Books: China’s cuddly currency

Unknown to the wider world before the 19th century, pandas are now conservation symbols, diplomatic gifts and charismatic zoo-dwellers. David Pilling follows the political animal’s trail in Henry Nicholls’ The Way of the Panda.

The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China’s Political Animal
Henry Nicholls
Profile Books, 2010

In Henry Nicholls’ quirky little book, pandas are not always actual pandas. Sometimes they are symbols of conservation; sometimes they are diplomatic gifts; sometimes they are captive animals with names like Chi-Chi, more akin to soap-opera stars with disappointing sex lives than to the actual wild animals that roam the bamboo forests of China.

“Like the cuddly toys, the WWF logo and the satirical panda that thrives across much of the English-speaking world, the captive panda is more virtual than real,” he writes.

For such an iconic animal, genuine pandas are extraordinarily elusive. Indeed, that may account for their appeal. In Chinese art, there is nothing that looks remotely like a panda before the 19th century. That suggests the animal was hardly known, though there is an allusion to an animal, called the zhouyu, in the 1,000-year-old Book of Odes, referring to a “giant animal that could be as large as a tiger, that had white fur but was black in certain areas”.

The first westerner to clap eyes on a panda was Armand David, a French priest and amateur naturalist, who took possession of a young bear in 1868. Unfortunately, it was dead. He had arranged to have it shot and skinned, and sent home, the pelt rolled up like a carpet. In Paris, it caused such a stir that, for decades after, westerners made the trek to China so they could bag one for themselves.

Only in 1936 did anyone think to capture a live panda. Ruth Harkness, an American socialite whose husband had died in China on a panda expedition, found a cub, which she named Su-Lin. It turned out to have been a male, something that was only discovered at post-mortem. Su-Lin drew more than 50,000 visitors to Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo in the first week, inaugurating a panda frenzy that has lasted till today.

In the opening sections, especially, the book reads somewhat like Gone With the Wind, with the sweeping events of Chinese history in the background and pandas playing the roles of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler.

While western museums were frantically roaming the forests of Sichuan in search of specimens, the Qing Dynasty fell and Guomindang nationalists began to struggle with the communists for the soul of China. Harkness was in Shanghai when it came under attack by Chiang Kai-shek’s forces. When the world was plunged into war, the Americans sent money and the Guomindang, as a token of appreciation, dispatched a pair of pandas, Pan-Dee and Pan-Dah, to the Bronx. That set the precedent for using pandas as soft power.

At times, it is hard to work out whether Nicholls’ book is really about pandas, or whether it is an excursion through other avenues of human inquiry via cuddlier means. In addition to the tumultuous history of China, we get a foray into the art of taxidermy, a history of zoos and the birth of the conservation movement, as well as digressions into other subjects from DNA to European politics.

The book always zigzags back to pandas. Much of the narrative is given over to the attempts to breed them in captivity, an endeavour initially impeded as much by human ignorance as by the pandas’ alleged lack of interest in reproduction.

Nicholls devotes considerable energy to defending the panda against charges of being an “inept species”. The main breakthrough in captive breeding seems to have come with a technique called “electro-ejaculation” in which pandas were induced to produce sperm by means of passing an electric shock through their rectum. This is the type of things one learns in a 336-page book about pandas.

In the end, Nicholls wonders whether the discovery of pandas has been good for the species. Humans have grown to adore them, to breed them in captivity and to invest them with anthropomorphic meaning. The true conservationist, he implies, might do better simply to leave them alone.

David Pilling is The Financial Times’ Asia managing editor.

© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2011