Quest for Pandas in Chinese Art
by Noelle King O'Connor 1992
Giant pandas, known as Xiong mao in Chinese, are pictured everywhere today on items from kites and T-shirts to postage stamps and plush toys. Yet they were not always so ubiquitous, and do not even appear in Chinese art until recent times. To understand why, we need to go on a quest for panda bears.
Bears, though not pandas, are relatively common in early Chinese art. An example is a carved jade bear from the Shang Dynasty (1799 to 1050 BC), now in the collection of the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The little bear, sitting on its haunches with paws raised, is carved from a single piece of jade in simple, geometric rendering. Jade itself is a stone of great and enduring value in China, associated with purity and virtue.
In the Zhou Dynasty (1050 to 221 BC), a small bronze figure portrays a juggler balancing a small bear at the top of a pole. The bear and his human attendant have been fashioned with greater attention to realism than the earlier Shang fade. Incised lines on the bronze render such details as the facial features of the performer and the fur of the bear.
The number of bears represented in various media increases in the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 221 AD). A stone bear in the Freer Gallery dates from this period. The small sculpture shows the bear in a natural pose, scratching one ear with a hind paw. Great attention was paid to the anatomical details of the bear: Its claws, fur, tongue, teeth, lips, and even the pads on the soles of its feet are carefully delineated.
In China, bears are associated with strength and endurance. Dreams of bears are thought to presage the birth of male offspring. Ursa Major holds a key position in the heavens, especially in Taoist lore, being the throne of the Supreme Deity, or Shang Di. The great strength of the bear is illustrated in a Han Dynasty dill censer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In this piece, three ceramic bears hold the entire mountain mass upon their shoulders. The top of the incense burner resembles a mountain full of wild beasts and magical beings.
After the Han Dynasty, in the period known as the Six Dynasties (220to 589), One of China’s most famous painters, Gu Kaizhi (ca. 345 to ca. 406), illustrated a bear on a handscroll, traditionally ascribed to his authorship, entitled Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies. In one detail of the scroll, the courageous Lady Feng thrusts herself in front of the emperor to protect him from an escaped bear’s threatening advance, portraying both the exemplary behavior of Lady Feng and an interest in wildlife. The scroll is in the British Museum.
As for the giant panda, a Chinese folktale explains its origins. The tale relates that in the distant past there were no pandas, only white bears known as bai xiong. Then, in the mountains of Sichuan, lived a young girl, the daughter of a poor farmer and his wife. Wandering in the forest one day, the girl befriended a bear cub and his mother. There after, they met often to play. One day the girl saw a leopard in the bushes, and the leopard then attacked the little cub. The girl threw a stone at the leopard, frightening it away from the cub. The mother bear returned at this
moment, but the leopard knocked the girl to the ground, killing her, before it escaped into the dense forest. The bears gathered around the dead girl, and in their grief tore up the earth around . As they wiped their earth-covered paws across weeping eyes and struck themselves in lamentation, their eyes and ears turned black and wide black bands appeared on their bodies. From that day forward, there were no bai ziong, only giant pandas, xiong mao, wearing their new coloration in mourning for their friend. This story, like the Admonitions handscroll, reveal the esteem of the Chinese for self-sacrifice.
Most of the bears in early Chinese art can be only distantly linked to the giant panda, which seems as elusive in art as it is in nature. Why is this so? Mountains like those inhabited by pandas are certainly well represented in Chinese art. In fact, the traditional landscape known as shan-shui, or mountains/water, is one of the most enduring and superlative achievements of Chinese art.
And, if pandas are exceedingly rare in art, the same cannot be said of their primary food, bamboo, called shu. Like other Chinese flora and fauna, bamboo has associations that enrich its visual image. Known as the "old gentleman," bamboo represents Confucian values such as usefulness, endurance, and nobility. A small fan painting by TangYin, an artist of the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), captures the expressive qualities of the bamboo, a subject beloved of artists in all media.
Giant pandas themselves appeared only recently in Chinese art, and did so largely due to the excitement pandas generated among Westerners in this century. For instance, we meet a panda in paintings by the artist Wu Zouren (born 1907). A hanging scroll by Wu Zouren shows a pair of pandas feeding in a bamboo grove; a mother and cub appear in a painting for a Chinese souvenir stamp. Wu Zouren, who studied both in his native China and in Europe, championed less widely known subjects in the arts. His skillful use of brush and ink, in a traditional hanging scroll format celebrates these shy and rarely seen animals.
Perhaps the recent appearance of pandas in Chinese art, and in Western art as well, indicates an emerging subject for future artistic endeavor. Wildlife artists such as Robert Bateman have painted pandas, and like the inspirational quality of some earlier Chinese paintings, the images of giant pandas rendered by modern artists may serve to educate and inspire others to value pandas. As one of China’s earliest art critics, Zhang Yanyuan (ca. 847) said:
"Now, painting is a thing which perfects civilized teachings and helps social relationships. It penetrates completely the divine permutations of nature and fathoms recondite and subtle things.... Pictures contain the greatest treasures of the empire."