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Something seemingly anomalous within China’s historical record is the lack of giant pandas within almost any art until the 20th century. I found a paper in Polish, but with an English abstract which attempted to find explanations for this.

There is an astonishing contrast between today’s popularity of panda and an almost total lack of images and mentions of this animal in ancient times. Bai xiong ‘white bear,’ a local Chinese name for giant panda was registered for the first time only in 1869, by Father Armand David, who discovered giant pandas for the Europeans….They talk through two common bear species in China: Asian black bear and brown bear, whose some subspecies are sometimes called white. The authors take notice of the fact that the known contemporary image of giant panda as a black-and-white animal is due to the discovery of the black-and-white Sichuan subspecies of this animal by Father Davis what follows that the first specimen known to Europeans became normative subspecies. However in ancient times the giant panda habitat was much more than modern refugial areas mostly in Western Sichuan mountains. The authors assume that ancient Chinese had an opportunity to meet with other pandas, e.g. from Qinling mountains, near Xi’an, a former capitol of China, than with the normative in our times subspecies of giant panda from Sichuan. The Qinling panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca qinlingensis) is very rare in our times and having a dark brown and light brown pattern instead of „typical” black and white seems to be atypical. In ancient times because of this brownish pattern Qinling panda could not be discerned from the common brown bear.

Essentially, they argue that the brown colored mutant of the species, the Qinling panda was more common historically and was often conflated with the more widespread brown bear. This, however, is not an adequate explanation. What causes the brown coloration in the isolated Qinling panda is mutations from inbreeding caused by the panda’s population being increasingly fragmented in modern times. This variant would be unlikely to exist at all in historic periods when giant pandas had larger populations. According to researcher Tiejun Wang,

Like humans, each panda has two copies of each gene, one from the father and one from the mother. Dr Wang suggests that the pandas in Qinling have a dominant gene for black-and-white colouration and a recessive gene for brown-and-white. Those pandas with two recessive genes are brown-and-white, while all of the others are black-and-white. This means that pandas with brown-and-white colouration only occur when the recessive 'brown' gene is inherited from both the father and the mother. The researcher suggests that there is normally a very low probability that both parents will have the recessive gene for brown-and-white colouration. However, the dense human population in this area has caused the habitat of the Qinling pandas to become fragmented. In this group of animals, therefore, there is a much higher probability of pandas mating with close relatives. As a result, the presence of brown-and-white pandas may be an indication of local inbreeding.

Although this idea would help in explaining a lack of pandas in ceramic or metal figures that lack prominent coloration (their paper uses many examples of these), it would not explain a lack of life portraits or paintings of the animals. If some Chinese artists had painted an animal from life or even by a basic description it certainly could not be confused with any other bear given that the brown coloration of the Qinling panda is highly unusual for the species and their distinctive black and white markings.

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  • From 3rd century BCE, Chinese zoology describes the giant panda as mo (貘) - more info: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mo_(Chinese_zoology). I do not have pictures / depictions but it would be surprising that Chinese history has no woodblocks of a giant panda until the 20th century.
    – Pūnicus
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 20:18
  • Yes, it is surprising. Why then do none exist?
    – Addish
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 20:43
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    Is it though? I poked through the WP page on Chinese Art, and there really isn't a lot there that depicts wildlife. The most common non-human animal seems to be the horse, usually along with a rider, after that I'm seeing a few other domectic animals, and some birds (as part of a landcape), a few mythical creatures. I'm not really seeing a lot of large wild animals like elephants, wolves, bears, or pandas.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 20:59
  • I don’t think this is the case either if you research some about animals in historic Chinese art. There must be numerous examples of wild animals, many of them may just be absent online. This amount of variety is also mentioned by the authors of the paper I quoted and they didn’t think there was a lack of wild animals depicted historically. antiquesandthearts.com/lively-creatures-animals-in-chinese-art/…. Here’s an example of an elephant. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washing_the_Elephant
    – Addish
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 21:44
  • I went to the history museum in Chengdu once. I honestly don't think I saw any old depictions of pandas. I think this is a great question. Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 11:32

1 Answer 1

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It's not clear that there is really anything surprising about this. Before modern times, the panda was just one of many virtually unknown wild species. It was rarely mentioned in text either.

From the book Panda Nation: The Construction and Conservation of China's Modern Icon by E. Elena Songster (2018):

The presence of the panda in various art forms attaches a sense of tradition, history, and cultural value to the popular image of the giant panda, both within and outside China. The giant panda, however, only began appearing in “traditional” art between forty and fifty years ago. Unlike the dragon, which represents the emperor and his power, the giant panda is not an animal of prominent ancient symbolic importance in China. It is not found on ancient metallurgy or pottery, nor does it have a conspicuous presence in Tang poetry or Song paintings, Yuan plays, Ming novellas, or Qing porcelain. While the phoenix, the tiger, the crane, and even the cicada and cricket hold prominent places in Chinese cultural history, the giant panda, unlike these animals, does not conjure up metaphorical meanings. Even the references scholars have found that very likely do point to the giant panda in ancient texts do not imply that the panda was of central symbolic importance. Moreover, as Donald Harper, professor of ancient Chinese civilization, notes, even these references were “forgotten in modern times.”

The links in the comments regarding elephants and horses further highlight the point that animals were primarily depicted in traditional Chinese art for their symbolic and metaphorical meanings, often based in part on their names. Traditional Chinese artists weren't naturalists and did not try to catalog wildlife in any comprehensive way. The few possible ancient references to pandas are in medical compendiums which did not include extensive artwork of wildlife.

Songster continues:

An additional explanation for the giant panda’s lack of prominence in historical texts is the likely lack of interaction between these extremely reclusive animals and humans. Accounts of twentieth-century expeditions focused specifically on the giant panda affirm that the creature was very elusive. Ernest Henry Wilson, a naturalist who traveled in Sichuan Province and other parts of western China in 1913 collecting and cataloging flora and fauna, called the giant panda the “sportsman’s prize above all others worth working hard for in Western China.” During the several months that Wilson spent in panda habitat, he did not so much as catch a glimpse of a giant panda and speculated that “the savage nature of the country it frequents renders the possibility of capture remote.”

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