America’s first giant panda and China’s most popular export

Society & Culture

Su Lin, the first panda to enter America, was an instant celebrity, a black-and-white meteorite. Brought over by Ruth Harkness, his arrival presaged the start of Sino-American panda diplomacy.

Su Lin and Ruth Harkness

This Week in China’s History: December 2, 1936

It’s been a rough year, but it’s almost over. Some might even say it is a small miracle that we have made it (almost) to the end of 2020! In recognition of one “small miracle,” this column — which usually tries to connect past and present and challenge us to do better by understanding mistakes of the past — takes a little break. This week, something lighter.

In August, the National Zoo in Washington D.C. discovered that one of its giant pandas, a 22-year old named Měi Xiāng 美香, was pregnant…very pregnant. Within days of the discovery, she gave birth to a cub — later determined to be a male — her seventh. An online poll in mid-November chose from among four finalists to name the cub 小奇迹 (xiǎo qíjī), “Little Miracle.” (For what it’s worth, I was on team Zaizai 仔仔).

For nearly a century, the panda has been ubiquitous — sometimes suffocatingly so — in popular images of China. Notoriously, often laughably, hamfisted when it comes to public relations, the People’s Republic has found in the panda one of its few effective soft-power weapons. Popular, photogenic, generally harmless, threatened, and uniquely Chinese, pandas have been mainstays of Chinese public diplomacy for many decades.

Stories of pandas being given as state gifts date back at least to the Tang Dynasty, and in recent years the animal’s impact on Chinese-American relations has been undeniable. So, while we contemplate what the change in American administrations might mean for the future of relations between the two countries, This Week in China’s History looks back to December 2, 1936, when for the first time a giant panda left China bound for North America.

Rumors of estrange-looking black-and-white bears living in the mountains of Sichuan had been rampant in the West since the 19th century. The first hard evidence of their existence was obtained in 1869, when a French missionary received a pelt from local hunters, a story retold by Henry Nicholls in his 2010 book, Way of the Panda. The skin, exhibited at the French National Museum in Paris, set off a race to capture the animal itself. It would take 50 years before the first confirmed Western sighting of a panda, on an expedition sponsored by Chicago’s Field Museum and led by Theodore Roosevelt’s son, Kermit. Soon afterwards, Roosevelt’s expedition bagged a panda, and the specimen was brought back to America and put on display in Chicago (where it still resides).

The ultimate goal, though, was not just a pelt or a carcass, but a live animal. The 1936 expedition had been planned by American explorer William Harkness, who had made his post-Harvard career on magical beasts and where to find them. The highlight thus far had been Komodo dragons brought from Indonesia to the Bronx, and the giant panda was next.

But it was not to be. Throat cancer struck down the explorer, quickly and young, in Shanghai. His wife learned she was a widow by telegram, in New York. Ruth Harkness had already remade herself once, from a small-town Pennsylvanian into a Manhattan socialite. Now, she turned another page, deciding to take up her husband’s quest. Soon, she was aboard a steamer to China, where she arrived in the spring of 1936.

Journalist Vicki Croke, who wrote the definitive account of Ruth Harkness and her panda adventures, contends that Ruth Harkness succeeded in her quest not despite her gender, but because of it. Other Westerners — all men — in the race for the panda decided the best course of action was on their own, hiring locals to carry gear and translate but otherwise without input. Harkness took a different approach, and spent the summer eschewing other Westerners in favor of local knowledge, eventually partnering with a guide, Quentin Young (Yang Tilin). Born in China, Quentin was part of a cosmopolitan family that had spent generations crossing the Pacific between American and China. Young’s (American-born) brother, Jack, had guided Kermit Roosevelt on his panda hunt. In late September, they set out up the Yangtze to Sichuan.

Harkness had once bragged that in New York she would take a cab rather than walk a block. Now, she and Young were hiking up to 30 miles a day, at altitudes up to 10,000 feet or more. After a few weeks, Young guided them to the right spot: the crying sound emerging from a rotted tree stump revealed a baby panda, which Ruth fed with a baby bottle she had thought to bring from Shanghai at the last minute. Making their way back downriver, Ruth was able eventually to persuade some customs officials to look the other way, finally boarding the President McKinley with a ticket for herself and a permit for her “dog.” On December 9, Ruth Harkness and her panda companion, now named Sū Lín 苏琳, arrived in San Francisco.

Su Lin was a celebrity, a black-and-white meteorite across America. For months, he (though believed at the time to be female, the panda was male) accompanied Ruth Harkness to New York’s best parties, a front-page story across the United States and beyond. As he outgrew Harkness’s West Side apartment, she brought him to Chicago, where he was a star attraction in the Brookfield Zoo. Harkness returned to China twice more to retrieve more pandas. (Su Lin died shortly after a would-be mate joined him, just two years after arriving in the zoo.)

The story of Su Lin, Ruth Harkness, and Quentin Young was just the start of Sino-American panda diplomacy. In 1941, Soong May-ling gave two pandas to the Bronx Zoo as part of the charm offensive aimed at bringing the United States into World War II in support of the embattled Republic of China. The two bears (pandas are officially back as bears after spending most of my life classified as oversized racoons) were named “Pan-dee” and “Pan-dah” (groan), and called the Bronx home for just a few years. When they died, the fall of the Nationalist government in 1949 meant that no replacements were coming: only the Communist world was eligible for the two-toned gifts for decades. The Soviet Union received two in the 1950s, and North Korea got five. But it was in 1972 that “panda diplomacy” reached a new tier.

Chinese premier Zhōu Ēnlái 周恩来 offered American first lady Patricia Nixon the gift of two pandas during the historic February 1972, visit that began the process of opening diplomatic relations. After fierce competition among America’s top zoos for the honor of hosting the first pandas to appear in the United States in more than 20 years, Nixon presented the pandas to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. in April. From the start, Ling-ling and Xing-xing were a huge attraction, drawing 20,000 visitors on their first day and more than a million in their first year. They would remain popular until their deaths: Ling-ling in 1992, and Xing-xing in 1999.

Since 1972, pandas have been China’s soft-power celebrities, not without controversy. After decades of offering the pandas as gifts, the Chinese government began instead renting pandas, at first for some $50,000 per month, and then for standard fees of $1 million per year. With many countries desperate for the animals, critics have charged that pandas have been used as bribes to influence countries to avoid criticizing China’s human rights record, provide favorable trade terms, or make other diplomatic incentives.

Today, just three zoos in America have pandas. Neither the storied Bronx Zoo with its own panda history nor the San Diego Zoo, whose pandas were recalled last year after 23 years in Southern California, nor Chicago, where the first panda in America was seen, have the black-and-white charisma machines. If you want to see a panda in the USA, you’ll need to make a trip to Atlanta, Memphis, or, most famously, Washington D.C., to see their “Little Miracle.”

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.