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The Giant Panda: Discovered in the Land of Myth

INVESTIGATIVE FILES

Joe Nickell, PhD, author of numerous books, including Entities and Tracking the Man-Beasts, is a skeptical cryptozoologist.

Its immense popularity today belies the fact that the panda was once among the world’s most obscure creatures, “as mythical and elusive as Bigfoot” (Edwards 2009). Bigfooters are prone to emphasizing such creatures that were only discovered comparatively recently—for example a giraffe relative, the okapi (1901), and a “living fossil” fish, the coelacanth (1938)—because they “symbolize the search for Bigfoot is not over” (Edwards 2009). Inspired by my encounter with pandas during a trip to China in 2010 as a visiting scholar (see Figure 1), I have since looked into their fascinating history.

Figure 1. “Self-portrait with panda” at Giant Panda House, Beijing Zoo, 2010. (Author’s sketch)

Legendary Creature

In ancient China, the panda was an exotic creature—rare, even mythic (like the dragon). Texts from very ancient times describe a lumbering, black-and-white animal believed to have been a panda.

The Dowager Empress Bo was reportedly interred in her tomb (ca. 170 bce) with a panda skull—whether as treasure or talisman, or both, is unclear (Schaller 1994, 61–62). Also, ancient poetry tells of the gift of a pelt that may well have been from a panda (“Pandas” 2017). Such pelts’ distinctive appearance and rarity gave them great value—not to mention alleged magical properties. According to the earliest Chinese “encyclopedia” (or reference book), Erya, dating from the Qin dynasty (221–207 bce), sleeping on panda fur supposedly regulated a woman’s menstrual cycle. The later poet Bai Juyi (772–846 ce) attributed to the pelts both curative properties and the power to exorcise evil spirits.

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