Songster, Panda Nation: The Construction and Conservation of China's Modern Icon, 2021

Reviewed by Kyuhyun Han (University of California, Santa Cruz) Published on H-Environment (May, 2021)
May 12, 2021

E. Elena Songster.  Panda Nation: The Construction and Conservation of China's Modern Icon.  Oxford  Oxford University Press, 2018.  264 pp.  $38.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-939367-1.

Reviewed by Kyuhyun Han (University of California, Santa Cruz) Published on H-Environment (May, 2021)

Panda Nation: The Construction and Conservation of China's Modern Icon  Illustrated, Songster, E. Elena - Amazon.comIn Panda Nation: The Construction and Conservation of China's Modern Icon, Elena E. Songster explores the fascinating history of how giant pandas emerged as the Chinese national icon. Songster successfully traces how the new Communist state used giant pandas, which she says had no cultural or historical significance until 1949, to mitigate political turmoil in the People's Republic of China (PRC). Drawing on a wide range of sources, including government documents, scientific journals, cultural media, and oral interviews, Songster provides a compelling argument about how giant pandas played central roles in PRC politics as a scientifically significant species, a valuable economic resource, a prized national icon, a favorable ambassador, and the international symbol of conservation.

For historians studying the Chinese environment and science, this book provides valuable insights into the role of the giant panda in constructing the state perception of and intervention in science and nature. Even though her argument is based on the study of a single species, it provides a comprehensive understanding of the progress of conservation science, local implementation of natural protection policies, and the international alliance devoted to species conservation from the Mao era to present.

Songster begins her book by analyzing why the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) paid particular attention to giant pandas when it established the People's Republic. Unlike other symbolic animals such as dragons that can be found throughout Chinese imperial history, giant pandas did not attract international and domestic attention until the early twentieth century. The fact that giant pandas were never part of China's imperial and feudal past made them an ideal symbol for the new communist nation. Instead of highlighting the political and cultural heritage of the giant panda, the CCP focused on the scientific significance of giant pandas as a rare endemic species that had not undergone substantial evolutionary change. As a biologically unique species, giant pandas bridged China's geological past and present as a "living fossil or huo huashi  活化石" (p. 26). In its state-building process of the 1950s, the CCP raised awareness among the public that it should accept modern science by utilizing giant pandas as a medium.

In chapter 2, Songster explores how Chinese scientists developed the ideas of natural protection to protect resources through scholarly exchange with Soviet scientists. Concerns about natural protection, she points out, were limited to scientific communities until the end of the Great Leap Forward. Songster argues that it was the catastrophic aftermath of the Great Leap Forward that facilitated state intervention in wildlife protection. Because of the economic hardships that followed the campaign, Chinese policymakers started to discover the economic value of wildlife, such as meat and pelts. The promulgation of state hunting regulations (1962) and the creation of the Wanglang Nature Reserve (1965) represented such a change in the state's view of nature.

Songster continues in chapter 3 by describing how the top-down state natural protection policy was implemented on the ground in the creation of the Wanglang Nature Reserve (1965), China's first giant panda reserve, located in Pingwu county, Sichuan. She sheds light on the role of regional officials, Baima ethnic communities, and scientists such as Zhong Zhaomin--the founder of the reserve--in shaping the giant panda protection policies. She pays particular attention to the ways in which the giant panda reserve changed the life of Baima Tibetans. She points out that, on the one hand, the creation of a nature reserve precipitated the incorporation of these ethnic communities into the national identity. On the other hand, she shows that it also contributed to the breakdown of traditional hunting and pastoral customs of the Baima people.

In chapter 4, on the Cultural Revolution, Songster makes two important arguments. First, she criticizes the prevalent tendency of protection history to describe the entire decade as "a 'black hole' for conservation, an era not only devoid of environmentally protective efforts, but smeared with environmentally destructive events" (p. 74). According to Songster, the apolitical image of giant pandas made them a politically safe scientific research subject.

Songster argues that a substantial amount of contemporary knowledge on the giant panda was amassed during the early years of the Cultural Revolution, thanks to ardent scientific endeavors. Second, Songster suggests that the giant panda's apolitical and ahistorical image also contributed to its rise as a national icon during the Cultural Revolution. Untainted by China's feudal past, the giant panda survived the Cultural Revolution unscathed as a widely accepted national icon. As Songster insightfully points out, "not even the image of Mao Zedong himself was able to serve as a national icon with as much consistent support and enthusiasm as the giant panda" (p.83). In chapter 5, Songster places giant pandas in the context of international politics and environmental protection efforts. She explores how giant pandas, as an internationally beloved national icon, became one of the most successful means that China deployed to earn the international recognition that the state desired in the 1970s.

In her discussion on reform-era giant panda conservation in chapter 6, Songster provides an impressive narrative on the massive death of giant pandas caused by bamboo flowering in the 1980s. Songster argues that privatization and the rise in living standards during the reform era were critical to giant panda protection during the flowering episodes. The fear of losing the "national treasure" generated ardent economic support from the masses, who donated their newly earned income. According to Songster, public efforts to save the panda signified China's economic prosperity while helping the Chinese people to recover from political instability.

In the final two chapters, Songster investigates China's instrumental use of giant pandas from the 1990s to the present. In chapter 7, she examines the ways in which giant panda conservation combined the burgeoning tourism industry, scientific research, and cooperation with international NGOs in the 1990s. In her last chapter, chapter 8, Songster suggests that panda diplomacy also received a new significance as it was used as a tool to mitigate China's environmentally unfriendly image and exert influence on the Taiwan Strait controversy from the 1990s through the early 2000s.

Songster's focus on one key species creates a coherent and focused historical narrative, one that also raises questions about the larger environmental context of giant pandas. The importance of the ecological context to which pandas belonged is made clear in her account, in the latter part of the book, of the dire impact of bamboo flowering on the pandas. This makes one want to know more about the environmental landscape of giant panda habitats, the relationship of giant pandas to the diverse flora and fauna of Pingwu, and changes in the environmental setting that may have affected giant pandas prior to the bamboo flowering of the 1980s.

Overall, Songster's book provides a concise, intriguing, and convincing narrative for both scholarly and public readers interested in the political, cultural, scientific, and environmental history of giant pandas. It is also a valuable contribution to Chinese conservation and environmental history, illuminating the complex interactions of science, nature, and the nation in the PRC.