Thursday, 22 October 2009

The evolution of the political panda

So when did pandas become political animals?

Since my last blog post, in which I discovered the British Cartoon Archive (BCA), I’ve had a chance to consider panda cartoons in more detail. This is what I’m thinking:

Satirising, sending up and poking fun at pandas did not really start in earnest until the 1960s, when the “British” panda Chi-Chi got together with the “Soviet” panda An-An. To flesh this out a bit, I’ve gone through all the panda-related cartoons in the BCA – all 192 of them – and curated a selection on the BCA’s nifty website to illustrate my argument.

During early 1939, the Evening Standard published a series of children’s cartoons that followed the antics of “Pindar the Panda”. As far as I can tell, the first of these appeared on 2 March and introduced a huntsman in “the wild plains of Tibet”. He was “looking for something to shoot”, when he came across a sobbing panda called Mr. Pindar ” The huntsman, who “really had a kind heart and hated to shoot anything” took pity on Pindar the Panda and brought him back to London. And so the adventures begin. It’s simple, sweet and wholly innocent.

The arrival of Lein-Ho in 1946 triggered a couple of rather more edgy panda cartoons but still nothing in the least political. This one, published in the Evening News in May, depicted London Zoo’s newcomer Lein-Ho. Unlike his popular predecessor Ming, Lein-Ho was prone to bouts of aggression and in this cartoon, he is throwing a tantrum because he “Hasn’t had [his] picture in the paper...” It’s fairly standard anthropomorphism but nothing more.

Chi-Chi’s arrival in the late 1950s triggered a few more cartoons and the first I’ve come across with explicitly political overtones. In this draft, the famous cartoonist Ronald Carl Giles has Nikki (a Russian bear that Nikita Khrushchev gave to Princess Anne during his visit to Britain in 1956) writing a letter to his new “Comrade Chi-Chi”. In the final version, which was published in the Daily Express on 25 September 1958, Nikki asks: “Well, how do you "like life under the bourgeois capitalist beasts?”

There was another spate of panda cartoons in 1964, when rumours first began to circulate about the possibility a Chi-Chi/An-An match. But when this finally came off in 1966, there were dozens – no fewer than 31 in the BCA. All of them are humourous and many of them tie in with political events. Like this one, which appeared in the Daily Mirror on 29 September before the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool. The leader of the opposition Ted Heath is depicted as an anxious An-An and the “disgruntled Tory party” as Chi-Chi. The forthcoming conference is billed as their “last chance to mate”.

There are a further 18 panda cartoons in the BCA from 1968. This one is representative. It appeared in the Evening News on 23 January to coincide with Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s diplomatic visit to the Soviet Union. He sits on one sofa, chained to Chi-Chi. Opposite them are their Soviet counterparts Premier Alexei Kosygin and An-An. The caption reads “Agreed, then – enough politics and down to serious matters..."

After the failed affair between Chi-Chi and An-An, there are more cartoons, notably in 1974 when the Chinese gave Ted Heath two replacement pandas for Chi-Chi. This, from the Daily Express is nice. In everything that appears from the 1960s onwards, pandas are figures of fun.

If anyone knows of any pre-1958 panda cartoons of a humourous or political nature or any post-1968 panda cartoons with no gags or political content, I’d like to know. Nicholas Hiley, the extremely helpful head of the BCA, informs me that there may be other panda cartoons that aren’t coming up on a search for “pandas” or that haven’t yet been digitized. And obviously it would be good to broaden this out beyond Britain. Have the Chinese gone in for panda cartoons? I’d love to know.

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