Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling: When Pandas Came to DC

In 1972, two Giant Pandas named Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling arrived at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC, a symbol both of renewed American relations with Communist China, and of a newly-emerging environmental consciousness and international efforts to protect wildlife.

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Giant Panda, Smithsonian National Zoo

By 1972, the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union had been raging for over 20 years, and both sides were paying the price. The Russians were stumbling economically and needed to focus on their growing domestic problems. US President Richard Nixon was a longtime Cold Warrior with a belligerent stance towards Soviets abroad and “communists” at home, but he was deeply mired in the Vietnam conflict and also faced daunting domestic issues. Exhausted, both sides declared a policy of “detente”, in which they would try to ease conflict, seek “peaceful co-existence” with each other, and look for ways to defuse tension and solve differences.

But Nixon also saw an opportunity in the Cold War geopolitical sphere. China’s Communist Party, under Chairman Mao Zedong, had taken power in 1949, but in the 1960’s the two Communist countries had developed a rift over ideological and nationalist differences. Nixon realized that if he could split Mao’s China away from Soviet Russia, it would weaken the USSR and gain a potential strategic asset for the US. China, meanwhile, had just gone through the crippling “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”, which had paralyzed it internally and increased its international isolation, and was looking for a way to once again rejoin the rest of the world. The opportunity was grabbed by both sides.

So in 1972, Nixon made the first official visit by a US President to Beijing since the 1940’s. During the 8-day visit, China and the US normalized diplomatic relationships, agreed to cultural exchange programs, and established agreements concerning trade and commercialization. It became known as “The Week that Changed the World”, it gave rise to an aphorism “Only Nixon could go to China”, and it set China upon a path to become an economic superpower and to dominate the 21st century economy.

During one of the photo-op meetings with Chinese officials, a goodwill offer was made by Mao Zedong to donate two rare Chinese Giant Pandas to America. Nixon reciprocated by offering a pair of Musk Oxen to China.

The two Pandas arrived in Washington DC that April. Hsing-Hsing (“Twinkling Star”) was a male, a year and a half old, and Ling-Ling (“Darling Girl”) was a female about two years old. They became immediate sensations. Attendance at the Smithsonian Zoo skyrocketed as people stood in line to see the two adorably-cute young Pandas. The environmental movement in the US was just getting into full swing: Earth Day had been established, the Endangered Species Act had been passed, and the Pandas became an icon for wildlife. It was no coincidence that the World Wildlife Fund adopted the Panda as its symbol.

The Smithsonian wanted to breed the two Pandas as part of an international program to protect and preserve the species, but there was a problem. Both Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling had been taken from the wild as young cubs, and when they reached breeding age in the early 80’s, they had never seen another adult Panda mating, and didn’t know what to do. The Zoo attempted to use artificial insemination to produce a cub, but that failed. They even tried showing “panda porn” films of mating adults to Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling to show them what to do, but that didn’t work either.

Finally in 1983, Hsing-Hsing figured things out on his own, and a cub was born–but it died after just three hours from a lung infection. More failures followed. Ling-Ling would often have “pseudo-pregnancies” where she acted as if she were pregnant but really wasn’t. Since pregnancies are hard to detect in Pandas, the zoo vets often didn’t know there was a cub on the way until it actually arrived. From 1984 to 1989, four cubs were produced: all of them died within a week.

Ling-Ling herself died suddenly in December 1992, from heart congestion. At age 23, she was already the oldest Panda outside of China. Hsing-Hsing lived a little longer, but by age 28 he was beginning to suffer from age-related conditions, and when he developed a terminal kidney infection, he was euthanized in November 1999.

The Smithsonian wanted to try its captive-breeding efforts again, and approached the Chinese Government to obtain another pair of Pandas, and in December 2000, Mei Xiang (“Beautiful Fragrance”) and Tian-Tian (“More and More”) arrived in DC. The new Pandas symbolized the differences between the world of 1972 and the world just 30 years later: the first pair of Pandas came from a China where Maoist ideology was strict and “capitalist-roaders” were jailed, and the Pandas had been gifted freely, while the second pair of Pandas came from a China where capitalism ran rampant and unregulated, and the Pandas, like everything else in China, extracted a price. Under the agreement reached between China and the Smithsonian, the Pandas were on loan for a renewable ten-year period, at a payment of about $1 million a year–and any cubs produced were the property of China to be used in their captive-breeding program. Similar deals were cut with other zoos around the world.

Mei Xiang and Tian-Tian were captive-bred and had not been taken from the wild as infants, so they were more successful at breeding than Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling had been. In 2005, a male cub named Tai Shan (“Peaceful Mountain”) was born; he was later returned to China. After another cub in 2012 died shortly after birth, a female named Bao-Bao (“Treasure”) was born in 2013.

Today, Mei Xiang, Tian-Tian and Bao-Bao are major attractions at the Smithsonian National Zoo, Panda conservation efforts are internationally funded by governments and by ordinary citizens, and China is a superpower with the second-largest economy in the world: all legacies of Nixon’s visit to China and of Mao’s gift of Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling.

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