Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese People Used to Think Pandas Were Monsters

The animals were feared as metal-devouring "tapirs" who could chew the nails off a city gate.

Getty Images
Getty Images

"Rich Chinese are literally eating this exotic mammal into extinction," read a recent Global Post expose of the devastating trade in the pangolin, a scaly anteater that Chinese consider a delicacy. According to the Post, the adorable animals (which one columnist described as "a four-legged pine cone") had become the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world, in large part because Chinese like to eat them. Other news reports have raised alarms over rare bears, tigers, and salamanders falling victim to Chinese appetites, raising the question: What won’t China eat? The obvious answer is the Giant Panda, the endangered bear that has become synonymous with 5,000 years of Chinese history and the oddest-ever olive branch, a fuzzy form of diplomatic outreach. But it’s not been all that long since panda came unequivocally "off-the-menu."    

China’s love affair with the panda is in fact a fairly recent phenomenon, and while strong, is not symptomatic of a deep culture of animal protectionism. China has a dismal record when it comes to animal rights and conservation, and pandas are among a tiny minority of animals unlikely to end up in a Chinese soup pot somewhere. But the national embrace of the panda has inculcated a shared affection that could provide a template for saving other species in the future.

The elevation of the black and white bear to China’s national symbol happened gradually only over the last century. (There are 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, which dates back over 2,000 years and includes the mythical dragon — but no panda.) Yiduiread, a news channel on the hugely popular WeChat mobile messaging platform, posted a sweeping overview of panda history in June with the headline: "Giant Panda: From Monster to National Icon." In ancient times, the article said, Chinese people feared pandas and described them as metal-devouring black-and-white "tapirs," an herbivorous mammal resembling a pig. The bears were known to descend from the mountains to forage for utensils made of bamboo, iron, or copper, and could chew the nails off a city gate, it said. In his 1993 book The Last Panda, U.S. biologist and naturalist George B. Schaller explained how Chinese used to hunt pandas for their pelts because it was believed that sleeping on panda fur could ward off ghosts and help regulate a woman’s menstrual cycle. They also thought panda urine could dissolve a swallowed needle.  

Though humans apparently ate panda in prehistoric times, contemporary Chinese have little taste for the animal. There is an oft-cited saying that Chinese people will "eat anything with four legs except the table" — including braised camel hump, monkey brains, and shark’s fin on the occasional (luxe) Chinese menu. The liberal Chinese palate often extends to animals kept as pets, with dogs, rabbits, and even cats sometimes meeting their end as a soup or spicy dish. But panda banquets are unheard of. They are certainly too precious to eat, but their flavor might also have kept them off the dinner table. Schaller’s book details the trial of 26-year-old farmer Leng Zhizhong, who unintentionally snared a radio-collared panda in the western province of Sichuan in January 1983 while trying to trap Musk deer and wild pigs. In a bid to dispose of the evidence, he chopped up the bear and stir-fried its meat with turnips. It was a dish so inedible he ended up feeding it to his pigs. (He also gave some to his sister.) The court sentenced Leng to two years in prison.

Though rarely hunted for food, pandas have been hunted for their fur, or just for sport. Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s sons, Kermit and Theodore, claimed to be the first Westerners to bag a Chinese panda in April 1928. The brothers said they fired at the same time, and both claimed the kill. They were so pleased with their conquest that they wrote a tell-all, Trailing the Giant Panda. In 1939, New York dress designer and socialite Ruth Harkness captured a baby male panda in Sichuan that she bottle-fed and named Su Lin. He eventually became a hot attraction in Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo.

It was in London, however, that a stateless bear’s sudden popularity made the panda the poster child for all things endangered. In 1957, Chi-chi, originally slated for sale to a U.S. zoo, found herself homeless when the United States, which had no formal relations with Communist China, refused the panda entrance. But the London Zoo made a successful bid for Chi-chi in 1958, and she quickly became the zoo’s star attraction. As it happened, London was also the home of the newly formed World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which still lacked a logo. Deciding that there was no better candidate than the lovable Chi-chi, the WWF chose the panda as its official logo in 1961, and the black-and-white bamboo-munching creature has been an international symbol of wildlife conservation ever since.

The WWF’s choice of logo helped align international concern about the species with a new Chinese effort to address dwindling panda numbers and the destruction of their habitat, the bamboo forests. China made giant pandas a protected species in 1962, the first captive-bred panda cub was born in 1963, and poaching was criminalized in 1987, setting strict new penalties of at least ten years in jail or even death. Even so, it took time to stamp out the practice of panda poaching. Three smuggled pelts were reported seized by Hong Kong customs authorities in 1987, and China arrested 203 for panda hunting in 1988, recovering 146 pelts.

Although intentionally harming a panda is now unthinkable, other bear species do not enjoy the same protections. Chinese today still consume the bile extracted from moon bears, sun bears, and brown bears; the substance is believed to be therapeutic and is an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. Yet bile extraction is a painful and invasive process, and some bear bile farms keep bears locked in tiny cages for years at a time. It’s a double standard that deeply upsets Jill Robinson, founder of rights group Animals Asia Foundation. She told Foreign Policy that it is a "source of great sadness" to see other bears in China "maligned and cruelly exploited in bear farms across the country." Robinson wrote in an email from New Zealand that she’s never heard of any instance of panda parts being used in any traditional medicine or tonics. Pandas and other bears "share so many similarities but are treated so very differently," she said. 

Only a few have dared argue against trying to save the pandas, calling the effort doomed and a waste of money. China certainly doesn’t seem to be questioning itself. It spends a fortune on panda preservation, from breeding parks to research, but also earns millions of dollars annually by leasing the animals to overseas zoos and by displaying them as tourist attractions at home. Over the past several decades, Chinese scientists have developed and honed the difficult techniques required to breed pandas in captivity, in 2010 making a breakthrough that may help pandas bred in captivity to return to the wild. Pandas are frequently born in pairs but mothers struggle to care for both cubs; the simple but powerful innovation has been to let other captive panda females foster one of the cubs. 

Pandas are the face of animal rights but in the popular imagination, they are not really bears at all — they are cartoon characters, a creation of movies like Kungfu Panda, the fuzzy panda hats sold at tourist attractions around China, and even Fuwa the Panda, one of the five mascots of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. People were dumbfounded when Gu Gu, a male panda in the Beijing Zoo, attacked a man who ventured into his enclosure in January, 2009. "I always thought they were cute and just ate bamboo," the victim, Zhang Jiao, told CNN. 

Imagining pandas roaming free in their natural environs is also a challenge because there are only around 1,000 wild pandas left. Seeing one can be a major event; in March, villagers in Sichuan screamed and ran toward a panda with their phones and cameras out when he scrambled through their mountain hamlet, capturing this video

There are signs that panda love may be spreading to other species. Eating shark’s fin has sharply waned in popularity due in part to anti-cruelty campaigns backed by Chinese celebrities like basketball star Yao Ming. In June, animal rights activists overran the annual Yulin Dog Meat Festival, sometimes physically preventing those transporting dogs to enter the city. As for the scaled pangolins, China announced in April that anti-trafficking laws could be interpreted to punish not just poachers, but anyone who knowingly eats an endangered animal. Violators could spend up to ten years in prison. The interpretation applied to 420 different endangered species, including tigers and golden monkeys. By attacking Chinese appetites, the government might finally be able to curb demand. 

Alexa Olesen was a foreign correspondent for the Associate Press in Beijing for eight years and has been a reporter for Foreign Policy. She now works for ChinaSix, a New York-based consulting firm.

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