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September 15, 2015
by Ruth Gordon, MA, MSW, LCSW

National Treasure in China and Symbol of WWF: Exploring Our Love for Pandas

September 15, 2015 13:32 by Ruth Gordon, MA, MSW, LCSW

On Wednesday, August 26th, the National Zoo announced that one of the twins born to Giant Panda Mei Xang had died.  Many an “awwww” was heard around the world.  Why this emotional attachment to an animal that probably doesn’t know we exist, and wouldn’t care if he/she did?

Similar to Humans?

There are those who say that pandas remind us of ourselves.  Consider the way they sit when they eat.  The females are far more mannerly than the males (just like homo sapiens?).  As a panda chomps on a stick of bamboo using a thumb-like bone to grasp the bamboo, it looks remarkably human.

It is said that the human brain is programmed to respond to this creature that has big eyes (accentuated by black markings), a high forehead, a big round head, and a body that is chubby and roly poly, just like a human baby. The panda brings out our protective, nurturing instincts. “What fools these mortals be” (Shakespeare, Midsummer Nights Dream) — the panda has no interest in us whatsoever.

Understanding Pandas

Let us examine what we know about the giant panda, a creature that is mysterious, elusive, and, reportedly, endangered. 

The giant panda was first discovered by priest and wildlife enthusiast, Armand David in 1862. David’s assistants ,during his research in China, shot and killed a heretofore unknown animal from the Baoxing County.  At first, thought to be a bear, it was discovered that the Panda had unique characteristics. In fact, there is still some discussion about which species the panda actually represents — some say bear and some say raccoon.  

While determined to be a carnivore, 99% of the panda’s diet is bamboo.  It will kill the occasional mouse, but is not a predator in the true sense.  The panda is shy and reclusive, which is the reason it is not known if it is endangered.  The panda is an expert at eluding trackers, so statistics on existing numbers are merely guesses.

The panda spends half of it’s time eating and half of it’s time sleeping.  Not a bad job description!  It prefers it’s own company and does not seek out other pandas except in mating season, which is in the spring.  It has been observed that two pandas put into side by side cages will ignore each other.  Here is a creature that has no interest in pleasing others.

Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing

When the first two pandas, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing were given to the National Zoo following President Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, there was great enthusiasm and visitors were willing to wait in long lines to see the new arrivals.  It was a case of spontaneous love going out to the pandas and unvarying indifference being returned.

Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing were not successful in producing living offspring.  In fact, having been captured in the wild they had no role models for mating and it took years before Hsing Hsing figured out what to do.

Mei Xing and Tien Tien

Mei Xing and Tien Tien have been far more effective.  The new panda is their third surviving cub.  Although Mei Xing has given birth to twins twice, in 2013 and 2015, the smaller one, in each case , died. 

It is not surprising that the panda has become symbolic for the importance of personal space and boundaries.  They have come to represent peace and amiable resolution. Pandas are presumed to be patient, shy and enigmatic.

It is not unusual for humans to become intrigued with those who appear to be inscrutable.  Many a love song and story has been written about the unreachable love object, the “other” whose attention we cannot quite capture. 

All too often it is the chase that is the “hook”.  Once the creature being pursued becomes available, the allure is gone.  For the individual being pursued, this is bewildering and, frequently, hurtful.          

A naming ceremony is held for newborn pandas 100 days after their birth.  The newborn is tiny, bald and fragile.  It has been determined that one can safely assume a newborn that lives 100 days will continue to thrive and grow. 

All pandas are considered a loan from China.  When Bao Bao, who was born in 2013 is 4, he will be “returned” to China (although he has never been there).

Once again, the public is reminded that the panda will always slip away, always avoid attachment.  This raises the question, “Why do humans prize that which will , predictably and invariably be beyond grasp ?”  Could it have anything to do with an antipathy for intimacy and commitment?  Something to ponder.


Giant Panda. (n.d.). Retrieved September 1, 2015.

Harris, E. (n.d.). Panda Spirit Animal. Retrieved September 1, 2015.

Love, P. (n.d.). Panda Symbolic Meaning & Panda Symbolism. Retrieved September 4, 2015.

Nicholls, H. (2014, January 6). The First Giant Panda & How it Ended up in Paris. The Guardian. Retrieved September 1, 2015.

Nicholls, H. (2011). The way of the panda: The curious history of China's political animal. New York: Pegasus Books. (2011, January 11). [Television broadcast].

About the Author

Ruth Gordon Ruth Gordon, MA/MSW/LCSW

A practical approach to problems encountered in daily life. A confidential and comfortable atmosphere in which we will use humor to help you gain perspective on current concerns. Enhance your skills for creative problem solving.

Ruth Gordon has a clinical practice in Naples, FL

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