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Chinese had pet manicures a thousand years ago: historians

TEMPTED TO CHUCKLE at Hong Kong women who have pampered dogs which they hand-carry to expensive grooming and manicure services? Historians have discovered that such activities have a long history—and in ancient times there were even centers where Chinese noblewomen could get their pets’ fur trimmed and their claws dyed.

How do we know this? From old history books and from paintings. Even one of the country’s most famous bad guys, the notorious Qin Hui (秦檜), a powerful minister known for treason, had a treasured cat in his home. This was during the period of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 to 1279).

One day his six-year-old granddaughter reported to him that the cat had gone missing. It was a yellow and white breed known at the time as a “lion cat”. Qin ordered his servants to search the whole of Lin’an City (臨安城, modern day Hangzhou), to find it. Servants drew hundreds of pictures of the cat and posted them in the downtown area. Finally they took more than one hundred lion cats back to Qin’s mansion but none of them was the right one. In the end, the mayor bought a similar-looking cat and presented it to the family.

This story, recorded in an ancient text called “Notes on the West Lake” (西湖遊覽志), revealed the use of pedigree cats as pets during that ancient period.

“Lion Cats” from a painting by Mao Yi in the Song Dynasty

But Chinese people had kept cats for at least a thousand years earlier. A minister during the reign of Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty (202BC to 220AD) is known for a wise saying: “If you want to catch mice, the fastest horse is worse then a lame cat.” This suggests that cats’ ability to keep a home clear of rodents had been recognized for 2,000 years.


And what about cute dogs? Small-breed dogs became the pets of noblewomen no later than Tang Dynasty (618-907AD).

Dogs have been domesticated in China for millennia. Image by Izabelly Marquez/ Unsplash

Small breed dogs can be seen in the masterpiece “Court Ladies Adorned by Floral Ornament” (簪花仕女圖) painted by Zhou Fang (周昉). It depicted the daily life of Tang Dynasty noblewomen, and two pet dogs are very conspicuous. This species of small dog was named after their home place “Fulin” (拂菻, the Chinese name for the Eastern Roman Empire).

Fulin seen in Tang Dynasty art

In the early Tang Dynasty, Fulin were brought into the capital from the Western Regions. The dogs were so expensive that only noblewomen or court ladies could afford. It was written in “Old Book of Tang” (舊唐書) that “these dogs were [20 cm] tall and about [30 cm] long. They were so clever that they can lead horses and hold small objects in mouths. Fulin began to exist in Central Plain since this time.”

In the following regnal period, the Northern Song Dynasty (960 to 1127AD), pet dogs became very common in civilian families. Pet markets flourished on the streets. According to a book called “Reminiscences of The Eastern Capital” (東京夢華錄) written by Meng Yuanlao (孟元老), “pets markets surrounding the Royal Temple in capital opened five times a month. In the markets, people can buy pets like cats and dogs or other exotic animals”.

There were even business offering grooming services for cats and dogs, just as you find in modern urban centers today. But even then, so long ago, some people enjoyed doing the grooming themselves. Zhou Mi (周密), a diminished official, wrote a book in which he described young women, especially Arabian girls living in Kaifeng (開封, Northern Song’s capital), as being were fond of using balsamines (plants which produced a semi-permanent orange ink) to dye the nails of their pet dogs: yes, manicure services for pampered pooches a thousand years ago.

This “hunting hound” by Li Di from the Song Dynasty is in Beijing’s famous Palace Museum

People in the Song Dynasty, 900 years ago, divided cats into two groups: mouse-hunters and pets. Although the mouse-hunters were respected for their work, the much-loved pets got more care from their owners. As mentioned above, the most sought after cats were the lion cats, with their white and yellow fur color. Many bureaucrats kept lion cats in their mansions and had servants to take care of them.

Lu You (陸遊), the famous poet of the Southern Song, even recorded the cute names he gave his pet cats, such as Pink Nose, Snow White, and Little Tiger.

Today, pictures of cute cats and dogs may be among the most popular items on the Internet – but their attractiveness to humans in this part of the world has been acknowledged for a long time.

Main image, top right is by Anthony Tran/ Unsplash. Painting on the left is a Qing Dynasty image of a lady holding a dog

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