The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China’s Political Animal (Henry Nicholls)


I read The Way of the Panda for two reasons. One, it’s partially about science, and I want to buck the American trend of scientific ignorance and make sure I’m informed about science topics. That’s cheating a bit, though, because of the second reason: this book combines animals and history. Animals – especially carnivores (in the taxonomic sense – obviously pandas themselves mostly eat bamboo) – are the area of science I already knew the most about. So it’s debatable how much I really broadened my scientific horizons here. But who cares? Animals.

You can guess from the title that Nicholls is talking about more than just pandas in this book. He is telling the story of humans’ relationship with pandas – but he’s also using pandas to explore China’s transformation into a modern world power, and humans’ ongoing journey toward environmental awareness. I confess I know way less than I should about Chinese history, so Nicholls’ parallels will be useful reference points.

Nicholls is especially concerned to explore the relationship between actual pandas and what he calls the “virtual panda” – cultural narratives and perceptions of pandas, which often differ wildly from the reality. He especially goes after the idea that pandas are somehow incompetent at life and bad at sex:

We humans have gone from hunting and skinning this animal, to seeking out live specimens to draw eager crowds to our zoos, to making serious efforts to protect it in its natural habitat. In spite of the relatively enlightened position we have reached, however, we still know surprisingly little about this species. There can be no better illustration of this ignorance than the attitude – most commonly encountered in Britain and the United States – that the giant panda is a maladapted species that deserves to become extinct. As Chris Catton noted in his excellent 1990 book Pandas, “it has long been fashionable to regard the giant panda as an animal ill-suited to its environment, and incompetent in almost every function crucial to its survival.”


This sort of argument reached a low point in 2009, when BBC natural history broadcaster Chris Packham went public with his views about the panda. “Here’s a species that, of its own accord, has gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac,” he told the Radio Times. “It’s not a strong species.” This is quite obviously silly because there have been pandas (or more properly, ancestors that looked very like the panda we know and love) that have been around for many millions of years: that’s quite a bit longer than have modern humans. Bamboo, if you can eat it (which pandas have become remarkably good at), is a brilliant thing to settle on as a source of food because in a world without humans (as the world has been for most of the giant panda’s evolutionary history), there was masses of this hardy plant throwing out edible shoots all year round. It’s true that pandas do sex differently from us, but there is no reason to think that their way of reproducing is any less efficient than ours. None of this sounds like a weak species to me.

I’d encountered shades of this idea, though nothing as vitriolic as Nicholls describes. (That said, I also don’t go around talking to people about pandas.) Nicholls explores this topic in a variety of creative ways throughout the book – for instance, the science behind the eventual success of captive breeding programs, and cartoonists’ pot shots at the international politics of panda sex in the 1960s. (Yes, you read that correctly. More later.)

Nicholls begins in the obvious place: the panda’s “discovery” by Westerners in 1869. I put “discovery” in quotes because the Chinese locals already knew about the panda, so it wasn’t technically a “discovery” in the absolute sense. That said, efforts to find pandas in Chinese literature before this point come up, surprisingly, almost completely blank. So despite the panda’s current status as practically the national symbol of China – or at least, an instant evocation of China – most Chinese people outside the panda’s remote mountain habitat, even in 1869, probably had little idea they even existed.

The “discoverer” of the panda was Catholic missionary priest Armand David. Pandas weren’t the only thing he discovered: also plenty of the landscape plants you probably have in your yard. For just one example, butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) is named after him. David sent his initial specimen back to France, and thus set in motion what would eventually become a craze for his “most excellent black-and-white bear.”

(Speaking of bears, Armand also kicked off a long-running taxonomic controversy over whether the giant panda is, in fact, a bear, or more closely related to raccoons. Given how much pandas look like bears, this sounds ridiculous on its face, but believe it or not there were actually morphological arguments for the raccoon theory, mostly in the teeth and the structure of the panda’s wrist. This argument was only settled recently by advances in genetic science, which revealed what most of us laypeople probably thought in the first place: the panda not only looks like a bear, but it is one. It did, however, branch off on its own earlier than other currently living bears – which makes it the closest living bear relative to the raccoon family. So the raccoon theory wasn’t totally wrong.)

Meanwhile, on the political front, China grew increasingly sick of being pushed around by European powers, and their own weak leadership that allowed this to go on. This resulted, eventually, in the abdication of the last emperor in 1912, which was predictably followed by political chaos. In the midst of this, Western collectors still found a way into China in their competition to be the first to shoot a panda – in Nicholls’ view, an illustration of the instability and inadequacy of Chinese government at the time. (This is followed by a lot of complex political history, mostly new to me and interesting in its own right, but which I won’t rehash here.) Later, in the midst of China’s horrific war with Japan, the American Ruth Harkness became the first to capture a panda alive. (Her story is like something out of a movie. Not surprisingly, it too has spawned entire books.)

Eventually, the political situation settled down with the ascent of Mao and the founding of the People’s Republic of China. After that, no more pandas would leave the country without the permission of the Chinese government. Some made their way to Russia. Which is a good segue into the next – and funniest – part of the story: the first attempts to breed pandas in captivity.

The zoologists who wished to attempt this feat wanted to breed Chi-Chi – the panda at the London Zoo who became a darling of British television in the 1950s – with An-An, a “Soviet panda” at the Moscow Zoo. But to even get the two in the same room was a political football. Interacting with the Soviets was…er…fraught. And the press had a field day with it.

No sooner had word gone out that Chi-Chi would, most likely, be flying to Moscow than the cartoonists sharpened their pencils. On 27 January, the Daily Mirror published a sketch of the Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin as An-An scaling a tree in hot pursuit of [British Prime Minister] Wilson as Chi-Chi. “I do hope nobody in the Prime Minister’s office will be too upset about it,” wrote the zoo to the Foreign Office. The panda project was in danger of turning into a farcical spectacle before it had even begun. “I have always suspected the F.O. of this sort of large-scale Dr. Strangelove lunacy,” wrote one correspondent to a British newspaper, “and this latest picture of diplomats and civil servants scurrying around the corridors of power debating the sexual habits of giant pandas is highly disturbing.”

The press had an even bigger field day when, over and over again, neither panda could feel the love.

When An-An approached, Chi-Chi slapped him around the face. “Though the pandas frolicked together and An-An made several romantic passes at Chi-Chi, it seemed the meeting was a failure and the animals were separated after 25 minutes,” reported the UK’s Birmingham Mail. The following morning, the pandas were reunited, “but the ‘bride’ was even more nervous than at their rendezvous yesterday,” observed the Leicester Mercury. A photograph of Chi-Chi giving An-An a slap did the rounds in dozens of newspapers and the headline-writers went to town: “Chi-Chi is playing hard to get”; “Chi-Chi gives An-An a cuff”; “Chi-Chi’s right hook for the suitor.” They had even more fun the next day when it was decided that the pandas should bed down in the same enclosure: “Two pandas spend night together”; “Pandas’ night of promise”; “Strangers in the night.” But as panda relations turned from bad to worse, the headlnies took on a gloomier note: “Time runs out for Chi-Chi”; “Chi-Chi has only three nights left”; “From Russia – without love.” And then it was announced that Chi-Chi would be heading back to London: “Chi-Chi, An-An, say ta-ta”; “Bride who never was flies home”; “Return of the virgin panda.”

This high-profile romantic mishap not only helped create the perception that pandas are bad at sex, it also illustrates the nonexistent understanding of pandas’ breeding habits at the time. Only decades later, after extensive research on pandas’ scent marking and hormones, would captive breeding be successful. Most of the final chapters are dedicated to the current state of panda science, which is again fascinating, but far too detailed for me to get into here. This FiveThirtyEight article from a while back will give you a taste.

To return to Nicholls’ theme of the “virtual panda,” the real reason the panda became the national symbol of China is not what you might think. Since pandas had essentially no past in Chinese art and literature, they were free of any association with the old imperial system – and were thus safe for artists during the Cultural Revolution. But of course, at this point, pandas signify more than China. Nicholls includes a whole chapter about how and why the World Wildife Fund chose them as their logo – a very effective one which has indelibly associated pandas with conservation efforts. Chi-Chi made pandas a TV phenomenon as well cuddly and accessible to millions of children, which in turn led to them still being huge draws at zoos. For further examples, see, I don’t know, Panda Express? Kung Fu Panda? This runaway popularity, however, sets up a bit of a veil between fantasy and reality, as Nicholls takes pains to point out. We know far less than most people think about real wild pandas – despite how familiar they feel to most of us.

Overall, The Way of the Panda a worthwhile read and a good introduction to the species (and the aura of the species). It’s definitely popular science, and Nicholls keeps things entertaining. That said, I think Nicholls’ writing could have been a bit better. It felt clunky in a few places, and there were a weirdly large number of typos in the first few chapters. Maybe just bad editing?


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