Scientists have been able to unearth paintings and sculptures of dogs that look very much like sharpeis. Some 2,000-year old statues of the dogs already bear the unique blunt muzzle and other characteristics that bear close resemblance to the sharpei.
Despite such discoveries, the origin of this very old dog breed is hard to pinpoint. What can be known so far is that, with the blue black tongue as clue, the dog is related to the chow chow. Both dogs are also possibly related to the Tibetan mastiff, which is often acknowledged as as ancient as sharpeis. Still another historical hint is that the dog bears a bulldog ancestry, as can be seen in some short necks that are low set on the shoulders, thick bodies and certain shared genetic problems.
Whatever its origin, the sharpei was a familiar sight in the Chinese rural communities for centuries. Besides, dogs were part and parcel of the Chinese peasant life. In breeding them, the Chinese sought intelligence, strength, and a menacing grin meant to deter trespassers. Meanwhile, the sharpei's blue-black tongue was meant to ward off evil spirits.
Breeding the dog actually varied according to region. In the case of central China, where farming and herding were main social activities, sharpeis were mainly known for its herding instinct and an uncommon terrier-like ratting skill. The legs of the central Chinese variety were not as long as those of its southern counterparts, while their coats were thinner than those from the north. What is interesting is that the sharpei does not sound out like the western herder breeds, and do not dig or chew as the familiar terrier behavior is wont to do.
In the upper regions of China, where smaller communities had to get through winter in far flung outposts, the sharpei was known to be calm and quiet. These level-headed qualities were essential for an animal that will need to share long hours with its family in a cramped space.
In the case of southern China where recreational activities were more widespread, sharpeis were enlisted as a fighting dog. Breeders would come to appreciate the dog's prickly coat and loose skin, since the latter especially made it possible for the dog to turn around and defend itself. The dogs tiny ears and deep set eyes made it less prone to injuries. But centuries later, mastiffs and bulldogs would throw water on the sharpei's fame as a fighter.