Panda Nation: The Construction And Conservation Of China’s Modern Icon, by E Elena Songster
How and when did the panda become so important to China, and what has been done by China to preserve the vulnerable animal and to understand it better? These are questions with surprising answers, and the author does a good job at shining a light on the surprising history of the panda and its place within Chinese history. One thing to note, even if it is a bit uncharitable, is that while the panda is viewed as a symbol of modern China, the panda’s worth to Chinese people seems to have come about as a result of the panda becoming interesting and important to outsiders. As is often the case, the panda was taken for granted and neglected and not well understood for many centuries and it was the growing interest of the West in pandas and the result of that interest on the survival of the animal that seem to have prompted a nationalistic Chinese response to the panda being killed for pelts and taken out of the country by Western explorers. To be sure, any nation would and should feel upset about its treasures being despoiled by other countries, but all the same, the striking lack of interest and knowledge in the panda before it became of interest to the West does not speak well of China’s ability to recognize what is a treasure before it was treasured by outsiders. This is, alas, all too common of a failing.
This book is a bit more than 150 pages and it is made up of eight chapters that deal with different aspects of the panda and its relationship with China. After acknowledgements and an introduction, the author begins with a discussion of the long and strange history of how it is that panda moved from myth and obscurity in early Chinese texts to its status as an oddity and then as an icon in the last century or so (1). This is followed by a discussion of the nature of Communist Chinese conservation of panda areas in a manner similar to that of the West (2), despite China’s unwillingness to accept these similarities in approach. After that there is a discussion of the creation of the panda reserve in Wanglang and the difficult process of its creation (3). After that comes a discussion of the cultural revolutionary rise of the panda as a symbol and brand for China and its government (4). A chapter on panda diplomacy then follows wit ha look at the panda as an animal ambassador for China (5), as well as how the panda is to be rescued from reforming China (6). This is followed by a discussion of the role of minority peoples in China in preserving the pandas through ecotourism (7), as well as a look at the science behind soft diplomacy and the fear of the Trojan panda (8), after which the book ends with a conclusion, notes, bibliography, and index.
It should be noted that this book does not take as its main subject of interest why the panda itself has been found of interest by either Chinese or foreigners. What it does is take a look at the historical context and political importance of that interest in pandas and show that the People’s Republic of China has been more than a little bit heavy-handed in its use of pandas as a tool of diplomacy. Indeed, I happen to have found the highs and lows of panda diplomacy to be among the most cynical but also (not likely unrelated) the most interesting part of this book in discussing the symbolic importance of the panda to China. The widespread popularity of the panda around the world, and the fact that pandas are only found in the wild in China and are a rare and timid animal, has given China considerable leverage in dealing with other countries in providing something that is sought after with some strings attached. And one should not think that China has been slow in seeking to exploit this for its own benefit as a country, as well it should.