The exact history of the Shih Tzu is shrouded in mystery. It may well include not only Tibetan breeds such as the Lhasa Apso, Tibetan Terrier, and Tibetan Spaniel, but also Chinese breeds with similar qualities such as the Pekingese, Japanese Chin, and Pug. In the Buddhist religion, which originated in India, the lion was sacred. There were no lions in China, however, so when Buddhism traveled eastward the Chinese eunuchs and Tibetan monks bred their dogs to resemble lions. Also known as "Foo dogs," mythical "lion dogs" were depicted in imperial scrolls and guarded temples and palaces. The Shih Tzu were among the breeds known as "lion dogs" that came to be associated with Buddhism in China. In fact, the name Shih Tzu means "lion" in Chinese.
Development as a Distinct Breed
The development of Pugs, Pekingese, and Shih Tzu as distinct breeds that remain largely unchanged to this day was primarily due to the efforts of Qing (Manchu) dowager empress Cixi (Tsu Hsi), whose kennels were world famous. Breeding itself was carried out by the court eunuchs, who vied to produce desirable specimens with unusual markings and colors. It is believed that the breed became extinct in China after the 1949 Communist Revolution, because pet dogs associated with the royal court were considered corrupt symbols of privilege and wealth. Before this happened, however, a number of Shih Tzu were imported into Europe (often illegally) by diplomats and visitors to China. From there, the breed spread to Australia, the United States, Canada and elsewhere.
Modern Shih Tzu
The breed as we know it today is descended from just six dogs and seven bitches imported from China to England, Ireland, Norway, and Sweden between 1930 and 1948, plus a Pekingese dog (Philadelphus Suti-T'sun of Elfann) introduced to the breed in England in 1952 through a controversial cross. The descendants of this cross were not registered as purebred Shih Tzu in England until they had been bred back to pure Shih Tzu for four generations; the American Kennel Club required six generations.
From this small gene pool, the breed spread to other European nations, Australia, South Africa, the United States, Canada, Latin America, and elsewhere. The Shih Tzu was recognized as a distinct breed by the Kennel Club (UK) in 1946, by the FCI in 1954, and by the AKC in 1969. It is now one of the ten leading breeds in the United States. It has also become quite popular in such Asian nations as Japan, the Philippines, and Thailand. A few Shih Tzu have even been reintroduced into China.