The Giant Panda is a bear native to central-western and south western China. It is easily recognized by its large, distinctive black patches around the eyes, over the ears, and across its round body. Though it belongs to the order Carnivora, the Giant Panda’s diet is 99% bamboo. Other parts of its diet include honey, eggs, fish, yams, shrub leaves, oranges, and bananas when available.
The Giant Panda lives in a few mountain ranges in central China, mainly in Sichuan province, but also in the Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. Due to farming, deforestation, and other development, the Giant Panda has been driven out of the lowland areas where it once lived.
The people of China have a very rich cultural history. Many cultural beliefs are deeply rooted in strong philosophical perspectives that have evolved over time as stories have been told and retold over generations. The Giant Panda has a special place in Chinese cultural lore, as many qualities and characteristics of the panda are qualities revered by Chinese society as a whole.
Three thousand years ago, a written history of the Xizhou Dynasty (1027-771 BC) was prepared. It was called the Shangshu (Chengdu Assoc., 1993a). The Shangshu described the Giant Panda, or “Pixiu,” as an invincible animal, as strong as a tiger. This description was repeated in the Shijin, the first written collection of poems prepared at about the same time. This sentiment regarding the prowess of the panda may explain, in part, why panda pelts were offered as tribute to emperors and kings of the day.
During the Xizhou Dynasty, people in Pingwu had a special name for the panda: “Zouya”. The Zouya was thought to be a gentle animal, as it was never observed to hurt man or beast. Thus, the panda became a symbol of peace. In that day, when warring armies took to the battlefield, if one army raised a flag with an image of the Zouya, the battle would immediately be called to a halt and a temporary peace would ensue. To this day, the panda continues to be a symbol of peace, and China has gifted pandas to many nations, including the United States, as a gesture of peaceful relations.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), the panda was described as having great medicinal value (Chengdu Assoc., 1993b). As detailed in a medical tome entitled Ben cao gang mu, the panda’s pelt was believed to have a magical influence that could repel plague and prevent tumors. Drinking panda urine was thought to dissolve impurities consumed by an inattentive patient.
The Giant Panda is also an animal of philosophical importance in Chinese culture. The Chinese ascribe much importance to the Yin and the Yang, two opposing forces of the universe that are present in all aspects of nature. A common representation of the Yin and the Yang is a circle, half black and half white, depicting the dichotomy of the two colors but the interconnected nature of the two forces. The Giant Panda is thought to be a physical manifestation of the Yin and the Yang, as its body is both black and white, the two colors standing in stark contrast to one another on the animals pelt. The placid nature of the panda is a demonstration of how the Yin and the Yang, when perfectly balanced, contribute to harmony and peace.
An old Chinese saying is “a remarkable place produces outstanding people.” Many Chinese people have used this saying to explain why the Giant Panda inhabits the Sichuan Province. Sichuan is a rugged country, with many steep hills, rivers, and variable vegetation. It has metaphorically been described as an open fan, with the many hills representing the ridges of the fan as it unfolds (Chengdu Assoc.,1993a). This remarkable terrain is believed to be well suited to such a remarkable animal.
Local people have a variety of names for the panda. Some call it the catlike bear, or “maoxiong.” Others, the bearlike cat, or “xiongmao.” Still others call it the banded bear, or “huaxiong.” The consensus seems to be that the most suitable name for the panda is the great bearcat, or “daxiongmao” (Schaller, 1985). The English word “panda” is described by the American Heritage Dictionary as being of French descent. This may be due to the fact that the first westerner to see a panda was P.A. David, a French missionary who allegedly encountered a panda in Baoxing in 1850. The people of the area may have used the Nepali word “nigalya-ponya,” or “eater of bamboo,” to describe the panda, which David possibly altered to the modern word “panda” (Perry, 1969).
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