The Way of the PANDA


Lonesome George:
The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon

The Way of the PANDA

The Curious History of China’s Political Animal




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This eBook edition published in 2010

Copyright © Henry Nicholls, 2010

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eISBN 978 1 84765 291 1





1 A most excellent black-and-white bear

2 Skin and bones

3 Game on

4 Live action


5 Communist goods

6 The face of conservation

7 Sexual politics

8 Life after death


9 Presidential pandas

10 Born free

11 Captive subjects

12 Into the future



List of Illustrations


Further Reading


To Edward



Apart from its striking coat, there is very little that is black and white about the giant panda. Is it more like a bear or a raccoon? How come it’s a carnivore when its diet is 99 per cent bamboo? How has the species survived for millions of years if (according to popular opinion) it doesn’t like sex? How is it that an animal this rare and elusive has become so familiar?

This last conundrum is particularly surprising when you consider that the giant panda was not known outside China (and probably hardly known within China) until 1869. So this species has come from complete obscurity to achieve total global zoological domination in less than 150 years. In fact, it had probably achieved the current popular position it enjoys in human society in less than 100 years. To me, this is truly remarkable.

In a book entitled Men and Pandas,1 first published in 1966, renowned zoologist Desmond Morris and his wife Ramona speculated on the characteristics that may contribute to the panda’s immense appeal. Many of them, like the panda’s flattened face, its black eye markings and baby-like body proportions, certainly make intuitive sense. But what I want to understand is how and why the panda’s indisputable appeal should have played out the way it did. I want to get to grips with the history of the giant panda – what I call ‘the way of the panda’ – in as much gritty detail as possible.

I do this for lots of reasons, but primarily because it’s a super history, just a really good yarn. As a writer, that is pretty much my main concern. I want to write things that people want to read and I am hopeful – heck, quietly confident – that you will enjoy reading about the twists and turns of this extraordinary creature as much as I enjoyed researching and writing about them.

But I explore the way of the panda with other things in mind, too. Given the huge popular appeal of the giant panda, the symbolic role that we have found for this species, its ability to raise capital, the academic effort that’s gone in to understanding its biology and the willingness of politicians to commit to its conservation, it is not that surprising that the way of the panda should also reveal a fascinating human history. Like the panda coming from nowhere to become one of the most recognised animal species on the planet, so China has struggled free from Western colonialism to become the self-sufficient, economic giant that it is today. So, rather wonderfully, thinking about pandas helps make sense of modern China’s rise to global domination.

At the same time, the giant panda is a great muse for reflecting on changing attitudes towards animals and nature that occurred during the twentieth century. 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,2 ‘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’.


1. A captive giant panda munches away on ample bamboo provided by the staff at the Bifengxia Giant Panda Base just north of Ya’an City in Sichuan Province.

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,3 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.

But I have learned through experience that no amount of carefully reasoned argument can dislodge this perception of the giant panda as a figure of fun. It’s like trying to take on Po, the unlikely hero of the 2008 blockbuster animation, Kung Fu Panda. The measured appreciation of the giant panda that I have is always going to lose out to a ‘big, fat panda’ that can bounce his opponents to oblivion with his generous girth. So rather than railing against the innocent and sometimes not-so-innocent misrepresentations of the giant panda, I will try instead to understand them. In particular, I would like to know when, where and why the giant panda became fair game for satire. On this, I have some ideas.

I have structured The Way of the Panda in three parts. The first covers eighty years from 1869 to 1949 and is dominated by an almost exclusively Western obsession with pandas: we will learn of the giant panda’s formal scientific discovery by a French Catholic missionary in the 1860s, of the (mainly) European interest in what to call this strange animal, of the competition to shoot specimens for (mostly) North American museums and then the race to collect live animals to show off in Western zoos. Throughout this period, China adopts a passive role in the panda story, busy as it was trying to free itself from the grip of Western colonialism, to replace its downtrodden imperial establishment with a new republic and to fight off unbelievable Japanese aggression.

The book pivots around the second, central part, which takes us from 1949 to 1972. Here, we will hear about one particular panda – Chi-Chi – whose extraordinary story captures much about this confused period. We will learn of the Cold War tensions that surrounded her journey from China to the West, of her role in the foundation of the World Wildlife Fund in 1961, of attempts to pair her with a ‘Soviet’ panda, An-An, and of her peculiar but very real life after death. During this period, the People’s Republic of China begins to assert its ownership of the giant panda, using the species and its image to strengthen its sense of national identity both at home and, appreciating the West’s enthusiasm for everything panda, abroad.

In the third part, which takes us from 1972 to the present, science begins to direct the path of the giant panda. We will see how a pair of animals gifted from the PRC to the United States became the subject of a serious research programme, how China and the West (in the guise of WWF) began to work on pandas in the wild, how zoos and other institutions began to succeed in breeding pandas in captivity and we will contemplate the species’ future. As this final part progresses, we see China taking control of the future of the giant panda and, perhaps, the future of the world.

So without further ado, let us set out along the way of the panda, to experience the stir this species has caused wherever it has set its hairy feet: for decades pandas defied classification; they outwitted hunters and escaped trappers; they have induced public elbowing and had zoo turnstiles spinning; they have been on diplomatic journeys; they have been branded on products and turned into logos for companies and charities; they have become the face of global conservation; and they have attracted great scientific minds and plenty of money to study them. I give you the curious history of China’s political animal …

Part I

A most excellent
black-and-white bear

The huge, foreboding oak doors of the Dengchi Valley Cathedral are mostly locked. But once a week, on a Sunday, they are opened for the local inhabitants to attend a service in one of the oldest Catholic churches still standing in China’s Sichuan Province. Occasionally, too, perhaps a few times a month, a peculiar kind of tourist will step off the beaten trail and head up the dusty valley to this Christian outpost. More than likely it is not God calling them but the giant panda.

For it’s in this remote spot, in 1869, that a French priest and keen naturalist by the name of Armand David became the first Westerner to clap eyes on this extraordinary beast. His ‘discovery’ resulted in the formal scientific description of this animal and with it the panda bandwagon began to roll. Although the inhabitants of the Dengchi Valley and other rural communities had clearly encountered this species before David, they did so only infrequently. And beyond such communities, it would appear that the panda was simply not known at all.

This is a truly remarkable fact. How could it be that a species so instantly recognisable today could have been virtually unknown as recently as 1869? This is particularly surprising given that anatomically modern humans have been in China for tens of thousands of years, and we have ancient Chinese texts inscribed from almost 3,000 years ago, which tell of events still further back in time. Given the long history of humans in China, it’s hard to imagine that no one ever bumped into a giant panda, particularly as (one assumes) there were once many more of them, so the chances of seeing one would have been that much greater. And if you were out in the forest and encountered this striking creature, you’d tell someone about it, right? Surely word about this animal would have found its way into one or other of the many historical texts. Surely someone would have dipped a pen into ink to scratch out a sketch of this alluring black-and-white beast. You’d have thought so.

Plenty of people have looked, setting out on literary or artistic expeditions in the hope of glimpsing a creature that resembles a giant panda. And there have been plenty of sightings, though big, brooding question marks hang over all of them. Part of the problem is that we inevitably come to these ancient texts burdened by what we now know about pandas. This makes it easy to rule out descriptions that don’t match with the fluffy template panda that inhabits our minds, and impossible to be certain that any of these faunal fables do, in fact, refer to the panda. With that caveat firmly in place, let’s take a look at the line-up of candidate pandas, ranking them in order of increasing plausibility.

In third and last place comes the pixiu. In the Er Ya, the oldest known Chinese dictionary thought to date from the third century BC, this animal is described as ‘resembling either a tiger or a bear’.1 That might be a panda. Then again, it might not. According to Sima Qian’s Book of History, written the following century, the pixiu was a ferocious animal that made it the perfect mascot to fire up warriors before a battle. Though it’s hard to see the giant panda in such an overtly aggressive beast, it is just possible that a fanciful description of a panda by some over-imaginative hunter could have fed into the identity of this now mythical creature.

In second place, just ahead of the pixiu, is the mo. This crops up in the work of sixteenth-century natural history giant Li Shizhen, who described it as living off bamboo in Sichuan. It certainly sounds a lot like a panda, but Li and others frequently describe the mo as an aggressive animal, which does not. One explanation for this confusing blend of characteristics – some resembling pandas, others not – is that the descriptions of mo reflect not one but two different species – the giant panda and the Asian tapir. Though you’ll not find these animals in the same forests today, with pandas confined to their elevated pockets of Chinese bamboo and tapirs tramping through rainforests from Myanmar down to Sumatra, their ranges once overlapped, with the tapir found as far north as the Yellow River until about 1,000 years ago. In her forthcoming book Panda Nation, historian Elena E. Songster suggests that it is possible that the tapir and the giant panda2 were mistaken for one another. ‘Their coloring is strikingly similar and their size comparable,’ she notes. The snag with this idea is that tapirs are no more aggressive than pandas. ‘The tapir is famous for its docility,’3 says Gathorne Gathorne-Hardy, the United Kingdom’s 5th Earl of Cranbrook and an expert on the Asian tapir. ‘A bit of ferocity might have ensured them more space in a crowded world.’

The front-runner is the zhouyu. In the Book of Odes, a book of poems written some 1,000 years ago, the zhouyu was depicted as ‘a giant animal that could be as large as a tiger, that had white fur but was black in certain areas. It was not carnivorous, and displayed a gentleness as well as a sense of trustworthiness.’4 That sounds like a panda, doesn’t it?

If you buy into the idea that the pixiu, the mo, the zhouyu or any of the other vaguely panda-like creatures that inhabit ancient texts really are pandas, then they begin to pop up elsewhere with rewarding frequency:5 there might have been pandas amongst the rare animals kept at the Emperor’s garden in Xi’an around 2,000 years ago; in the seventh century, an emperor of the Tang Dynasty may have rewarded a bunch of deserving subjects with a panda skin each; and his grandson sent a couple of live animals that could have been pandas to Japan as a goodwill gesture. And so on.

The problem with all these wonderful stories is that it’s impossible to be certain that these ancient authors were really talking about pandas. If there is any truth in them and the Chinese have known about the giant panda for thousands of years, then why did nobody think of sketching or painting it, or glazing it onto any of the millions of fabulous Imperial vases? Because here’s another strange fact: there is no known artistic rendition of the giant panda until the nineteenth century. What this suggests quite strongly is that the existence of these animals was not common knowledge until really very recently, even within China. As we will see in Chapter 3, explorers who subsequently marched into the mountains with the sole intent of seeing (and shooting) a panda found the mission far harder than they’d imagined. For historian Songster, this is pretty good evidence that this animal – so well known today – really was just the stuff of rumour until Armand David sent it global.

Even if you think you’ve never heard of this French priest, there’s a very good chance that your garden owes a debt to him. Horti-cultural favourites like Buddleia davidii, Clematis armandii and Clematis davidiana were all collected by and named after him. The list goes on – Prunus davidiana, Lilium davidii and Viburnum davidii. Over the course of almost ten years in China, dozens of forays into the countryside around Beijing and three major expeditions, David fell upon 1,500 plant species previously unknown to science. Before him, these species were all confined to Asia, many endemic to remote areas of China. Today, if you don’t have one of David’s plant species in your garden, you wouldn’t have to stray far from your front door to find one.

Though David had been something of an amateur naturalist for as long as he could remember, he had left his native town in the French Pyrenees in his mid-thirties on a mission of an altogether different kind. ‘It was my ambition’,6 he wrote, ‘to share in accordance with my abilities the hard and meritorious day-by-day work of the missionaries who for the past three centuries have tried to convert the vast population of the Far East to Christian civilisation.’ After years of badgering his superiors in the Catholic Church in Paris, David had finally been posted to China to spread the Christian word to a people considered ripe for conversion. From his arrival in 1862 until 1866, he’d been based at a mission in Beijing, although he’d been given the space to pursue his interest in natural history. As David put it, ‘All science is dedicated7 to the study of God’s works and glorifies the Author.’ He read whatever texts he could get hold of, pootled out of the city on short collecting trips and sent his specimens back to the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

On one of these expeditions in 1866, David’s natural curiosity got the better of him. He had heard rumours of a weird creature to be found at the Imperial Hunting Park a few miles south of the capital. It was supposed to have the antlers of a stag, the neck of a camel, hooves of a cow and tail of a donkey. In spite of the high wall surrounding the park, an armed presence to keep out intruders and a risk of the death penalty for anyone who killed this rare creature, David managed to get his hands on the skin and bones of a female and a young male. The desk-bound zoologists back in Paris sat up at the arrival of this hitherto unknown beast. They were so impressed that they named it after him – Elaphurus davidianus or, more commonly, Père David’s Deer.


2. The Catholic missionary Armand David set the panda bandwagon rolling when he sent back giant panda specimens to the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris in 1869.

Growing in confidence and with financial support from the Paris museum, David then set off to explore the mountains to the west of Beijing,8 a region ‘which had not yet been visited by a European’. By his own admission, the results of his eight-month trip were ‘not brilliant’. His third and last expedition, from 1872 to 1874, took him into central China, but his efforts were curtailed by illness.

So it was his second expedition from 1868 to 1870 that provided the greatest natural history treasures. He sailed from Tianjin across the Yellow Sea to Shanghai before heading 1,000 miles up the great Yangtze River into Sichuan Province in the wild and expansive west of China. At the Dengchi Valley Cathedral and its associated mission, built some thirty years earlier to plant the word of a Christian God in the midst of this rural community, David settled down to preach but also to collect thousands of plant and animal specimens for his Parisian natural history masters. While out collecting on 21 March 1869, not long after his arrival at the mission, David was invited into the home of a local hunter called Li for ‘tea and sweets.’ It was here that he chanced upon the striking, wiry skin9 of a strange new creature, ‘a most excellent black-and-white bear’.

Back at the mission, David had just enough time before dinner to summon some of the hunters he’d taken on. He described the black-and-white bearskin he’d seen that afternoon and told them to add it to his wishlist. ‘I am delighted when I hear my hunters say that I shall certainly obtain the animal within a short time,’ he wrote in his diary later that evening. ‘They tell me they will go out tomorrow to kill this animal, which will provide an interesting novelty10 to science.’ A few days later, David’s hunters returned with a huge beast trussed up beneath two sturdy lengths of bamboo. It was not, however, the coveted black-and-white bear but a huge black boar. At a glance, David could tell from its short ears, long legs and coarse hair that it was different to the European wild boar of his childhood and after a bit of haggling, the naturalist had the specimen and the hunters had cash-in-hand. While they went off to make a fresh assault on the black-and-white bear, David and his servant set out on their own in the direction of a massive mountain above the mission. It was an expedition from which they very nearly did not return. The entry in David’s diary for 17 March 1869 leaves just one unanswered question: what on earth had he been thinking?

The two men left the mission at dawn11 and made good progress until eleven o’clock. Then the path they had been following along the banks of a rugged stream petered out at the foot of ‘a series of splashing, foaming cascades’. They munched on a ‘crust of bread moistened with icy water’, while David had a think. Should they turn back or attempt to find a way up the precipitous slopes on either side of the stream? You guessed it.

For four whole hours we pull ourselves up from rock to rock as high as we can go by clinging to trees and roots. All that is not vertical is covered with frozen snow … Fortunately the trees and shrubs prevent us from seeing too clearly the depths over which we are suspended, sometimes holding only by our hands.

When they eventually decided to turn back, it had become impossible to descend without slipping and falling on the ice.

Sometimes we are plunged into half-melted snow, or the trees which we clutch, break and we roll to another tree or nearby rock. Fortunately my robust young man is seeing it through better than I might hope from a Chinese; twice, however, I hold him back when he is already slipping to the edge of the abyss. He says that if we do not die that day we never will.

Thankfully for David and for the purposes of this story, they didn’t. His survival must also have come as a relief to his band of hired hunters who returned a few days later bearing the body of a young black-and-white bear. With David still breathing,12 they had an eager – almost desperate – buyer for the specimen and were able to sell it to him ‘very dearly’. David carried the cold, stiff body into the room that the resident priest, Father Dugrité, had put at his disposal. He laid it gently on his work table, picked up his scalpel and quickly set to work.

During the nineteenth century, it was pretty standard for missionaries to dabble in natural history. In China at least, it was the Catholic missionaries like David that made the most significant discoveries.13 ‘No Protestant missionary accomplished half as much as they did,’ notes Fa-ti Fan in British Naturalists in Qing China: Science, Empire and Cultural Encounter. The reason, she explains, is that Protestants being Protestants came to China with their wives and families, were most commonly based in coastal cities and tended to hang on to their Western lifestyles. The more mobile, celibate Catholics, by contrast, managed to set up a network of missions across China that would act as staging posts for journeys into the interior where the richest and weirdest flora and fauna were to be found. The Catholics also tended to embrace the local culture, dressing and living as did the locals and drawing heavily on their knowledge of the natural world.

Given this Catholic talent for natural history, it is perhaps no surprise to learn that the missionaries who contributed most to lifting the lid on China’s natural history were European. Blazing the trail was Évariste Régis Huc, who came to China in 1839. In 1844, he joined forces with a former Tibetan Priest and Catholic convert, Joseph Gabet, and headed for Tibet. His Souvenirs d’un voyage dans la Tartarie, le Thibet, et la Chine pendant les années 1844, 1845 et 1846, published in 1850 and packed with derring-do, inspired a generation of missionaries – David included – to go out and do likewise. The Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris was more than happy to offer such educated and well-positioned missionary naturalists the funds to support their collecting work. On his way to Sichuan in 1868, David had popped his head in at a Catholic mission on the outskirts of Shanghai. This ‘fine, large establishment’ had a zoological collection established by fellow naturalist Pierre Heude, though when David came calling, the man himself had been out ‘collecting the fish of the Yangtze’. ‘I hope their researches will also augment our national collections14 at the Museum,’ wrote David.

There was also Jean Marie Delavay, a botanist working out of Guangdong and Kunming and who David would meet in France in 1881. Delavay sent more than 200,000 herbarium specimens back to France. Yet another Catholic missionary, Father Paul Farges, was based in Sichuan from 1867 onwards. He described and gave his name to an entire genus of bamboo – Fargesia – one of the staple foods of the giant panda. Finally, there was the missionary Jean André Soulié, working a little later in the century, who sent the Parisian botanists thousands of specimens from Sichuan and Tibet.

But in case you have the idea that such men spent their spare time frolicking about with a flower press, nothing could have been further from the truth. ‘In this country good results can be obtained only by surmounting great difficulty,’ David wrote. What exactly did he mean?

China was a nation in disarray. It would be going too far to peg the collapse of China’s 2,000-year-long Imperial era on opium addiction but it certainly played a crucial role. Through the early nineteenth century, Britain pressed opium from India upon the Chinese and with the local population hooked, demand was only going to go in only one direction. The consequences for the addicted were dire. Wherever David went, he was witness to the devastation caused by processed poppy. And he disapproved in no uncertain terms. On his way into one city on his first expedition to Mongolia, for example, what had initially appeared to be a prosperous place began to look ‘increasingly wretched’15 as he approached. ‘The misery is undoubtedly due to the abominable practice of opium smoking to which the population is addicted, and which is causing it slowly to perish,’ he wrote. On the Hirado – the vessel that took him from Shanghai up the Yangtze as far as modern-day Wuhan – he complained that the Chinese ‘quietly smoke their opium, the nauseous smell16 of which is brought to us in gusts by the wind’. Further upriver, he described the mother of the boat’s captain as:

an intrepid opium smoker17 and a bold widow, who often undertakes to give orders to the crew. This pale, almost cadaverous-looking woman … spends almost all of her time in her little room, inhaling the vapours of the drug which undermines her health and her purse. But the tyranny of opium smoking is such that never, or almost never, are those who fall under its spell able to overcome the habit, even though they see clearly how it hastens their ruin and their death.

When China’s ruling Qing Dynasty deciding to clamp down on the drug in the late 1830s, the British were not best pleased and flexed their military muscles. During the Opium War of 1839–42, the British naval fleet put the pressure on China’s exporting activities by blockading a string of strategic coastal ports. The upshot was the Treaty of Nanjing of 1842, which effectively stripped China’s rulers of the power to control foreign interests in China.

Other nations independently negotiated agreements that were similarly skewed in their favour. The United States inserted an article that would help American Protestant missionaries become established in several of the trading ports. The French obtained similar concessions with respect to the Catholic presence, a step that would pave the way for the arrival of Catholic naturalists like Heude, Delavay, Farges, Soulié and, of course, David.

The Chinese did not take well to these developments. Resentment of an increasing foreign presence and dissatisfaction with the weakened Qing Dynasty led to a string of violent uprisings and rebellions. By far the bloodiest of these – the Taiping Rebellion – began in around 1851 and its bizarre origins offer an insight into the violent clashing of cultures taking place during David’s Chinese travels.

In 1837, a young, ambitious man called Hong Xiuquan, who was working to become a scholar, had a dream. In it, he met two men. A bearded man with golden hair handed him a sword, and a younger man, whom Hong referred to as ‘Elder Brother’ explained how he should use it to slay evil spirits. It was a vision that lodged itself in his mind, for six years later and still struggling to qualify for the privileges of a scholarly lifestyle, he happened to dip into a collection of biblical tracts pressed into his hands by a Protestant missionary. ‘In a sudden shock of realisation,’18 according to historian Jonathan D. Spence in The Search for Modern China, ‘Hong saw that the two men in his vision must have been the God and Jesus of the tracts, and that therefore he, Hong, must also be the Son of God, younger brother to Jesus Christ.’

Hong combined this audacious claim with a burning hatred of China’s ruling elite to create what we would recognise today as a fanatical cult following. By 1850, he had 20,000 recruits and eventually began to march north declaring himself the Heavenly King of the Taiping. The Taiping took control of several big cities on the way, massacring anyone who stood in their way, gathering food, wealth and might as they went. Finally, Hong set up his Heavenly Kingdom in Nanjing, just 300 miles shy of Shanghai and not too much further to Beijing itself. Although the Taiping got no further than Nanjing, contained in large part by fierce groups of resistance fighters intent on defending their homes and land from being overrun and their families from slaughter, they remained a force to be reckoned with for more than ten years.

Even after the downfall of Hong’s hybrid Christian revolutionary sect in 1864, the devastation wrought by his troops en route to Nanjing was still very much evident. It was something that David himself noted as he ventured along the Yangtze River in 1868 on his way to panda country. Having jumped ship at Jiujiang19 ‘with the eagerness and enthusiasm only a naturalist can understand’, he ventured into the walled city. There, he found it ‘almost deserted since the Taiping rebels pillaged and burned it.’ Although these were violent and dangerous times, David was not one to be intimidated. When faced with the prospect of running into a full-scale Muslim rebellion on his trip to Mongolia in 1866, he had been philosophical:20 ‘[I]t would be necessary’, he wrote, ‘to renounce all travelling to distant parts if one had to wait for peace in the Empire, where brigandage and armed rebellion have occurred everywhere, again and again for so many years.’ With which he had promptly packed his bags and headed straight for danger.

On top of such large-scale unrest,21 David also had to keep a constant lookout for bandits, thieves and the occasional pirate. But again, he was resolute:

[I]f I am to be held back by fears of this kind I can do no exploring, since the wild places, reputed to be the haunts of thieves and malefactors, are precisely the ones that offer the most in the way of natural history in China. For safety only and to cool evil fancies I shall be careful to keep my gun much in evidence.

This precaution saved his life on more than one occasion. In 1864, while he was still majoring in missionary work and minoring in natural history, he had been accosted by eight mounted brigands, some of them brandishing European weapons. With just his Chinese servant and a couple of cowardly porters, David was severely outnumbered, but they could see his rifle and he drew his revolver.22 ‘[T]hese gallants soon saw that I was not inclined to let myself be despoiled gratuitously, and still less to let myself be killed by these prosaic cut-throats: they would first have to engage in a combat in which some of them might well be hurt.’ The aggressors backed off and went in search of more submissive prey.

With dozens of hair-raising encounters23 like this, it’s a wonder that David survived. He put it down, in part, to ‘Divine Providence’ but also to the reputation of Europeans. ‘We are readily believed to be endowed with extraordinary talents and super-human powers,’ he wrote. ‘I feel that Orientals accord to Occidentals, by instinct and from the bottom of their hearts, a universal and incontestable superiority.’ But if, as David imagined in 1866, the Chinese were prepared to kowtow to their foreign ‘superiors’, this was not a situation that would last for long.

For as the nineteenth century progressed, missionaries in China found themselves facing increasing levels of hostility. Throughout his travels, David had frequently been refused accommodation, deliberately delayed, charged exorbitant prices and possibly poisoned. While at the Dengchi Valley Cathedral, he had heard news of a plan to ‘exterminate all Christians’24 in the region. ‘I think the emissaries of the Chinese government spread these rumours to cause us annoyance, or perhaps to make us flee from the neighbourhood by making it appear to be dangerous,’ he wrote. But just over a year later, on his way back to Beijing, he received terrible news. On his way out to Sichuan, David had spent about a week amongst friends at Tianjin’s French consulate, Catholic mission and an orphanage run by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, all of which sat on the same site. Now, on his return, they were in ruins.

In June 1870, the French consul – a man named Henri Fontanier – had blustered into the local magistrate’s office to protest at inflammatory rumours circulating amongst the Chinese. The French Christians, it was alleged, were taking Chinese children off the streets from impoverished parents to torture them or worse. David had heard such claims himself at a Catholic orphanage he’d visited in Jiujiang: ‘[E]vil-minded pagans25 say the missionaries only take in these poor abandoned children to send them to bawdy houses in Europe,’ he wrote in 1868. Unfortunately for David’s colleagues at the French mission and orphanage, Fontanier had pulled out a pistol and let fly at the magistrate. When it missed but killed a bystander, the consul did not have long to regret his actions. Within minutes he had been blud-geoned to death by an angry mob, which then killed several French traders and their wives on the way to the French quarter. The rabble set fire to the Catholic Church, murdered Father Louis Chévrier (who had accompanied David into Mongolia in 1866) and burst into the orphanage, where they had stripped and killed all ten of the terrified nuns.

Such violence was only a taste of things to come. With the Qing Dynasty continuing to give way to foreign powers, European faces became an increasingly common sight in China, though particularly in and around the trading ports on the Yellow Sea. And with floods and drought hitting the Chinese people hard, tolerance of the Europeans’ different standards, culture and religion gradually gave way to a brooding resentment. This would give birth in 1898 to a violent anti-foreign, anti-Christian movement – The Boxers United in Righteousness. This bloody clash between cultures would set the tone for the next half century and more. As we will see, tensions between East and West, forged in the crucible of the Boxer Uprising, turned out to have a profound effect upon the way of the panda as it muddled its way through the twentieth century.

Today, thankfully, China has to put this troubled history behind it and is a very safe and friendly place in which to travel. In 2009, the tourism board in Sichuan’s Ya’an City put on a bit of David re-enactment, organising an expedition for panda fans to retrace David’s journey from Chengdu into the mountains 140 years earlier.

David had set out from Chengdu on 22 February 1869 and it took him just seven days to cover over 200 miles of not particularly hospitable terrain. That’s averaging over 30 miles a day, one heck of a pace. There was a lot to take in as he went: he passed through ‘admirably cultivated’ rice fields; he wondered at a band of a dozen or so ‘true dwarfs’; when he witnessed onlookers laughing at a naked beggar in a ditch, he saw it as proof that ‘in general the Chinese are entirely without heart, compassion, or affection. They have only egotism and pride.’ He found broad beans and mustards in flower; he scribbled down sightings of white heron, peewits and plovers; and marvelled at one of his hired men carrying a 170-pound load. ‘The Chinese are the most adroit porters in the world. It is astonishing how they can resist fatigue in view of their poor and almost entirely vegetarian diet.’

As hills turned to mountains,26 David entered a long, high valley ‘frequented by tigers and still more often thieves’. Over a mountain pass, he descended by a crumbling stone stairway, before tracking ‘a beautiful river with clear, tumbling waters’. Finally, eager to reach the Dengchigou Valley Cathedral, he pressed on ahead of his luggage, rounding an ‘impassable mountain’ and crossing another through a snow-bound pass at an altitude of 3,200 metres. By two o’clock on 28 February 1869, he was ‘safe and sound, thanks to God’. Father Dugrité was there to greet him and showed him to a guest suite on the ground floor across the courtyard from the chapel.


3. The Dengchigou Valley Cathedral just north of Baoxing, where Armand David ‘discovered’ the giant panda.

So it was that David rolled up the dried skin of the young panda and packed it into a box. He finished off a letter he would send separately to Alphonse Milne-Edwards, his zoological contact at the museum back in France. As his collection would not arrive in Paris for a while, he urged Milne-Edwards to publish a brief description of this creature. If it was as important as he thought it was, he wanted to establish priority for its discovery. He tentatively proposed the Latin name Ursus melanoleucus27 – literally black-and-white bear – and went on to describe its extraordinary markings. ‘I have not seen this species in the museums of Europe and it is easily the most pretty I have come across; perhaps it will turn out to be new to science!’

How right he was. But what would Milne-Edwards and others in the West make of it?

Skin and bones

Beneath the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris lies the Zoothèque – layer upon descending layer of storage space filled with the remains of millions of dead animals. With thousands of type specimens – the individual animal that is used by the global scientific community as a reference point for a particular species – it’s one of the most impressive zoological collections in the world. Buried somewhere down there beneath the Parisian metropolis is Armand David’s young ‘black-and-white bear’. There is also an adult he collected, which his hunters brought him just days later. ‘Its colours are exactly like1 those of the young one I have, only the darker parts are less black and the white more soiled,’ he wrote on 1 April 1869. It is these two specimens2 that Parisian zoologist Alphonse Milne-Edwards used to write up the formal scientific description of this species.

The privilege to name usually falls to a senior taxonomist based in a major natural history institution. Back in Victorian days, these head honchos could resent the presumptive and often ill-informed decisions made by their inferior field-based counterparts. This was certainly the case for the botanist Joseph Hooker, director of Kew Gardens from 1865 to 1885. As the man responsible for making sense of the botanical specimens shipped to him from across the British Empire, Hooker was incredibly frustrated by ‘splitters’ or ‘species-mongers’, botanical collectors who emphasised difference over similarity.


4. The red panda as it appears in Frédéric Cuvier’s formal description of the species published in 1825. Alphonse Milne-Edwards saw similarities between this creature and Armand David’s ‘black-and-white bear’.


5. Armand David’s ‘black-and-white bear’ as it appears in Alphonse Milne-Edwards’ formal scientific description of the species, which appeared in the early 1870s.

Historian of biology Jim Endersby has drawn attention3 to one such man, the New Zealand missionary-cum-naturalist William Colenso. As each new species had to be carefully preserved with a type specimen and its formal description lodged in Kew’s herbarium, men like Colenso threatened to complicate what was already an extremely complex task. On one occasion, Hooker made a direct assault on Colenso’s propensity for mongering species: ‘From having no Herbarium you have described as new, some of the best known Ferns in the world.’ In such put-downs, Endersby sees Hooker asserting his authority:4 it was those with access to the biggest collections who were best placed to make the final call on whether or not something was a new species, what it resembled and what it should be called. ‘Hooker routinely offered his vast libraries of books and specimens as an argument for keeping the right to name in the metropolis,’ Endersby notes in his biography of Hooker, Imperial Nature.

In the relatively minor taxonomic fracas between the remote David and metropolitan Milne-Edwards, there is just the faintest whiff of similar tensions. By the time David penned his first panda-related letter to Paris, he had decided this creature was a bear. But Milne-Edwards overruled. He had noticed some interesting similarities between David’s ‘black-and-white bear’ and another creature first described at the Paris museum: the red panda.

Almost half a century earlier, in 1825, the remains of a beautiful russet creature had reached the museum and it had fallen to Frédéric Cuvier, the head keeper of the menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes and younger brother of the more famous Georges, to describe it for science. Cuvier had stressed its differences to bears, similarities to raccoons and created a new genus for it that sat somewhere in between. ‘I propose for the generic name5 of this panda that of Ailurus, on account of its exterior resemblance to the cat and for its specific name that of Fulgens, because of its brilliant colours.’ Cuvier gave the world a completely new family – the Ailuridae – containing a completely unique species – Ailurus fulgens.

Milne-Edwards was particularly interested in the skull structure, the arrangement of teeth and the unusual hairiness of the soles of David’s black-and-white bear, characteristics that bore a striking resemblance to those of Cuvier’s red panda. ‘From its exterior form,6 it does indeed greatly resemble a bear, but the skeletal characteristics and dental arrangement clearly set it apart and associate it with the pandas and raccoons,’ he wrote with barely concealed condescension. ‘It must constitute a new genus, which I have called Ailuropoda’, literally ‘panda foot’. In time, Cuvier’s red panda would acquire another name – the lesser panda – to distinguish it from David’s ‘black-and-white bear’ or ‘giant panda’.

In a letter back to the administrators of the museum the following year, David had not completely given up on his initial judgment. ‘Another interesting new animal7 which I have seen in the mountains is the black-and-white bear,’ he told them. He was, however, gracious enough to concede that ‘some of the skeletal characters distance it from the true bears and relate it to the pandas’ as his superior had argued.

However, the central question over which David and Milne-Edwards differed has refused to die away. Is this animal more like a bear and less like a lesser panda or less like a bear and more like a lesser panda?

Soon dozens of experts began to wade into the debate. Some based their conclusions on single characteristics like the shape of the brain or the structure of the inner ear; others drew together a combination of features like skull and dentition, the dentition and the skeleton, or the skeleton and the skull; and there were comparisons with fossilised panda material. But for every study concluding that David’s creature was most like a bear, there was another suggesting it was not. Instead of forging a consensus, this tennis-like tussle over the course of more than fifty years only succeeded in adding to the interest in the panda. Here was a creature that apparently defied all efforts to make sense of it.

In the 1960s, a Chicago anatomist attempted to come at the question afresh. Dwight D. Davis began his thwacking great monograph on the anatomical make-up of the giant panda with an overview of the stalemate. He made a simple but important observation: ‘Quite different conclusions8 have been reached by a succession of capable investigators on the basis of the same data,’ he wrote. This meant only one thing – ‘that the data employed are not sufficient to form a basis for an objective conclusion, and that opinion has been an important ingredient in arriving at conclusions.’ In short, if scientists continued to pass judgment on the basis of just skulls, skeleton and teeth, there could be no end to the debate.

This was harsh criticism but probably fair. His next cool observation was more damning. ‘Opinion as to the affinities of Ailuropoda is divided almost perfectly along geographic lines.’ He highlighted two studies in particular to make his point. The first was a lengthy paper published in Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London in 1885. In it, a British zoologist had sided with Milne-Edwards in suggesting that Ailuropoda was most closely related to the lesser panda and raccoons. Putting the Frenchman Milne-Edwards and one other non-anglophone paper to one side, this view, Davis argued, had been ‘echoed by every British and American author down to 1943’.

The second study to which Davis drew attention appeared in 1895. Its author, a Danish zoologist, placed Ailuropoda in the bear family and, observed Davis, ‘every subsequent continental authority has followed in his footsteps’. He went on: ‘Such a cleavage of opinion along geographical and linguistic lines cannot be due to chance.’ Indeed, it is perhaps telling that the Germans often refer to Ailuropoda as the bambusbär, literally ‘bamboo bear’, and have consistently grouped it with bears, while English-speakers who call it a panda have preferred to align it with the lesser panda. From this, Davis concluded ‘that authoritarianism rather than objective analysis has really been the determining factor in deciding the question’.

This was ballsy stuff. Davis was not too far off suggesting that the ‘cleavage of opinion’ had come about because English-speaking researchers were pulling down English-language publications and non-English-speakers were dipping into exclusively non-English publications and both camps were simply rehashing what they’d read. Thankfully, Davis had a solution. He had an entirely new set of data to bring to the taxonomic table – the preserved remains of Su-Lin, the first giant panda to make it out of China alive (and an animal we’ll hear more of in Chapter 4). Though she had died several years earlier, the taxidermists had thought to pickle her insides. Since nobody had ever scrutinised these body parts before, there was nothing written about them that might skew Davis’ judgment.

Where studies of skulls and bones had produced equivocal results, the anatomy left Davis in no doubt where to put David’s animal. ‘Ailuropoda is a bear9 and therefore belongs in the family Ursidae,’ he wrote in his introduction. This pronouncement freed him up to move on to ‘more interesting questions’. What Davis wanted to know was exactly how Ailuropoda differed from other bears and how those differences had arisen.

But in spite of Davis’ best efforts to put a stop to all this wrangling, the central question of whether Ailuropoda was most closely related to bears or pandas would not go away. The reason probably lies in the emergence of new, molecular methods for ordering the natural world.