It is well known that it comes from a Wade-Giles transcription of the Mandarin Chinese word for "lion dog" (獅子狗 shih1-tzu0-kou3, from 獅子 "lion" + 狗 "dog"). This is part is indubitable. There's no doubt about it.

In spite of that, there are a couple of problems.

The English Wikipedia article for Shih Tzu and some of its sources (some may have been removed) claim that the Shih Tzu is so named due to its resemblance to the lion. The Wiktionary entry for Shih Tzu even goes so far to claim that it resembles those Chinese guardian lion statues in the imperial palace or in front of feudal officials' residences.

However, the breed's name in Chinese actually translates to "Xi Shi dog", with Xi Shi being one of the four most beautiful women in Chinese history. Through the Chinese Wikipedia article for the breed and Google Translate, I've learned that this breed may have been called "lion dog" and renamed for "marketing purposes", although this claim has no sources to back it up. Meanwhile, the name "lion dog", in proper Chinese, refers to the Pekingese, a completely different breed that, if you ask me, better resembles lion statues.

So why is the English word of Chinese origin "Shih Tzu" used to refer to a dog breed not known in Chinese as "Shih Tzu"?

Was it really the original name of this breed? Or is it used in English etymologically erroneously for some reason? Was there a name change in Chinese which led to the etymological discrepancy between the English name of the breed and its Chinese name? Or was it just that the English-speaking world somehow confused two different dog breeds?

Edit: I'd like to stress that this is a question on etymology. And the etymology of English loanwords obviously has to concern with the source languages or the original circumstance around the time English borrowed from that source. I'm aware that there may not be any etymologists here who has a bit understanding of the original Chinese words ("lion", "lion dog" or the like), but unfortunately there is no "etymology stackexchange" for me to rely on.

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    @BoldBen: No, I believe "Peking" is roughly the way they pronounced Beijing in that city 250 years ago. The P/B difference comes from the fact that the Chinese consonants don't actually match the English consonants, the k/j variance comes from a pronunciation change in Chinese, and the difference in the vowels comes from the fact that the spelling of vowels in English is just totally messed up. Mar 14, 2019 at 22:44
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    @FumbleFingers It's not good enough because it's the obvious part that I have stated in my question, not the problematic part. Of course, since it's a word of Chinese origin, it is about Chinese and why it was chosen to be used in this way in English, or why there is such a discrepancy/conflict between the source language and English. As for "Use of English", I'm not sure what you mean by that, because I'm not asking how to use the word (nothing debatable about that), I'm asking about its etymology and I used the "etymology" tag for that, not some "usage" tag. Mar 15, 2019 at 1:34
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    Good etymology doesn't stop at just tracing origin. Good etymology also offers explanations where possible for cultural factors that may have shaped how we use words the way we do. For example, etymonline.com says we say "building" instead of "buildind" likely because the French confused the two suffixes; or how "dinner" used to mean "breakfast" in old French but now something different because of our changing lifestyle. I didn't expect good etymology coming here but I guess it's was worth a shot. Thanks for your time anyway. Mar 15, 2019 at 10:59
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    @PeterShor The etymology of pretend also includes the development of senses from the French to the English; that is part and parcel of any etymological claim. For an etymology to be at all viable, the semantics of source and target must match, or an explanation for their mismatch must be provided; otherwise it’s not much of an etymology. If the English word for dog came from the French word for cat, simply stating that would not be an adequate etymology – the semantic development from cat to dog would have to be explained as well. That is what this question is about. Mar 15, 2019 at 16:05
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    @BoldBen Nope. Shih Tzu is the Wade-Giles romanisation of 狮子, which is the Mandarin word for ‘lion’ (nowadays transcribed shīzi in Pinyin). As Peter says, W-G Peking and P Beijing are meant to be pronounced the same as well, although there is the additional difference there that W-G distinguishes king from jing even though the sounds have merged in Mandarin since W-G was developed. You’re right that this merger didn’t happen in Cantonese, where 北京 (‘northern capital’) still has a /k/ sound, but that doesn’t apply to the Shih Tzu problem. Mar 15, 2019 at 16:12

2 Answers 2


The 1921 work, Dogs of China & Japan in Nature and Art, by V.W.F. Collier, cited in OED (paywalled) as the origin of the English name ('shih-tzu') of the breed, completely addresses your question, although not directly:

Shows, breeding to closely defined points, and the keeping of careful pedigrees, have never existed in China. The only recognized standards to which dogs have been bred are those contained in the dog-books of each Imperial master, as painted by the Court painters.

Page 52, op. cit.

Lion dog from an Imperial dog book

Page 182.1 op. cit.

The Chinese lion-dog ("Shih-tzu kou") is so called chiefly on account of the length and shagginess of its coat. The Chinese readily apply the name [shih-tzu kou] to any long-coated dog, whether native or foreign, large or small.

Page 181-182, op. cit.

Collier adopted 'Shih-tzu' (not shih-tzu kou) as the name of the breed in English.

The chronological history of the later (?) adoption of Xi Shi in contemporary Chinese as the name of the breed, and (presumably) its subsequent adoption and use in English as an alternative name of the shi-tzu breed, cannot be readily ascertained by this non-Chinese speaker.

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    At a wild guess, xi shi was chosen because it sounds a little like shi zi. But that's a wild guess; I have no actual evidence for it. Mar 16, 2019 at 20:53
  • According to this, a name change for the Shih Tzu in Chinese is quite possible. Although I might add that even though Xi Shi "sounds a little like", the resemblance is very very very little within Mandarin itself. This could be more of a dialectal interpretation, given that 西 in "Xi Shi" and 獅 in "Shih Tzu" only sound alike in non-Mandarin Sinitic languages/dialects. (See en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E8%A5%BF#Chinese and en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E6%96%BD#Chinese) Mar 17, 2019 at 0:49
  • @Vun-Hugh Vaw: I don't know any Chinese, but I don't see why the two "Shi"s aren't pronounced exactly the same in Mandarin. They seem to have the same consonants, the same vowel, and the same tone. Isn't this like saying "wheat shreds" doesn't sound anything like "shredded wheat" because shred and wheat sound nothing like each other. Mar 17, 2019 at 19:36
  • @PeterShor What do you mean? Do you mean "shi" as in 施 as in "Xi Shi" or 獅 as in "Shih Tzu"? Even if you use pinyin transcriptions for both words, "Xi Shi" and "Shi Zi", it's obvious that there's little resemblance. A comparison between the second syllable of "Xi Shi" and the first syllable of "Shih Tzu" is very backward and very unconvincing, because there are TONS of homophonous single syllables in such a largely monosyllabic language as Chinese. Here's a (likely incomplete) list of syllables pronounced shī en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sh%C4%AB#Mandarin Mar 18, 2019 at 1:32

Although you refer to the Pekingese as "a completely different breed", the distinction between the terms "Pekingese" and "Shih Tzu" might not have been so clear in the past. There seems to have been confusion/conflation of different Asian breeds of dogs and as far as I can tell, the history of these breeds is still not fully resolved today.

The first OED citation for "Shih Tzu", from 1921, refers to "dogs closely resembling the ‘Pekingese’ type, as also the ‘Shih-tzu’ dog and the ‘Pug’" (V. W. F. Collier Dogs China & Japan; see JEL's answer for more information about this source).

The second OED citation is to a Kennel Gazette article from May 1934. I haven't been able to read a copy of it yet, but the quote refers to "Apsos", so it might be the article "on the various Tibetan breeds of dogs both in this country and Tibet" that Irma Bayley reports writing. In the past, the terms "Shih Tzu" and "Lhasa Apso" were not (or at least not always) differentiated, according to the blog post "Difference Between a Shih Tzu and Lhasa Apso". That blog post also says that the Shih Tzu breed "originated from a mix of the Lhasa Apso and Pekingese dog breeds", although I haven't verified that this is true.

The "History" section of the linked Wikipedia article makes the following relevant statements:

  • DNA analysis placed the ancestors of today's Shih Tzu breed in the group of "ancient" breeds [...] Another branch coming down from the "Kitchen Midden Dog" gave rise to the Papillon and Long-haired Chihuahua and yet another "Kitchen Midden Dog" branch to the Pug and Shih Tzu.

    It seems that, despite the fact that you don't see much resemblance between the Shih Tzu and the Pekingese, they might be related to a certain extent. I haven't checked the sources for this statement.

  • There are various theories of the origins of today's breed. Theories relate that it stemmed from a cross between the Pekingese and Lhasa Apso, a Tibetan dog given by the Dalai Lama to Chinese emperors near the end of the 17th century.

    This agrees with the statement in the blog post that I found.

  • The first dogs of the breed were imported into Europe (England and Norway) in 1930 and were classified by the Kennel Club as "Apsos". The first European standard for the breed was written in England in 1935 by the Shih Tzu Club, and the dogs were categorised again as Shih Tzu.

    It seems like in English, the association of the term "Shih Tzu" with this specific dog breed may have started in 1934 or 1935, as part of an effort to differentiate breeds that were formerly thought of as Tibetan. I don't know where the idea that "Shih Tzu" would be a good name for these possibly Tibetan dogs came from.

I found another article that seems relevant: "Ancient Breeds – Shih Tzu, Tibetan Terrier, and Lhasa Apso", by Amy Fernandez, October 2014. Fernandez says that "in June 1934 the Kennel Gazette reported that descendants of three dogs that had been initially registered as Apsos were reclassified as Shih Tzu. [...] Shih Tzu imports continued to be AKC registered as Apso until 1952 when the Shih Tzu Club managed to stop the madness". You can tell from the word choice that this is not exactly an impartial source, but my main point in quoting this is that it seems that the Shih Tzu Club played an important role in forming the modern conception in English-speaking countries of a "Shih Tzu" breed.

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    The OED seems to have lots of credible citations. Wish I could afford a subscription. Mar 16, 2019 at 9:29

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