My toddler has learned the sublime art of arguing with me. Rather than attribute this to my complete naiveté regarding the finer points of childhood development and the ultimate result of spoiling an only-child while filling him with my bizarre ideas (just yesterday I instructed him on theological importance of Elvis, significant to him only in so far as he understands him as the archetype for the Cartoon Network’s Johnny Bravo, can sing Heartbreak Hotel word-for-word, and that he should refer to his mother as “little mama”, much to her dismay), I prefer to think that China’s T’ien Kou is to blame. The T’ien Kou in mentioned in the Shan Hai Jing (“Classics of the Mountains and Seas”), a 4th Century B.C. compilation of geography and myth (and for god’s sake, it was written in the 4th Century, clearly out of copyright, and nobody’s digitized an English translation! – Amazon wants 40 bucks and this is a shoestring operation until some billionaire heiress recognizes its awesomeness or my obvious charms). This is why academics tend to have a leg-up on the information market. They have easy access to well-stocked research libraries. Bastards. They ain’t all that. That aside, enough generous, learned folks have commented on the T’ien Kou that we have a good handle on his biography. The T’ien Kou is reputed to have been the gigantic guard dog for nephew of the Jade Emperor (ruler of all existence in Chinese folk culture), Erh Lang, who used him to detect evil spirits that tried to approach the emperor’s palace and in association with Erh Lang our doggy pal is often referred to as Xiao Tian Quan (啸天犬 – “Howling Celestial Dog”). How does this relate to toddlers? Well, the evil spirit connection should be obvious, but Chinese folklore also maintains that ill temper and petulance in children is caused by the T’ien Kou. Oh, and every time you see an eclipse, that would be the T’ien Kou swallowing the moon (and in some accounts, the Sun). Bad dog. Although, if you happen to be missing a planet, the fetching opportunities are endless. Before you consider adopting a T’ien Kou, please do understand that they have a rather unpleasant reputation for munching on children as light hors d’oeurves, and when it can’t get that, has a fondness for adult livers, this is of course in addition to their predilection for satellite consumption. Plus they are reputed to be as big as elephants, and that’s not something you want to be cleaning up after. Or maybe you do. I try not to be judgmental of other people’s fetishes.
This mythical dog is quaintly described in a popular work on the Chinese minor deities. The How Tien Ch’uan, or Heavenly Barking Dog (belonging to the deity Erh Lang), when sublimed from the earthly state, became a thin-bodied or coursing dog, having the size of an elephant, and the likeness of the strong and fierce owl which eats its parents. Its head is as brass and its neck as iron. Terrible in battle, its antagonist, however fierce and powerful, is quickly consumed, even unto the last of his bones. To this idea of the existence of a celestial dog may be due the practice, said to be current in parts of China, of carrying in processions praying for rain in time of drought, a big dog housed in a palanquin and dressed like a man…It is probable that this celestial terror is identical in Chinese mythology with the heavenly dog which has the sinister reputation of trying to snatch children from their homes. In many temples there is an image of the god Ch’ang Hsien, and near him are his children. He is represented as shooting an arrow at a dog appearing in a cloud (Collier, 1921, p34-35).
Association of monsters with real celestial objects is common enough not to raise an eyebrow. T’ien Kou is often linked in Chinese mythology to the star Sirius (yes, that would be the “Dog Star”), which oddly enough is a star that seems to have cross-cultural significance with respect to the humble hound. The fact that everyone on the planet seems to ascribe mythological import to Sirius is a little puzzling in itself, but plausible accounts for this fact have been offered. Sirius is bright blue-green, extremely large, and very close to Earth, relatively speaking. “Aside from the fact of its surpassing brilliance, the fact that Sirius is visible from every habitable portion of the globe has served to make it from time immemorial the nocturnal cynosure of all the nations of the earth” (Olcott, 1911, p97). The dog connection is a little harder to get one’s head around. Sirius is symbolically associated with dogs among the Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Accadians, the Dogon people of Mali in West Africa, to name just a few. Calm down, Ancient Aliens fanboys. Plenty of cultures recognize the significance of Sirius without ascribing canine qualities to it, so I think we can skip over the suggestion that dog-headed aliens visited Earth. Or rather, we await more clear evidence, such as a dog-headed alien on CNN, or at least a pile of kibble with a non-terrestrial origin. Other accounts directly associate the T’ien Kou with a 6th Century “dog-shaped” comet noted by Chinese historians at the time. It also seems that efforts were made to appease the T’ien Kou through the involuntary donation of human livers.
We must not dismiss the dog in its character of demon without saying a few words about the so-called t’ien kou or “heavenly dog”, a mysterious devil, mentioned frequently enough in books to convince us that it has fascinated superstition for a long series of centuries. It appears as early as the sixth century in the Standard Histories: “in the thirteenth year of the Tien kien period (A.D. 514), in the sixth month, there were stories abroad in the Capital (the present Nanking) that ch’eng-ch’eng (?) stole the livers of men, as also their blood, to feed the celestial dog therewith. The people were in great consternation for twenty days. And in the fifth year of the Ta t’ung period (AD. 539) the story was circulated in the Capital that the Son of Heaven took livers out of men for food for the celestial dog. Old and young thus affrighted each other so much, that after sunset they shut their doors and armed themselves with clubs; this panic ceased after several months”. The origin of the belief in that bloodthirsty anthropophagous monster we are not able to trace. Evidently, as its name indicates, it is related to the sky. We read indeed that in the second year of the Hwang kien period (A.D. 561) a celestial dog came down, and ceremonies were performed to counteract the ill resulting therefrom, on which occasion the emperor fell from his horse which was scared by a hare, and expired soon after. Looking into Chinese uranographical works, we find mention made of a luminary, called the heavenly dog, placed somewhere about Cancer. Sze-ma Tsien has the following notice concerning it: “It has the shape of a large moving star, and produces a noise. When it descends and reaches the earth, it resembles a dog. Whatever it falls upon becomes a flaming fire; it looks like a fiery light, like flames flaring up to heaven. Its base is round and covers a field of several acres; its upper part is pointed and spreads a yellow colour over a thousand miles; it may defeat armies and kill the commanders”. Evidently the great historian here describes an enormous dog-shaped meteor, which some time had come down somewhere and was confounded with a comet in the sky. Perhaps it is to this same thing that the Shan-hai king refers, which states: “Midway in the large plain or desert there is a red dog, called the celestial dog. Wherever it descends, armed violence will prevail”‘ (Groot, 1892, p574-575)
The T’ien Kou is strongly associated with problems in childbirth, credited with lurking around, waiting to devour a newborn child, unless drums are beaten or stones thrown to scare him away. Although, this dog is reputedly a moon-swallower, so not quite sure why it would be scared by a little drumming. Culture Hero Chang Kung takes a slightly more aggressive stance, and shoots arrows at the T’ien Kou, which might be slightly more effective.
When the birth is delayed it is put down to Lo Hou and the master of the house fires a gun over his shoulder towards the heavens to drive away the evil influences. These influences are believed to come from the t’ien-kou hsing or heavenly Dog-star. In some houses a picture of Chang Kung is hung up; he is depicted as carrying a sling and stones; he is supposed to throw at this heavenly dog which comes to devour the expected child. It is said that Chang Hsien-Chung was an incarnation of this heavenly Dog-star, which is also the devourer of the moon in lunar eclipses (Huston, 1921, p1).
In a slightly more detailed account, Chang Hsien (Chang Kung) takes full credit for preventing the T’ien Kou from devouring the sun, moon, and your children, although the implication is made that Chang Hsien’s mythological significance is the accidental result of an emperor’s concubine covering up for a former love.
In the family sleeping-apartments in Chinese houses hang pictures of Chang Hsien, a white-faced, long-bearded man with a little boy by his side, and in his hand a bow and arrow, with which he is shooting the Heavenly Dog. The dog is the Dog-star, and if the ‘fate’ of the family is under this star there will be no son, or the child will be short-lived. Chang Hsien is the patron of child-bearing women, and was worshipped under the Sung dynasty by women desirous of offspring. The introduction of this name into the Chinese pantheon is due to an incident in the history of Hua-jui Fu-jen, a name given to Lady Fei, concubine of Meng Chang, the last ruler of the Later Shu State, A.D. 935-964. When she was brought from Shu to grace the harem of the founder of the Sung dynasty, in A.D. 960, she is said to have preserved secretly the portrait of her former lord, the Prince of Shu, whose memory she passionately cherished. Jealously questioned by her new consort respecting her devotion to this picture, she declared it to be the representation of Chang Hsien, the divine being worshipped by women desirous of offspring. Opinions differ as to the origin of the worship. One account says that the Emperor Jen Tsung, of the Sung dynasty, saw in a dream a beautiful young man with white skin and black hair, carrying a bow in his hand. He said to the Emperor: “The star T’ien Kou, Heavenly Dog, in the heavens is hiding the sun and moon, and on earth devouring small children. It is only my presence which keeps him at bay” (Werner, 1922, p177-178).
The Celestial Dog T’ien Kou has some bad habits, for sure, but one of his most salient qualities is his loyalty to his master Erh Lang, reflecting our ambivalent attitude towards dogs – they love us unquestioningly, but they are still animals, only a few generations removed from the wolf. T’ien Kou is just a dog after all, and as the popular saying goes, there are no bad dogs, just bad dog owners. A little obedience training, perhaps the introduction of a new dog chow with less child or liver content, and a smack on the nose with a newspaper when he goes to swallow the moon, and I’m confident T’ien Kou would be an upstanding canine citizen. There is a Native American saying, “God Made the earth, the sky and the water, the moon and the sun. He made man and bird and beast. But He didn’t make the dog. He already had one.”
Collier, V. W. F. Dogs of China & Japan, In Nature and Art. London: W. Heinemann, 1921.
Groot, J. J. M. de 1854-1921. The Religious System of China: Its Ancient Forms, Evolution, History And Present Aspect, Manners, Customs And Social Institutions Connected Therewith. Leyden: E.J. Brill, 1892.
Hutson, James. Chinese Life In the Tibetan Foothills. Shanghai: Far Eastern geographical establishment, 1921.
Olcott, William Tyler. Star Lore of All Ages: a Collection of Myths, Legends, And Facts Concerning the Constellations of the Northern Hemisphere. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1911.
Werner, E. T. C. 1864-1954. Myths & Legends of China. London [etc.]: G. G. Harrap & co., ltd, 1922.