Through Historical Records And Ancient Writings In Search Of The Giant Panda*
“Originally published in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch vol. 28 (1988), Reprinted courtesy of the author.”
Père David’s discovery
In 1869, the western world was regaled with the glad tidings that a heretofore unknown animal had been found in China. It was not exactly running to ground the legendary unicorn, but still joyful news indeed to the handful of scientists who had been anxious to locate concrete evidence of this elusive animal, reputed to be roaming the dense bamboo jungles in the mountains of southwestern China.
L’Abbé Armand David, a French naturalist and missionary, known to his colleagues simply as Père David, was given the pelt of a large, predominantly white mammal by hunters of southwestern China who had called it a white bear, (baixiong). This pelt, “du fameux ours blanc et noir”. was dispatched post-haste to Paris, where it was subsequently identified as that of a new species, ailuropoda melanoleusa, literally “black and white panda foot”. The animal was called the giant panda in English, to distinguish it from the smaller and reddish-coloured lesser panda, ailurus fulgens styani (Thomas).
It was clear from Père David’s diary that he himself had never seen a live panda, only the pelt of the animal.
The final decades of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth witnessed adventurers pressing into the wilds of Africa and Asia. American and European explorers were interested in hunting animals as trophies, not in conservation of wildlife. As a result, concerted efforts were made to hunt giant panda in the Chinese mountains as big game was hunted in Africa.
The Roosevelt brothers
The first successful expedition to shoot a giant panda in its natural habitat was sponsored by the Field Museum of Chicago in 1928. Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt, sons of the irrepressible Teddy, undertook the task to “collect the strange raccoon bears in the mountains of Yunnan and Sichuan”. It was a journey troubled by hostile weather, and equally treacherous terrain, further disturbed by intermittent encounters with marauding bandits. Local officials proved to be singularly unhelpful. Information provided by the populace turned out to be unreliable as well. The expedition gave credit to members of a local semi-agrarian Tibeto-Burman tribal people, the Lo-lo, for leading them to their prey on April 13. 1928.
On that day, the men had followed tracks on snow for three hours, finally detecting a giant panda asleep in a fir tree. Kermit Roosevelt wrote in an article in the Journal of the American Museum of Natural History:
“Three hours’ trailing through dense jungle brought us to the spot which (the giant panda) had selected for his siesta. We (Kermit and Theodore) caught sight of him emerging from the hollow bole of a giant fir tree, and fired simultaneously. Their prize, the pelt of this giant panda, the first ever of the species to be shot by outsiders, was put on exhibition at the Field Museum. The Roosevelt brothers were hailed as innovative explorers who had contributed greatly “to the advancement of zoological knowledge”.
Thereafter, similar expeditions sponsored by other learned institutions were launched.
The Sage expedition
In 1934. an expedition was sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Led by Dean Sage Jr., the expedition consisted of several persons, including William Sheldon and Sage’s wife, Anne Tilney Sage. This marked the first time a woman from outside the Yunnan and Sichuan mountains had participated in hunting the giant panda.
On December 8, 1934, the expedition achieved its objective. Sage recorded in his journal that, after days of tracking with local guides and dogs in the mountains, he and William Sheldon felled a giant panda. “We walked along the ridge for about two hours and then stopped to rest a while on a sunny slope. At this point, the pursuit seemed vain and decidedly discouraging . . . . The dogs showed not the slightest interest . . . . Suddenly, I heard the deep, angry growl of a large animal, and I began to get really excited. And, then — as if in a dream — I saw a giant panda coming through the bamboos about sixty yards away from me. He was heading straight up the ravine with the dogs at his heels. I fired, but missed… He’s only twenty feet away, now fifteen, he’s coming straight at me, . . . . I jammed (a cartridge) into the gun and fired . . . . He was less than ten feet from me! At the same moment Bill shot from above, and the animal, struck simultaneously by both our bullets, rolled over and over down the slope and came to stop against a tree fifty yards below.
We have killed a giant panda.”
A baby panda captured
The first live giant panda exported from China was captured in Sichuan in 1936 by an American woman, Ruth Harkness. William Harkness had died in Shanghai early in the year while embarking on a giant panda search. Defying all opposition — sexist and otherwise — his widow Ruth took on the task and led the expedition into the mountains of Sichuan. In November, she succeeded in capturing a three-pound female baby panda, “no more than ten days old”.
Resultant excitement was considerable. The baby panda, subsequently named Sulin, was flown from Chengdu to Shanghai by air. Customs officials in Shanghai stopped Sulin from sailing to American because Mrs. Harkness had neglected to obtain the necessary permit to export live animals. After much discussion and wrangling, Mrs. Harkness was able to leave Shanghai for San Francisco with Sulin on the President McKinley, carrying with her a “passenger voucher” for “one dog”. Two years later, in 1938, Floyd Smith succeeded in bringing five live giant pandas to England. creating a general sensation around the world.
Research into Chinese records for records on the giant panda
With all the hoopla around the world starring one of China’s very own, faces were red indeed back in the Central Kingdom. Nobody had even suspected the existence of such a delightful treasure in China’s own backwoods.
Researchers were challenged to dig into Chinese historical records and ancient writings to find proof that, after all, the Chinese had known all about the giant panda since antiquity.
The Synthesis of Books and Illustrations of Ancient and Modern Times, a work compiled during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) but not printed until 1722, is a wonderful source for quick reference of Chinese scholarship throughout the ages. Thumbing through the chapters on animals, scholars of the 1930s came tip with a plethora of animal names that they fitted into physical descriptions of the modern giant panda in one way or another. Some of these choices could be traced to the classics, the Book of Odes, an anthology of poetry mostly dating from the early Zhou era (1122-722 B.C.), and Erya, a dictionary thought to date from the third century B.C.. Antiquity indeed.
That giant pandas had existed in China since geological times was never a point in dispute. Studies of fossil remains have proved beyond any doubt that pandas had lived in China during the pleistocene. Furthermore, their geographical distribution had been much more extensive than today’s. They had lived in areas outside the southwestern mountains, and had roamed the provinces of the north and the east, including Liaoning. Shandong. Anhui and Jiangsu.
Research scholars in pursuit of the giant panda through Chinese writings were divided into three major schools, each calling their find by a different name. Although exponents of each school were convinced that they had arrived at the correct conclusion, citing all sorts of more than respectable authorities, it is fairly clear that none of them was absolutely certain that these sources were unimpeachable.
The most courageous, or the most desperate, among these anxious scholars came up with an animal called pixiu. Now this was, at best, a controversial choice, since no one was certain what this animal looked like, or indeed if it had existed at all. Erya had identified the pixiu as “an animal resembling cither a tiger or a bear”, a statement of confusion in itself. An illustration of this animal in the Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Advanced Chinese shows it more like a rabbit. The pixiu depicted here boasted of a spotted coat (like a leopard) and a set of sharp teeth, giving an impression of great malevolence. All sources agreed, moreover, that this was. without any doubt, a carnivorous animal. The modern giant panda, on the other hand, subsists on bamboo.
In the Book of History, Sima Qian (163-85 B.C.) stated that the legendary emperors of antiquity had adopted a pixiu as an emblem to arouse soldiers to heroic deeds, by infusing them with the ferociousness characteristic of the animal. Furthermore, modern medical practitioners in certain regions of China today still hang fabulous likenesses of this animal in clinics and sickrooms to frighten away the evil spirits that cause illnesses by dwelling in the sick persons.
Other scholars offered an animal named mo as the giant panda of yore. This was a more comfortable choice since evidence offered by exponents was no longer purely legendary. Still, acceptance of their conclusions cannot be made without difficulty. For, in actuality, there were two distinctly different and separate animals which were referred to as mo in Chinese writings.
The more scientific among the exponents of the mo as giant pandas of the past showed that mo was a grey and white mammal with black limbs, thick hide and short hair. It ate leaves and fruit, was said to be tame, slept by day and roamed about by night. Unfortunately, however, this animal turned out to be a native of Malaya, Java and South America, but was unknown in China. Further investigations found it to be a member of the tapir family, tapirus indicus, thus not a panda at all.
The other version of the animal called mo offered more possibilities. A monumental work compiled by Li Shizhen (1518-1593) during the sixteenth century, Studies of Animals, Minerals and Plants, a compodium that was a great deal more than a mere pharmacopoeia, had included all information on the world of nature Li had found in ancient Chinese texts as well as data he had gathered on his own. This work and its contents had been known through the scholarly world in Asia and Europe since its publication. A copy had been brought to Japan and made available to scholars there. Several editions in Japanese were subsequently published. The contents were included in Juan Gonzalez de Mendoza’s Historia, which was printed in Rome in 1585. (This work, incidentally,was brought back into China by Portuguese missionaries in a later century). Further, the Historia was translated into English in 1588 as Historic of the Great and Mightie Kingdom of China, Part I, Book III, Chapter v xii.
Only, alas, its colouring was said to be yellow and black.
Of more comfort, on the other hand, were Erya and the Book of Odes. Both proclaimed the mo to be a “white and black leopard, resembling a white bear with a small head and large body, which licks plantain plants but eats exclusively bamboo”. Despite several contradictions in this definition, it was possible to think of the mo as the giant panda, with certain reservations, of course.
Problems arose when an illustration in the Synthesis of Books and Illustrations showed the mo to be a rather fantastic being with spotted body, long limbs, wolf’s ears and a trunk like an elephant. This version was easily dismissed by exponents with the reasoning that the illustrators of the Ming era had not the slightest idea what they were doing. Others, more sceptical, on the other hand, came to a different conclusion. The existence of this picture obviously proved that mo, like pixiu, was only a legendary animal.
The third animal offered by scholars as the giant panda in Chinese history and literature was zhouyu.
In the Book of Odes, the zhouyu was depicted as “A giant animal that could be as large as a tiger, that had white fur but was black in certain areas. It was not carnivorous, and displayed a gentleness as well as a sense of trustworthiness”.
So far, this portrait fitted the modern giant panda. There was one flaw, however, as the description of the animal went on to say that “its tail was even longer than its body”.
Subsequent writings on the zhouyu, claiming to be based on actual sightings, however, did not mention the impressive length of its tail.
In one of the Confucian ritual texts, the Rituals of Zhou, it was stated that the term zhouyu was adopted as the title for the imperial official whose responsibilities were the upkeep of the emperor’s menagerie of animals and birds. This use of the term implies that the animal of the same name was rare and valuable.
In the History of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, it was recorded that the zhouyu was sighted in 333 A.D. in Liaodong in eastern China, where fossil remains of the giant panda had been found. In the History of Five Dynasties, by the noted stateman and scholar of the Song era, Ouyang Xiu (1017-1072), the zhouyu was recorded to have been seen two times. In 908 A.D., residents of two localities reported sighting the zhouyu. These localities were Wuding and Bishan, both in Sichuan. Five years later, in 913 A.D., the animal again was seen by residents. (It is regrettable that the Chinese language makes no distinction between singular and plural nouns. Therefore it is not clear whether residents saw one or more zhouyu at one time.) Ouyang Xiu had not chosen to provide a description of the animal. He was supposed to have made the remark: ”Zhouyu‘! What is a zhouyu‘? I haven’t the slightest idea”.
Ming dynasty accounts of the zhouyu were much more specific.
During the second year of the Yunglo reign (1404 A.D.), Zhu Su, an imperial uncle who had been in exile in Yunnan, today’s panda country, brought into Beijing; two rare animals, which he called shouvu. Unfortunately, there was no physical description of these animals.
In 1413, a zhouyu was seen in Shandong. Again, there was no description of the animal.
In 1429, however, the military governor in the region of Jiangsu and Anhui sent into Beijing two zhouyu by a “special courier”. The Xuande Emperor was so excited that “he called together all civil and military officials then at court, as well as all tributory envoys in the capital, to witness such a wondrous sight”.
One eye-witness reported that these animals were “white, . . . and gentle”. Another official present, the Minister of Finanee, who, more likely than not, had never seen a wild animal before, but knew what they had looked like from his readings, proclaimed that the zhouyu had “a leopard’s head and a tiger’s body”. He continued, “They were white, with black limbs. Such gentleness! Their appearance at this time must be harbingers of a bountiful harvest!”
Conclusions – no winners
While one must give credit to these research scholars of the 1930s for their diligence and ingenuity in lining up classical scholarship and historical sources in their corner, it is difficult for an objective observer today to accept their conclusions without demanding more convincing evidence. The pixiu was a legendary animal. Neither verison of the mo seems completely fault free. The zhouyu, if any of these animals has to be accepted as the giant panda, would be the least grudging choice. Still, powerful arguments can be mounted against such a selection. The search for the giant panda through Chinese historical records and ancient writings represented an interesting exercise. Nevertheless, no positive statement can be made that the Chinese had known about the giant panda before the pelt was brought to western attention.
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* Grateful thanks are due Joyce Wu Tong of the Sinological Institute of the University of Leiden who has made it possible for me to research this article while ensconced in the deserts of the Middle East. 1 would also like to thank Linda L. Rcicheil. Reference Librarian of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, for making available copies of the museum’s journal of the 1930s through my good friend Anne Phipps Sidamon-F.ristoff.Vice-President of the museum.