A legend of China’s national treasure: from Ya’an to the world
文 高富华 四川省雅安日报传媒集团编委、高级记者，中国国际茶文化研究会理事，四川省大熊猫生态与文化建设促进会副秘书长
In the world, there inhabits a mysterious species. From the moment it came into the sight of human beings, it has become the world’s most adorable creature. It is the giant panda. In China, there is a place full of wonders where the giant panda was discovered. From there the giant panda was introduced to the world and brought back to the wild. This place is called Ya’an. The giant panda history in Ya’an is actually a history of giant pandas in China and in the world.
Life began on earth about four billion years ago, and there were about 500 million species, with nearly 10 million still alive today. Many species, such as dinosaurs, saber-toothed elephants and saber-toothed tigers, have been eliminated by nature over the long course of history. Only the giant panda, a rare life species that emerged as early as eight million years ago, still maintains its original appearance and physiological habits, becoming the living fossil of the species on earth and the survivor of primitive life.
Thousands of years ago, pandas were recorded in the Chinese civilization, and such records can still be found in ancient books such as Erya, Classic of Mountains and Seas and Shuowen Jiezi. The birth of pandas was earlier than human civilization. They experienced a long time of geological changes and the quaternary glacier, and then survived and multiplied in the high mountains and valleys on the eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
Discovery of giant pandas：
Explorers almost all head for the same destination — Muping
The first time that humans heard the footsteps of giant pandas clearly was in an early spring, in a place with clear waters, green mountains, and dense bamboo forests.
1869年2月28日，经过艰难的旅行，法国传教士阿尔芒·戴维（Armand Pere David）的身影出现在雅安宝兴县穆坪邓池沟天主教堂。
On February 28, 1869, after a hard journey, the French missionary Armand Pere David arrived at the catholic church in Dengchigou Village, Muping Town, Baoxing County, Ya’an City, Southwest China’s Sichuan Province.
David was more of a naturalist than a missionary. Fascinated by the classification of insects and plants from an early age, he was recommended by Henri Milne-Edwards, Director of French National Museum of Natural History in Paris, to preach and conduct scientific research in China. In 1862, David, at the age of 36, with a catalogue drawn up by a group of scientists, set out from the port of Marseille to China in search of specimens of plants and animals.
David has made three trips to China. The first was to Northern China and Inner Mongolia, and the second to Muping. On the map, it can be seen that Muping is located at the southern foot of the Jiajin Mountains, the transition zone from the northwest edge of the Sichuan Basin to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, where there are beautiful mountains and rivers and lush forests. “Although it is not far from Chengdu, it is still a closed place because of the high mountains. The high mountains and river valleys here are covered with virgin forest, enabling the local wildlife to survive and continue,” David recorded his first impressions on this place in his diary.
In such a small place, many “living fossils of glaciers” have been found. On March 11, 1869, David came across a Catholic villager named Li. On the wall of the living room of the villager’s house hung a piece of animal skin. When David saw it, he was so shocked. The skin was white all over, except for the black limbs. “Good heavens!” he exclaimed, “The great Creator created such an extraordinary large animal. It could be an interesting new species in science history.” His ecstasy can still be felt today through David’s Diary.
Eventually he confirmed his hunch that it was a species not found in Europe. The day was later designated as the “Giant Panda Discovery Day”, and Muping became a world-famous place for giant panda specimens.
From species conservation to habitat protection
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the protection of giant pandas has been constantly upgraded from species protection to habitat protection, from nature reserves to giant panda national parks.
So far, seven nature reserves, including three at the national level, have been established in Ya’an, mainly to protect giant pandas. In 1998, Ya’an took the lead in China in banning the logging of natural forests, and the panda’s habitat has been expanding. In 2003, the world’s largest semi-wild giant panda base was built in Bifeng Gorge of Ya’an. In that year, Ya’an Municipal People’s Government, together with the Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment (IMHE), Chinese Academy of Sciences, Chengdu, submitted a report on the establishment of a national park to the People’s Government of Sichuan Province, proposing to build a national park themed with giant pandas centering on Ya’an and other places, integrating conservation, science popularization and recreation, so as to provide a new possibility and idea for local economic development.
At the end of 2005, the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries represented by Jiajin Mountains declaring a world natural heritage site received expert evaluation. David Sheppard, the chief judge, said during his inspection visit to Ya’an: “I came to Jiajin Mountains one century after Armand David. Our common goal is to protect the treasure of both nature and humans, to allow pandas to live in their habitat and live in harmony with humans.”
On July 12, 2006, the 30th session of the World Heritage Committee (WHC), held in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, decided to put Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries on the World Heritage List as a natural heritage site. It is the world’s largest protected area for wildlife, and the first protected area for wildlife in China inscribed on the World Natural Heritage List. Ya’an occupies 52% of the core area of the protected area.
The general plan for the restoration and reconstruction of Lushan after the violent earthquake on April 20, 2013 proposed the establishment of the Giant Panda National Park in Ya’an, which was quickly responded to. In 2014, Sichuan clearly put forward the concept of the Giant Panda National Park. Finally, this initiative, which originated in Ya’an, has been affirmed by the central government. The construction and pilot of the Giant Panda National Park has been officially put on the table of top policymakers of the central government. The Giant Panda National Park, stretching from Ya’an to other places in Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu, came into being in Western China. 40.8% of the land area of Ya’an is included in the park, accounting for 23% of the park. Of these, 92.8% of the land area of Baoxing County, home of the pandas, is in the Giant Panda National Park. In other words, nearly 60,000 people in Baoxing only occupy 7.2% of the land, sparing a “big home” for more than 300 wild giant pandas.
Release of pandas into the wild:
“New migrants” in Liziping and Daxiangling
Where do captive-bred pandas go? Nature is the best place for them. Then where should they go? Experts turned their attention to Liziping Township in Shimian County in the southern tip of Ya’an.
On the distribution map of wild pandas in China, Liziping, located in the giant panda population exchange corridor in DaXiangling and Xiaoxiang ling, stands out. Since 2009, the Liziping Nature Reserve has undertaken the work of releasing giant pandas to the wild, and in 2014, it became the first giant panda rewilding training base in China. Shimian County, as the first place to help pandas return to nature, is hailed as the “China giant panda release base” and the “China giant panda release hometown”.
Mountains in Liziping, shrouded in mist, are covered with luxuriant forests. Canyons there are either turbulent or clear as the mirror. This mysterious place with good environment which people yearn for is a paradise for giant pandas due to luxuriant bamboo forests. It is the first wild giant panda release base in China. As of today, 11 giant pandas bred in captivity have been released into the wild, including the nine now living in Liziping Nature Reserve. According to the fourth panda census in 2015, there were more than 30 giant pandas living in the narrow strip, the number of which is still growing and the number of “new migrant” pandas released to the wild is also growing.
By releasing pandas into the wild, people hope the rewilding pandas can blend into the local wild panda population, and eventually increase genetic diversity and rejuvenate the small panda population there. Just after the National Day of 2012, giant panda Tao Tao ran freely to the mountains in Liziping; on November 23, 2017, two captivity-bred giant pandas Ying Xue and Ba Xi were released into Liziping Nature Reserve. This was the second time in the world that a pair of pandas in Ya’an have been released at the same time, following Hua Yan and Zhang Meng, who were released in 2016.
As pandas were released into the wild one after another, Yang Zhisong, the leader of a team monitoring the release of giant pandas and an associate professor of the College of Life Sciences at China West Normal University, has also become one of the “new migrants” in Liziping. His office was moved from Nanchong to Shimian. His workplace was also moved from classroom to mountains. “I spent more time working in the field in Liziping than teaching in the classroom,” he said.
In order to provide a complete home to the pandas released there, the local Yi people also became “new migrants”, who were relocated to another place.
In the vast mountains of Liziping and Daxiangling, perhaps the giant pandas released there still have a rough future ahead of them. However, the real home of giant pandas is in the wild, and it is the ultimate purpose of all efforts to bring them back to nature.
Hometown of pandas：
Let the world feel the charm of China
If we have to choose a kind of animal to represent China, the best choice is the black and white pandas with simple and soft lines, which are cuddly and sweet-tempered.
As an envoy of friendship in China’s foreign exchanges, pandas were given to nine countries from 1957 to 1982, including the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the United States, Japan, France and the United Kingdom. After China’s reform and opening-up, pandas were loaned to foreign countries based on cooperative breeding. Every time when they were given from or returned to China, it would set off a frenzy. Panda culture has become a carrier for Chinese culture to go global and influence the world. It is a good name card of Chinese culture, and a creature shared with the rest of the world.
Panda culture is rooted in the soil of traditional Chinese culture. Kung Fu Panda, a film released in 2008, is a multifaceted illustration of Western civilization versus Eastern culture. It contains the profound thoughts of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism prevalent in China. Today, in the context of globalization, panda is not only a mascot symbolizing unity and progress, but also a messenger of friendship and peace, embodying the cultural identity of the world.
The giant panda has no natural enemies and is in harmony with the rest of the world. After millions of years, it still shows robust vitality. Now, it has become one of the world’s most beloved animals and the most influential green flag in the world. It brings the best wishes to the world — “Peace, Friendship, Harmony, Kindness, Tenacity, and Amiability for Propitiousness”. In the academic exchange with Japanese scholars in 1993, Fei Xiaotong, a famous Chinese sociologist, highly summarized the ways and bright prospects of the future development of human society and its culture by saying “Appreciate the culture of others as do to one’s own, and the world will become a harmonious whole”. This summary embodies the essence of harmony in Chinese civilization, and also makes a proper illustration to the panda culture.
Green development, ecological and environmental protection are widely recognized development concepts in the world today, a manifestation of human value pursuit. On April 1, 1869, “an incredible species” came into people’s sight from the mountains. They live in green mountains for their whole life. Now they have returned to a pure land. Pandas call people’s attention to ecosystems including biodiversity, land, forest, meteorology, water flow, atmospheric dynamics.
In 2019, a ceremony was held in Ya’an to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the scientific discovery of giant pandas and the launch of a community project at the southern entrance of the Giant Panda National Park. At the ceremony, the Consensus on the 150th Anniversary of Scientific Discovery of Giant Pandas was published, calling for the whole society to jointly protect and build a beautiful homeland where man and nature coexist in harmony to let giant pandas keep their wild home as before, to let world build a panda homeland and share the panda culture, and to let the giant panda homeland become a paradise where man and nature coexist in harmony.
In recent years, Ya’an has taken the initiative in exploring the Giant Panda National Park system on a pilot trial basis. It has set up Bifeng Gorge Panda Valley, developed Baoxing as the panda hometown, built the southern entrance demonstration area of the Giant panda National Park, initiated the establishment of the China Giant Panda Culture Alliance, and strive to build a regional, open and active international panda city, aiming to build an IP featuring the birthplace of the world giant panda culture. These have also become important measures for Ya’an to take the giant panda culture as the guide, and insist on the concept that “Lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets”.
With a history of eight million years, the giant panda has only been known for 150 years, but it has become synonymous with Sichuan and China.
Kevin Lynch, a prominent American urban planning expert, said in The Image of the City that “A city can be seen as a story”. The story of Ya’an, the hometown of pandas, should thus begin with the giant panda, a creature came from ancient times and relies on green mountains and clear waters to survive.