5 Chinese Objects that Celebrate the Year of the Dog

The Chinese New Year is an annual celebration of the end of winter. Also known as the Spring Festival, Chinese New Year is set according to the Lunar Calendar, meaning that the date changes annually. The Chinese Zodiac is a system that assigns animals to years in a 12-year cycle. Traditionally, the rat is the first animal in the sequence and is followed by the ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. A version of this system has existed in Chinese culture for thousands of years, but the order of these animals is explained through myth. A popular origin story describes a race among the animals to attend the Jade Emperor as his palace guards.

Each animal of the zodiac is assigned meanings and characteristics. These can be used to describe certain personality traits and events in the lives of people born in that year. In the tradition of the Chinese zodiac, the dog is associated with loyalty and honesty. Dog friends are known for giving advice and helping others solve problems.

This year the festival begins on Friday, February 16th and celebrates the Year of the Dog. To celebrate Chinese New Year, our editors welcome the Year of the Dog with some of our favorite depictions of man’s best friend in Chinese art.

18th Century Chinese Shih Tzu Protector

Shizi Protector, hand-carved limestone, 17th or 18th century. $4,880 via Pagoda Red.

The Shih Tzu breed is indigenous to China and is said to have originated as far back as 800 B.C. Their name comes from the word “shizi,” meaning lion, because these dogs are bred to look like Chinese guardian lions. This sculpture was carved by hand from a block of limestone and likely used to guard a temple from evil spirits.

Chinese Terracotta Figure of a Dog

Left: Chinese terracotta figure of a dog. Sold for $850 via Doyle (January 2006); Right: Chinese Han Dynasty green glazed terracotta dog, circa 206 B.C. to 220 C.E. Artemis Gallery (February 15).

Dog sculptures like these were often used as tomb guardians to protect their master’s grave. Other sculptures present may have included musicians, athletes, other animals, and structures. These figures are classified as “mingqi,” or “ghost vessels.” Designed to assist the part of the soul left on earth after death, sculptures like this were mass produced during the Han Dynasty.

Chinese Qi / Tang Pottery Group

Rare Chinese pottery group of a dog and her puppies, ceramic, circa 550 to 650 A.D. Artemis Gallery (February 15).

This mingqi is from the northern Qi Dynasty or early Tang Dynasty. Northern Qi ceramics are considered a revival of Chinese art following an outside invasion during the 4th century. This pottery group depicts a female dog feeding her puppies. The remains of paint on the molded piece reveal fragments of the dog’s quizzical expression.

Qing Dynasty Landscape Painting with Dog

Qing Dynasty landscape painting, watercolor on linen paper, 19th century. Sold for €2,600 via Cambi Casa d’Aste (December 2013)

Art and literature flourished during the Qing dynasty, as the emperors embraced both traditional and new forms of creative output. Landscape painting was and still is generally considered the highest form. In addition to painting, poetry became more popular as literacy rates increased. Both were common activities for scholars and the urban elite. This 19th century vertical landscape painting depicts a dog looking up at trees. Chinese characters appear up the left side of the image.

Chinese Export Porcelain Figure of a Dog

Chinese figure of a dog, porcelain, 18th century. Sold for $1,300 via Leland Little Auctions.

This 18th century porcelain figure may depict a Shih Tzu, modeled in a seated position. Between the 16th and 20th centuries, a wide range of porcelain items were made in China exclusively for export to Europe and North America. The West’s fascination with Asian culture drove the demand for these pieces, which included tea wares, dinner services, and figures like this one.

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