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BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - Once the king of the canines in Beijing, snub-nosed Pekingese dogs have fallen from favor, replaced by foreign breeds in Chinese affections.
The squat "lion dogs" with bulging eyes were top dog in China's capital for centuries but are disappearing as imported rivals such as poodles, retrievers and Chihuahuas arrive in Beijing to satisfy surging pet ownership among the 17 million residents.
"They've disappeared from this community," said Beijinger Qingyun Mao, as she watched her nine-year old Pekingese Lily play with a neighbor's poodle and a cocker spaniel in her tenement building's small central garden.
For more than 12 centuries, from the Tang Dynasty of the 8th Century to the Qing, the ancient breed of flat-nosed animals were the favored pet of the Chinese Imperial court.
Legend has it the dogs are the Buddha-ordained offspring of a lion and a marmoset monkey, and only the imperial family and nobles could raise them.
The smallest of the palace dogs, Sleeve Pekingese, were carried in the sleeves of the rulers' silk robes, while "commoners" were expected to bow down to the dogs. Anyone who tried to keep them as pets faced punishment, even death.
The dogs were all but wiped out as their patrons in the last, Qing dynasty fell in 1911. They were sidelined for decades under Mao Zedong's pet-scorning communist rule.
But Zhang Yun, director of the Beijing Pet Hospital, said the Pekingese made a comeback in the 1980s as China opened its doors to international trade, and European-bred descendents of the imperial dog were brought back to the city once called Peking.
Until about 15 years ago the dogs, known to be stubborn and jealous, were still exclusive, with one Pekingese costing about the same as a car -- about 30,000 yuan (about $4,300).
But then came the pet boom as Beijing brought in licenses to legalize pet ownership in 1995.
Last year Beijingers registered about 703,897 pet dogs, up 17.3 percent from 600,096, according to official statistics, while thousands more are to be thought unregistered.
Now Pekingese can be bought for as little as 10 yuan (about $1.40) with their exclusivity gone and popularity waning.
At Beijing's best-known legal dog market at Tongzhou on the city's southeast outskirts, there are no Pekingese for sale, but instead Tibetan Mastiffs, French poodles, British bulldogs, Dalmatians, dachshunds, huskies, and white chow chows.
"(The breeders) sell dogs for profit. The Pekingese is so cheap that no one can earn from them," said Zhang.
Such boom and bust patterns for dog breeds are not unusual, said psychology professor Harold Hartley, of the University of Western Carolina who has studied American Kennel Club (AKC) records since the 1940s to research pet fads.
Hartley said in the United States, pet breeds go in and out of fashion like a kind of "unconscious social contagion" and this is now also the case in affluent Chinese cities.
"Breeds crash as fast as they rise. The change can be very rapid," said Hartley, citing the U.S. "poodle craze" when AKC registrations surged from 3,000 a year to nearly 300,000.
He said dog breeds can make a comeback but meanwhile, Beijing's out-of-fashion Pekingese face an uncertain future.
Zhang Luping, a former businesswoman, runs a rescue center which houses about 300 unwanted Pekingese about an hour north of Beijing. She says Pekingese are seen as too common for pets.
"We don't accept any more because there are too many," said Zhang.
Additional reporting by Sabrina Mao; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith