Western civilization did not realize the existence of pandas until early March, in 1869. On the 11th of March 1869, a French missionary by the name of Armand David received the skin of a panda from a hunter when he was on an expedition in China. He later brought this skin, along with several others acquired from the same hunter, to Paris. These unusual skins caused a sharp interest in the keen eyes of many, leading many foreigners to flood China to inevitably return with panda skins, fetching a high price in a ripe market.
Pandas had not been gifted to America until President Nixon visited China in 1972. The then Chairman of the Communist Party of China, Mao Zedong, gifted 2 pandas to the United States. Their names were Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, a male and a female respectively. These pandas marked the first ever interaction of Panda Diplomacy between the United States and China, the latter of which was well known for doing with many other countries.
Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling were immediately given to the National Zoo in Washington, DC when they arrived in the United States, where they lived for over 20 years. Unfortunately, Ling-Ling died of heart failure at the age of 23 just before the new year in 1992, whereas Hsing-Hsing was put down in 1999 after suffering from kidney failure. He lived to the age of 28. He marked the oldest living panda in the United States until sometime in 2020. A male panda by the name of Gao Gao has since passed him in age. However, only as a technicality, as Gao Gao was returned to China in 2018 after his 15-year loan agreement had expired.
Interestingly enough, these weren’t the first pandas to ever live in the United States. The first panda to live in the U.S was named Su-Lin by the explorer who captured him, Ruth Harkness. Ruth decided to go on an expedition in search of pandas in place of her husband Bill in 1936, shortly after her husband had died of throat cancer. Later that year, she along with 2 other explorers found Su-Lin and brought him back to the United States. In 1938, the second-ever panda to be on U.S soil was brought to America to accompany Su-Lin. This panda was named Mei-Mei.
The first pandas to ever be used as a diplomatic gift in modern affairs were given to the Soviet Union in 1957. This began China’s practice of Panda Diplomacy in diplomatic affairs in the modern-day. There are, however, recorded instances of China using pandas for diplomatic trades as far back as 685AD. In 685AD, it is thought that Empress Wu Zetian gifted two pandas along with 70 fur sheets to the emperor of Japan at that time. The exact wording was two “bears”, but historians believe these “bears” were actually modern-day pandas.
Panda Diplomacy is believed to be one of China’s most powerful weapons in its diplomatic arsenal, due to the effect that pandas tend to have on people. It is thought that the way they posture, eat, and look reminds humans of humans. When they eat, they tend to sit upright like a baby. They also have a mock thumb that gives them great hand-manipulation skills, much like humans have with our opposable thumbs. They also have large black patches around their eyes, making them seem much larger and similar to children’s eyes. These features attract many people, giving flocks of people a positive opinion or outlook on China.
Pandas are extremely expensive to keep around--outside of China, that is. Since the 1980s, China has no longer gifted pandas to other countries in the traditional sense of the term. They call it “gifting”, but it is really just a large loan. China typically loans pandas to other countries for between 10 and 15-year agreements. These usually come with a price tag of about $1,000,000 per year of the loan. China started this loan policy shortly before pandas became an endangered species in 1990, so it is possible that they started the loan program to help pay for conservation efforts. In any case, their conservation efforts have evidently been successful since the Giant Panda was relisted as a “vulnerable” species in 2016, which is in great contrast to them previously being an endangered species.
China’s Panda Diplomacy may not be in effect for very much longer, however. Just last year, late in 2019, another panda by the name of Chuang Chuang died outside of China once again from heart failure. He died at the age of 19. This bothered the Chinese public greatly, as pandas can usually live up to 30 years in a conservatory. This early death bothered many people, claiming that other countries shouldn’t be loaned pandas if they can’t take care of them. While this sentiment may be true, the zoo had actually put him on a diet in 2007, due to his love of food and obesity. At the time of his death, he was in good health, despite the heart failure.
We will have to see if China continues its Panda Diplomacy in the coming years.