Giant pandas come, and giant pandas go. At least that’s the pattern at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where the snow-frolicking Bei Bei has lived since his birth on August 22, 2015. Under the Zoo’s agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association, pandas born here may remain only four years. Accordingly, Bei Bei’s departure is scheduled for Tuesday, November 19, leaving only his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, to face the Panda Cam. Bei Bei’s brother Tai Xian moved to China at age four in 2009; his sister Bao Bao moved to China in 2017, also at age four.
The Zoo’s first pair of giant pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, were a gift to the United States from the People’s Republic of China in 1972. The female Ling-Ling died in 1992 at age twenty-three; the male Hsing-Hsing died in 1999 at age twenty-nine. A new panda couple, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, arrived in 2000, originally on ten-year loan; the agreement was first extended to fifteen years, and then to twenty years—meaning that their terms at the Zoo may expire in December 2020.
What does not expire, however, is the folklore about pandas. According to Henry Glassie’s definition, cited by the American Folklore Society, “Folklore is traditional. Its center holds. Changes are slow and steady.” Because it represents some of our most deeply held values and beliefs, folklore endures and persists.
It is not hard to understand why pandas have attracted examples of persistent folklore. According to one report from the BBC, pandas are wildly popular for several reasons:
- They remind us of our ourselves, particularly in the way they eat.
- They are extremely rare. In fact the U.S. public did not see its first live panda until 1937, when Su-Lin arrived at the Brookfield Zoo, west of Chicago.
- They have become a universal symbol of wildlife conservation.
- They have those eyes, which are surrounded by distinctive black patches, making them appear larger than they are. As explained by Dr. Edgar E. Coons, a psychologist at New York University, pandas remind us of babies because of the “big eyes in their black sockets, the round face, the pug nose, [and] the way giant pandas tumble about like toddlers.” These cute characteristics trigger “our parenting instincts” and “hedonic mechanisms.”
The black patches around those eyes are neither camouflage nor protection, states a study in Science magazine. Rather they serve as a means for panda communication and identification: “The eye patches may help [pandas] recognize one another,” according to behavioral scientists. “Pandas remember these patches, which vary greatly in size and shape.”
Not surprisingly, the folklore of pandas provides a less scientific explanation for their black eye patches, their black arms and legs, and their black ears. Three different children’s books—Once There Were No Pandas (1985) by Margaret Greaves, Legend of the Giant Panda (1997) by A.B. Curtiss, and The Legend of the Panda (1998) by Linda Granfield—offer remarkably similar stories to account for the distinctive black markings. Of course, the stories contain slight differences, which folklorists call variants. Folklore never comes from a single authoritative source, but rather is transmitted more informally from person to person or group to group.
The basic kernel of the panda folktale goes something like this: once upon a time in a Chinese forest, there was a shepherdess who befriended a cuddly bear cub that was pure white. When a leopard suddenly attacked, the shepherdess rescued the cub but was killed by the leopard. All of the white bears in the forest grieved for the shepherdess. As they wept, they rubbed their paws in the dust (or sometimes the ashes from a fire). Wiping the tears from their eyes with their paws put black marks around their eyes. As they hugged each other in lamentation, they left more black marks on their bodies, perhaps even as a sign of mourning. And that is why there are no more pure white bears in the forest.
Why do folktales such as these endure and persist? Scholars might point to the functions of folklore, which include amusement, education, and the reinforcement of beliefs and conduct. But sometimes it’s just those eyes.
James Deutsch is a program curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. In 2014 he co-curated the Smithsonian Folklife Festival program, China: Tradition and the Art of Living, which included one Chinese artist sculpting balls of dough into tiny black-and-white pandas.