China is well-known across the world for its conduct of “panda diplomacy” – the practice of lending or renting out pandas to foreign zoos as a mean of establishing closer ties. What is less known is the fact that this particular type of diplomacy hails all the way back to the darkest hours of China’s long war with Japan.
In the period from 1936 to 1941, a total of nine pandas were transported from China to the United States to be shown at various zoos, greatly encouraged by the Chinese republic’s First Lady, Madame Chiang Kai-shek (pictured left), Taiwanese newspaper Want China Times reports. The intention was to tell the American people “that China, a peaceful and lovely nation, had come under attack from a brutal and ruthless aggressor,” the paper said.
In the spring of 1941, one of the pandas previously transported from China, named Pandora, died at New York’s Bronx Zoo. To fill the void, Madame Chiang decided to donate two more pandas, named Pan-dee and Pan-dah, which would also serve as a token of gratitude for money, clothing, food and other assistance that the Chinese government had received from the United States via the organization United China Relief.
Madame Chiang personally handed the two pandas to John Tee-van, an expert from the New York Zoological Society who had traveled to the city of Chengdu in southwest China to receive the gift. It was the beginning of an epic journey of 35,000 miles. First the two pandas were transported along the Burma Road to the Burmese port of Rangoon. Then they were flown to Hong Kong and on to Manila. Finally they were loaded on a ship bound for San Francisco via Hawaii.
The ship was en route to Honolulu when Japan struck at Pearl Harbor took place on December 7, 1941, and the captain ordered evasive maneuvers to avoid Japanese attack. It was even reported – although this might be apocryphal – that he considered dying the pandas’ fur lest their distinct white-and-black pattern be recognized by low-flying Japanese planes.
“The pandas eventually arrived in New York on December 30,” Want China Times reports. “A gift of friendship when they began their journey, they were now a symbol of a crucial wartime alliance and welcomed as such.”
Or as Madame Chiang said in a radio message to the American people: “Through the United China Relief, you, our American friends, are alleviating the suffering of our people and are binding the wounds which have been wantonly inflicted upon them through no fault of their own. As a very small way of saying ‘thank you’, we would like to present to America… the pair of comical, black-and-white, furry pandas. We hope that their cute antics will bring as much joy to the American children as American friendship has brought to our Chinese people.”