Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Hunting pandas

It's a remarkable fact that the formal scientific discovery of the giant panda - an animal that seems so familiar today - took place as recently as 1869. But before that, humans must have encountered pandas and there may be dozens of informal descriptions of the creature embedded within China’s rich literature.
It’s certainly a tantalising idea and one that has attracted the attention of plenty of scholarship. It’s also something I figured would sit nicely in the first chapter of my next book (provisionally entitled Political Animal, in which the “Animal” refers to both the giant panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca and the economic giant that is modern China). 

So I’ve started to look into the validity of possible panda sightings in ancient writings and one day in, I have a headache. My Chinese, you see, isn’t up to going back to the original texts and looking for a fleeting glimpse of the panda myself, so I am left with trying to assess the merits of a bunch of secondary and frequently contradictory sources that talk about pandas in these dusty volumes. 

One man has looked into this more than most. His name is Hu Jinchu, something of a legend in panda circles as he is one of the first to set about the first serious study of wild giant pandas in the 1970s. For Hu, there are descriptions of mysterious, near mythological creatures in several ancient texts that sound a lot like pandas. The ones that sound particularly interesting to me are the pixiu (though artistic renditions of this animal are far from panda-like, see above), the mo and the zhouyu. 

The snag is that the descriptions of these creatures in books like the Er Ya, Shan Hai Jing, Shuo Wen, Shi Jing and Bencao Gangmu differ wildly from one translation to the next. This, I’m guessing, is because the descriptions of the animals themselves are often not particularly literal and also because there’s an inventive step in the act of translation from Chinese to English. Given this room for interpretation, perhaps it’s not so surprising that most people are happy to take 1869 as the starting point for the panda’s journey from obscurity to global domination.


  1. 1869 sounds ridiculously recent, but then the mountain gorilla apparently became known to science on 17 October 1902!

  2. It is ridiculously recent isn't it? My book really rests on that recentness, showing how much we humans can do - environmental damage, yes but also scientific achievement and cultural change - in such a short space of time. Didn't know about the mountain gorilla. Crazy.