Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China's Political Animal

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China's Political Animal

Article excerpt

How our obsession with pandas has evolved from a disturbing dead- is-best approach to a kinder sort of appreciation.

Considering their famous resistance to mating in captivity, it may seem like pandas aren't much into adoring each other. Thankfully, we humans more than make up for their apparent lack of mutual regard: We love pandas to pieces.

People flock to zoos to see pandas up close. They're the emblems of both China and a leading advocacy organization for animals. And pandas are more than just cute and cuddly: they offer perspective about evolution and serve as a tool of international diplomacy.

Our obsessive fascination with pandas might make for a great story, especially if it comes with fresh insight into what they mean to us and what we mean to them (for better or worse). But in the hands of British science journalist Henry Nicholls, their tale never moves past the level of mildly intriguing.

In fact, both pandas and people come across as more dull than darling in Nicholl's new book The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China's Political Animal. Few of the human characters in this saga leap off the page, not even the intrepid 19th-century Western explorers who discovered pandas in China or the modern world's panda-trading politicians.

Nicholls does succeed at explaining how our obsession with pandas has evolved from a disturbing dead-is-best approach to a kinder sort of appreciation.

More than a century ago, museum collectors thought the best kind of panda was a shot and stuffed one, the better to take home and put on display. Ironically, this panda-unfriendly approach actually helped people to care about them for the first time. "After all, if you don't know what is out there, conservation is kind of meaningless."

As people learned to shoot pandas with cameras instead of rifles, they continued to fascinate scientists who argued over whether they're more closely related to the bear, raccoon, or another species called the lesser panda. The current consensus is that the giant panda is a bear.

Along came a challenge for the ages: Get a bear out of China and keep it alive, a task that required plenty of ingeniousness and intrigue. Then zoos had to figure out what to feed the pandas at urban zoos. (In Britain, the panda named Chi-Chi enjoyed chocolate, a spot of tea, and porridge that sent her right into nappy time. These days, bamboo - surprise! …

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