The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China’s Political Animal
Profile Books, 2011
No animal over the past century has captured imaginations quite like the giant panda. Discovered only 140 years ago, it has become China’s national icon and is adored by millions across the world. How pandas got here – along with controversy about their zoological classification, their fight against extinction, their use as political negotiating tools and their most unusual breeding habits – makes for a fascinating historical and zoological tale.
What is perhaps most enthralling about Henry Nicholls’ account of these creatures in The Way of the Panda is how unexpectedly intertwined the animal’s history is with the political history of the 20th century. While Nicholls’ hypothesis – that parallels between the histories of the giant panda and modern China are non-coincidental – may be somewhat wide-eyed, it is his imagination and obvious passion for both histories that make the book such a unique and engaging read.
The Way of the Panda maintains a conversational tone throughout, creating an almost story-book setting. Split into three sections; “Extraction,” “Abstraction” and “Protection,” the book first transports the reader to Sichuan province in 1869, when missionary Armand David became the first man to discover the giant panda. A race for panda firsts ensued – Western hunters in particular rushed to be the first to shoot one. A year after the Chinese Nationalist Party established a one-party dictatorship in 1928, brothers Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt Jr succeeded in bringing one down.
Ruth Harkness was the first person to take a live giant panda out of China. She and infant panda Su-Lin arrived in the US in 1936, and the world fell in love. Even one of the most successful giant panda hunters, upon meeting Su-Lin, could not help but announce, “You know, Mrs Harkness, I’d never be able to shoot another panda.”
Several others were captured over the next 10 years and sent to Western zoos. But this trend came to a sharp end in October 1949, when Mao Zedong announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China. From then on, panda extraction was to be on China’s terms.
In “Abstraction,” Nicholls devotes the majority of three chapters to the life, loves and death of the world’s most famous giant panda – Chi-Chi. Chi-Chi’s arrival at the London Zoo in 1958 created pandemonium. Her lavish new lifestyle, Nicholls notes, was in stark contrast with the suffering and death of millions of Chinese under Mao’s contemporaneous Great Leap Forward.
In 1966, after some politically influenced negotiation with the Moscow Zoo, Chi-Chi flew to the Soviet Union to meet with her elected partner, An-An with the hope of becoming pregnant. The global media erupted with interest in this “panda marriage,” but the pair failed to mate. The world began to question whether the giant panda was fit for survival.
Yet animal activists and panda fans insisted the giant panda was worth saving, and experts turned their focus to greater scientific study. The newly established World Wildlife Fund (WWF) unveiled the giant panda as its symbol, although it was criticized for making no formal efforts to aid the animal’s plight, which was only worsening as economic growth drove deforestation.
It was only amid new openness in 1979 that Beijing and the WWF set out on their joint path to giant panda conservation. Extensive studies over the following three decades have led to crucial insights into behaviour, exhilarating accounts of births and tragic tales of deaths, all of which Nicholls reports in an emotive manner. Although captive giant pandas are not ready to be released into the wild, the captive population is now thought to be self-sustaining.
The animals’ political connotations endure. From the pandas given to President Nixon by Chairman Mao in 1972 – perhaps the most famous pair – to the ones lent to the Edinburgh Zoo in 2011 as part of a new UK-China trade deal, panda diplomacy has been and is sure to remain an indispensible key to the survival of this species. Animal lovers may find this disheartening, but it cannot be denied that the giant panda’s interlinking with human history is what makes its own history so compelling.
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