentional human release.

In a survey to find the reasons that dog owners release pets rather than finding new homes for them or having them humanely destroyed, the main explanation was always "to give the animal another chance." This is bound up with Taiwan's religious emphasis on compassion for animals and vegetarianism and, in particular, on the Buddhist injunction "not to take life" and that religion's practice of "fang sheng" (releasing living creatures) as a merit-making act.

While the researchers undertaking the survey stressed that education is a big part of the way forward, answers to two other of its questions suggest that people already know that releasing dogs is not really in the animals' best interests. While only 5 percent admitted to releasing dogs themselves, 32 percent claimed to know personally someone else who had done so.

Taiwan has numerous groups looking after animals' welfare. One new organization is attracting particular attention from foreign residents. Animals Taiwan formed in 2005, is very English-language friendly (see website at, and claims to have saved and rehomed some 200 dogs already.

Although the organization welcomes donations and sells biscuits and other items to raise money for its shelter, it is mainly interested in attracting volunteers' time and energy to help assist with rescues, find homes for strays, and enforce the Animal Protection Act.

It also encourages people to call the Taipei Municipal Institute for Animal Health (02-8789 7131) to report instances of animal cruelty, and its website has links to useful webpages about dog behavior, human behavior (regarding dogs) and much more.

Those offering a home to a stray, or even a purebred, should make sure that regular visits to the vet are scheduled.

According to the above-mentioned survey, only 42 percent of Taiwan's pets have such check ups, and 19 percent of owners admitted never taking their dogs to the vet. Seventy-two percent did, however, report having their dogs vaccinated. Vaccination against rabies is a legal requirement for dogs in Taiwan, monthly treatment for heartworm, a mosquito transmitted disease, is essential, as is taking action against fleas and ticks, which thrive in Taiwan's warm climate.

In addition to veterinary health checks, owners should consider enrolling their pets in training schools. Dogs are pack animals and learn best from each other.

Top of the class

Two well known Chinese breeds of dog are the wrinkle-skinned "shar pi" (sandy skin), which originated in Guangzhou in southern China; and the "Beijing quan" (Pekinese), which is nicknamed the "gong-ting shi-zi gou" (palace lion-dog), because its ownership was once restricted to members of the imperial court and because they resembled Chinese lions.

According to legend, a lion and a marmoset fell in love but were mismatched in size. The lion went to the Buddha and explained the predicament, so the Buddha enabled the lion to shrink down in size. The result of their union is the pekinese dog.

May 2006 be a happy and "wang-wang" (prosperous) year, both for Taiwan News's readers and the island's large dog population.

Updated : 2021-04-12 10:14 GMT+08:00