Friday, April 14, 2006

Panda Politics: From Tang to Taiwan

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{This article was originally published in the April Issue of 24/7 Magazine, which isn't nearly s pornographic as it used to be. I have put all of these articles together in the sidebar under 24/7 Rants.}

I had a dream the other night that China was deploying four hundred pairs of pandas along the Fujian Coast, facing Taiwan with their big faux eyes, like so many killer whales eyeing a fat, little seal pup. At first, in the dream, everyone thought it would be a great idea but then the children in Kinmen, Matsu and Penghu started having these horrible nightmares about having to learn the simplified characters after just mastering the traditional ones. Then everyone woke up one day to find all the water in the Strait gone. Finally the Pandas turned into cute, chubby missiles and launched themselves at the main island. I woke up just after the first one hit Taipei 101. You don’t ever want to see that!

Panda diplomacy is well over a thousand years old. It began in the Tang Dynasty. The second Tang emperor, Taizong (626-649) reportedly sent a pair to Japan to help seal a trade agreement. (1) Other sources say it took place in 685 when the Empress Wuzetian sent pandas to the Mikado as a goodwill gift. (2) Either way, these amazing creatures have been used as fluffy pawns in China’s great game for at least thirteen hundred years.

Much has already been said about the wisdom of not keeping opposition leaders in a secure location and the questionable wisdom of accepting gifts like these under circumstances like these. On the latter point, I think probably Virgil said it the best in his Aeneid, shortly before the Greeks jumped out of that big horse and slaughtered all the Trojans in their sleep,

equo ne credite, Teucri.
quid quid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis (3)

Which translates as, “Do not trust the horse, Trojans! Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even bringing gifts.” Let’s hope they’re at least x-rayed.

What I can’t help wondering about are the pandas themselves. Do they want to come to Taiwan? These animals live in temperate bamboo and conifer forests at around 1200 to 3400 meters above sea level? The Taipei Zoo is located in a sub-tropical, concrete jungle, damn well near sea level. With the exceptions of the poles, or the Middle East, I can’t think of a worse place for them.

Let’s not forget the fate of Su-Lin; the first panda to be smuggled out of China into the West. She arrived at the Brookfield Zoo on December 18th, 1936, and choked to death at the San Francisco Zoo on April Fools Day, 1938. I guess the joke was on her; dead after 468 days in captivity. (4)

What about Pan-Dee and Pan-Dah? These were the two pandas that Madame Chiang Kai Shek sent to the Bronx Zoo in December 1941 as a gift to the US. They arrived 23 days too late to ward off the attack on Pearl Harbor, but then Madame Chiang only gave gifts with herself in mind. Pan-Dee and Pan-Dah may well have helped her husband in securing billions of dollars in American lend-lease aid. (I just hope John Chiang doesn’t sue me for making disparaging comments about his grandmother; I don’t have 5 billion NT sitting around.)

The most famous political pandas were Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing who were given to Nixon by Mao in 1972, reversing a pattern since the Chinese Revolution of giving the creatures almost solely to communist nations. It also reversed the trend, over the same period, of the world recognizing this small island as the latest incarnation of the mighty Chinese Empire.

Hsing-Hsing lost Ling Ling, in 1992, after they both had endured 20 years incarceration. He went on to get testicular cancer, advanced kidney disease and was finally put down in 1999 after years of loneliness and pain, which he could have avoided in the forests of Sichuan. Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing helped burn Taiwan and were themselves burnt.

There is a special kind of magic which surrounds these animals. Today, pandas can be found in Japan, Germany, Austria, Mexico, Thailand, and the US. London, Madrid and Paris used to have pandas, but not now. Since losing their respective pandas, Madrid was bombed, London was bombed, and Paris was set alight. Madrid is currently in the process of trying to get a few more.

As far as the Chinese Communist Party, or Lien Chan, is concerned, these pandas moving from Sichuan to Taiwan are neither an environmental, nor an international matter. It is purely a little domestic housekeeping. Su-Lin, Pan-Dee and Pan-Dah helped secure much needed American aid during the Second World War. Ling-Ling and Tsing-Tsing helped put China back on the world stage. What will Tuan-Tuan and Yuan-Yuan, the next volley of pandas, bring? It was Virgil’s Laocoon, who also warned,

Somewhat is sure design'd, by fraud or force:
Trust not their presents, nor admit the horse (5)

And I say,

Beware the snares of Chinese propaganda:
They can have Lien Chan, and keep their pandas

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(2) English
(3) Virgil, The Aeneid, Book II, 48 - 49.
(5) Virgil, The Aeneid, Book II, 62 – 63.

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