Learn English – Why is the English word of Chinese origin “Shih Tzu” used to refer to a dog breed not known in Chinese as “Shih Tzu”


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.

Best Answer

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.