The Shar Pei (Cantonese: shā pèih or Mandarin: 沙皮 shā pí) is a dog breed from southern China. Traditionally kept for dog fighting, the Shar Pei was driven to the point of extinction in the 20th century, the breed is known in the West for its deep wrinkles, whilst a traditional less wrinkled form is maintained in Hong Kong.

"Meat-mouth" Shar Pei showing the blue-black tongue

The Shar Pei is a short-coated medium-sized breed of dog, renowned for its excessively wrinkled skin. The breed resembles many dog breeds from the mastiff family; however, it is most closely related to spitz breeds, with the Chow Chow being its closest relative. This is most clearly seen with the two breeds both possessing unique blue-black tongues.[1][4]guard dog kept in southern China during the Han dynasty; some believe the modern breed, along with the Chow Chow, descends from these dogs.[1][2] The breed has been identified as a basal breed that predates the emergence of the modern breeds in the 19th century.[3]

The Shar Pei first came to the attention of Western travelers in the 19th century, who called the breed the "Chinese fighting dog"; these dogs were not nearly as wrinkled as the modern breed and it was used by locals for dog fighting.[1][2] The Shar Pei was once very popular, but the political turmoil in China in the 20th century was to take its toll on the breed and by the 1970s it was close to extinction.[1][2] In 1973 a Hong Kong businessman named Matgo Law appealed to the international community, in particular the American Kennel Club, to help save the breed; by 1978 the breed was named by The Guinness Book of Records as the world’s rarest breed, with only 60 remaining.[1][2][4] The resultant publicity led to great demand in the United States for examples of the breed, and unscrupulous breeders in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan took to crossing their remaining purebred animals with other breeds including the Bull Terrier, Pug and Bulldog, and selling the offspring to unwitting American buyers.[2] The results of the crossings led to a dog with a much fleshier mouth than the original breed, these dogs became known as "meat-mouth" Shar Peis, whilst the original dogs are called "bone-mouth" Shar Peis.[2]

The cause of saving the breed was taken up in the United States by enthusiastic breeders using the dogs smuggled there in the 1970s, a breed club was founded and it received American Kennel Club recognition in 1992, with breed standard specifying a meat-mouth type dog.[1][2] Some breeders in Hong Kong maintain the traditional bone-mouth type, although it is estimated only 50 to 100 examples of this type remains.[2]

In the United States, a number of breeders have selectively bred Shar Peis for a smaller size, creating what they call the Miniature Shar Pei, much to the opposition of many breeders of traditionally sized Shar Peis.[1] Standing to a maximum 40 centimetres (16 in), the Miniature Shar Pei is bred for both for its smaller size and increased wrinkles.[1]