A Spotty History

Last updated by peggie at 2014/4/21

The existence of the Giant Panda went undiscovered for much of the history of Imperial China. The panda's absence from Chinese paintings prior to the 20th century – in spite of the fact that "all things bamboo-related" was otherwise one of the most common Chinese landscape themes throughout Chinese history, and in spite of the fact that other types of bears were frequently depicted in paintings – is ample proof of the absence of the Giant Panda from the life of the Imperial court, as well as from the life of Imperial China's literata, i.e., its writers, painters and poets.

Cute Pandas in China

Yet, the Giant Panda was certainly known during the Han (BCE 206 – CE 220) Dynasty, for the skull of a Giant Panda was later unearthed in the vault of the mother of Emperor Wen of Han, who reigned from BCE 179-157. Many centuries later, historical reference is made to a gift of two pandas from the grandson of Emperor Taizong of the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, who reigned from CE 627-649, to the emperor of Japan during the Hakuho (CE 673-86) Period, when Japan was very much under the influence of the Tang Dynasty.

Thereafter the Giant Panda seems to have dropped under the radar, for no mention of it was made until relatively recent times, when, in 1869, the French missionary and Lazarite priest, Armand David, was given a panda skin by a hunter, though it is not certain that any Westerner but David himself ever saw the skin (the Lazarites are a Catholic order founded under the patronage of Saint Vincent de Paul (1581-1660), dedicated to serving the poor... the reference to Lazarus the beggar is because Lazarus became the patron saint of another outcast group, the lepers). In 1916, the German zoologist, Hugo Weigold purchased a panda cub and wrote about it in zoological journals, though it did not capture the imagination of the masses.

Theodore, Jr. and Kermit Roosevelt, both sons of the famous president and big game hunter, Theodore Roosevelt, jointly shot a panda in a mountain range with two parallel gorges on a hunting expedition in 1928 across the Himalayas – and which included a jaunt into "western China" (site of the two parallel gorges, but to find out exactly where this was, one would have to purchase the book, Trailing the Giant Panda, jointly written by the two brothers and published in 1929) – funded by Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History.

The event that finally put the panda on the map, as it were, was when the American fashion designer and socialite, Ruth Harkness – who was understandably partial to furs – brought Su Lin back with her to the United States in 1936, Su Lin being a cuddly Giant Panda cub. Don't worry, Su Lin did not become a stole to adorn the shoulders of Ruth Harkness, she was taken well care of at Chicago's Brookfield Zoo, where she was visited by famous celebrities – including Kermit Roosevelt. Two years later five Giant Pandas arrived in London, and another Giant Panda was fetched to the United States by Ruth Harkness. Thus the Giant Panda became known to the masses on Europe and America, but only for a brief period before WWII put an end to the Western world's romance with the cuddly bear.

It was first during the 1970s that pandas again appeared abroad, when China began to permit foreign zoos to borrow pandas as part of a policy that came to be known as "Panda Diplomacy". The government of the PRC had established he Wolong National Nature Reserve in 1958, fearing the decline of the panda, but the methods employed to rescue the panda only exacerbated its decline. Additional nature reserves were set aside for the panda in the 1960s and steps were taken to prevent poaching. A few years after the period of "Panda Diplomacy" was initiated, the Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF), in 1979, wishing to help save the Giant Panda and realizing that the panda would make an excellent international logo for its global conservation campaign, entered into an agreement with the PRC that finally put the future of the Giant Panda on sure footing.

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