Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Henry Nicholls's "The Way of the Panda"

Henry Nicholls's first book, Lonesome George, was a story of one giant tortoise, Galapagos and global conservation.

Nicholls applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China's Political Animal, and reported the following:
On page 99, we find ourselves in the 1960s, the decade in which the giant panda made its most confident leap from the zoological into the human world. This is a pivotal moment in The Way of the Panda, the tale of the giant panda’s journey from 19th-century obscurity to global zoological domination. It was then that East and West made two independent and largely rival claims on the panda’s alluring form.

It was exactly 50 years ago that the founding members of the World Wildlife Fund settled on the panda as the fledgling charity’s emblem, a decision that allegedly took about twenty minutes. When conservationist, wildlife artist and WWF founder Peter Scott rationalized this moment years later, he claimed the founding committee was after an endangered animal that looked good and would print well in black-and-white. According to his widow, who I interviewed for my book before her death in late 2009, it was the printing budget that drove the decision. In this single, swift and somewhat serendipitous moment, the giant panda became more than just a zoological curiosity. It became the face of global conservation.

Less well known, at least to the Western mind, is Chairman Mao Zedong’s entirely independent effort to turn the giant panda into a unifying, uplifting symbol for modern China. It was perfect for the job: a uniquely Chinese animal, stunning to look at, rare, hence precious, and coveted by the West. Hard as it is to believe, the panda had not come to mainstream cultural attention during China’s Imperial era. So whilst Mao clamped down on anything with the merest whiff of an association with the Imperial past during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the panda was a fair, even desirable, artistic game. For the US historian Elena Songster, who has written a great PhD on the emergence of the panda as a Chinese national icon, “studying it, painting it, and mass producing it were all means of glorifying one of China’s prized possessions, and thus China itself” and so, for a quarter of the world’s population, “the panda became synonymous with modern China.”

This is the first time that the East showed a serious interest in the giant panda. From the “discovery” of the species by a French Catholic missionary in 1869 right up until the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, the story of the giant panda is one dominated exclusively by Western voices: collectors sought specimens for museums; hunters tried to shoot them for “sport”; zoos fought to get hold of one to show off to the fee-paying public. I cover this in the first part of the book. The middle section, on which the story turns, homes in on the 1960s. In the final section, which brings us from the 1970s to the present, China gradually comes to dominate the panda’s story (and, in case you hadn’t noticed, the world).

There, in a nutshell, is what The Way of the Panda is about. When I read what I have written in the prologue, that “thinking about pandas helps make sense of modern China’s rise to global domination”, there is a bit of me that still wonders if this is just a little too bold. But it’s a small bit of me and one that gets smaller every day. The giant panda is a species with such huge popular appeal, powerful symbolism, comedic potential and political value, it would actually be pretty surprising if what I call “the way of the panda” did not reveal a fascinating human history. It really, really does.
Learn more about the book and author at Henry Nicholls's website.

The Page 99 Test: Lonesome George.

--Marshal Zeringue