The Absolutely True to Life Undeniable Real Life Story of the First Diplomatic Address Between the Great Nation of China and the Underground Panda Executive.
It so happened that in his fourth year as a giant panda Tuan Tuan was elected ambassador for Pandakind after a somewhat lazily held meeting of the Underground Panda Executive. It was an unfortunate occurrence for him, because as a panda he had very little energy, and everyone knows that being a politician involves a lot of paperwork and scandalous behaviour. But Tuan Tuan was elected anyway, because of his handsome looks, luxuriant downy fur, and his ability to urinate on trees higher than any other panda, which is a very important attribute in any politician, but especially in panda ones. And so it was Tuan Tuan who was coerced into delivering a stern message from Pandakind to Man, and a diplomatic meeting was arranged with the Chairman of the People’s Republic forthwith.
This is the absolutely true to life undeniable real life story of the First Diplomatic Address Between the Great Nation of China and the Underground Panda Executive. I will attempt to be faithful to the way it was told to me, but you will forgive me if I embellish a little. So. Let’s put ourselves in Beijing, China.
Beijing from above looks like a shattered Christmas tree, thousands of lights looping and dancing in the smog-red night. When the sun rises across Beijing, it drags its yellowish burden of smutty cloud across dormant skyscrapers. Across the city street sellers scuttle out into the heady dawn, hobbled with wagons of sticky baozi in wicker baskets and scarlet reeking peaches. Cicadas stretch their spindly legs and begin their endless trilling, greeting the day before the raucous call of traffic can drown them out.
[Along Sanlitun the street lights dim and sputter into nothing, and the last of the drunks tumble irresolutely into the broiling heat of a Beijing summer. And in the West of the city, past the melancholy willows of the defunct Summer Palace, Beijing Zoo sweats in expectation of voyeuristic hordes.]
It was in the slick armpit of a Beijing summer’s day such as I have described that the meeting took place, and the boardroom was fetid with the hot breath of both panda and man alike. Outside, the Yangtse sang with fractured sunlight, speaking of cool water and the sweet breath of the mountains.
“Listen,” the panda said. “The other pandas and I have been talking, and we all agree that enough is enough. The Underground Panda Executive have voted and we unanimously decided to request that you desist with this conservation business.”
[The Zoo appears to be built on the site of an invisible vortex that inevitably sucks tourists and locals alike into the centre, where they are devoured by the Panda House. The crimson flush of paint on the faded artificial cave mouth makes the enclosure resemble a giant open wound.]
Tuan Tuan sniffed delicately and stripped a splint of bamboo with a graceful clawing gesture. The room was draped in silence for some time before the Chairman replied:
“Forgive me, sir, but I do not think it is a request which we can grant you. In fact, it is greatly within both our interests and your own that we do not. Why do you ask?”
[Tuan Tuan asks because it is festering with the teeming bodies of countless jabbering tourists of all persuasions. But it is still preferable to the home of the Ling Ling the Grizzly Bear, which is a large concrete pit surrounded by a high balcony from which children pour Fanta into her open mouth.]
“Because we have never requested conservation to begin with, Chairman, and because the Panda Nation as a whole has decided to call it quits. It is a miserable existence being a panda, and we decided a long time ago that it would be better to die with dignity than cling on in zoos or laboratories.” With this, Tuan raised his great head and stared at the stocky, boxlike man across the table.
[The rarity of the Giant Panda (or “cat-bear” as Tuan Tuan and his kind are known in their own country) has reached such legendary heights of repute that money haemorrhages from them, a fact which has been readily exploited by the Chinese government for the good of the Chinese people for many years. It means the pandas are very well treated.]
“Do you know” Tuan Tuan said heavily, a soft growl meandering around his pointed teeth, “how much bamboo I must eat every day to survive? Thirty pounds. Do you know how much energy I retain from all this bamboo? I have to avoid walking up any slopes in case I get tired! I have the digestive system and capabilities of a carnivore, yet I spend most of my time chewing on minimally nutritious sticks! I have to excrete forty times a day! Forty! My life,” snarled Tuan Tuan “is not worth living.”
[Chris Packham, naturalist, nature photographer, television presenter and author claims he would “eat the last panda if I could have all the money we have spent on panda conservation put back on the table for me to do more sensible things with.”]
“But you’re doing so well! There are more conservation programs underway for pandas than any other animal in the world. Honestly? I think you’re worrying about nothing. We recently analysed some of your droppings, and DNA coding sugg-”
“You analysed my what?”
“You rummaged through my excrement.”
“Yes… When you put it that way…”
“This is exactly the kind of thing I am objecting to. We don’t want you stealing our droppings, organising our love lives, and artificially inseminating our women. We really don’t enjoy sex.”
With this the Chairman snorted, unexpectedly spattering tendrils of brown saliva across the table.
[Outside the expensive Zhaolong hotel Zheng Wei deposits his maimed daughter so that her incandescent burns can attract the sympathy of rich and bloated tourists, and on the emerald banks of the Yangtse five businessmen sprawl in brash white trunks, hesitant toes flirting with the hungry river.]
I do not know,” said the panda doggedly, “If you are familiar with the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, but the Fourth Truth dictates that in order to achieve enlightenment it is necessary to sacrifice all cravings or insatiable desires. We pursue a strict program of spiritual renewal through abstinence. This continual pressure to procreate is absurd and rather indicative of some unhealthy fixation on your part. And I do wish you would stop feeding me Viagra. It is most uncomfortable.”
Once again there was a long and awkward silence, broken only by dust motes throwing themselves across the boardroom with helpless abandon, glimmering in the dreamy half-light, a small water cooler lolloping water through obscure internal systems, and the quick breaths of the elderly Chairman.
“You are doing wonderful things for your country, though.” The Chairman finally rasped. “Have you not heard of “panda diplomacy”? We gave two pandas to Taiwan quite recently.”
“Yes, you relocated them. You called them “Re” and “Unification”. Very subtle.”
“We thought so.”
The panda eyed the Chairman speculatively.
[He reflects that technically as a member of the ursine community it was within his rights to savage the man horribly. As a highly prized “stud panda” it is unlikely that there would be any substantial punishment.]
“And to think of all the money you make for the people of China! You must be proud,” continued the Chairman, stretching his wicker basket face into a broad smile. Tuan Tuan adjusts the suffocating suit that he wrangled on to attend the meeting, shredding it slightly in the process.
“Pandas are not interested in money. We are mostly interested in bamboo, avoiding sex, and euthanasia.”
A disagreeable frown shudders across the Chairman’s face.
[Military police straighten out and strut from the Forbidden City to Tiananmen Square and back again under the benignly winking eyes of six-dozen cameras and one giant portrait of the late and ever-modest Mao.]
“Look. The truth is-“
“The truth is, you’re too cute to die. Do you understand? We will inseminate the entire world with baby pandas if we have to, but you will not be allowed to die. Frankly, you’re the most adorable thing in China, and therefore you’ve become very important for public relations. Too important.”
Pandas do not sweat, but abruptly the thick soup of Beijing summer air seemed to clot on Tuan Tuan’s fur. From the soft sylphian shadows of the boardroom emerged two heavyset angels of the Republic.
[The most popular and famous of all the Zoo’s celebrities at that time were Tuan Tuan, the devastatingly charismatic Giant “stud” Panda, and his mate, Yingxin. The two exuded the effortless, insolent charm of intelligent performers dedicated to the intricacies of their art. They looked suspiciously like people in panda suits, and cost over $1,000,000 a year to hire from the People’s Republic.]
Clearly this is a shameless work of haphazardly diluted fiction, but I am going to argue that it can be termed under “creative non-fiction” because it is also my somewhat eclectic attempt at representing the exploitation of natural resources which is part of the expansion of all would-be expanding nations. I also attempted to tie in hints of current and past conflicts between large nations and smaller ones suffering under them. I feel I was a little too ambitious to further stretch this by reversing the usual situation (small nation begs for restoration to former glory) by having Pandakind beg for the unhindered extinction of pandas, but I suppose it could be argued that by achieving death pandas would then at least have found a kind of freedom from oppression. I also wanted to point out the hypocrisy of people who wish to support the (arguably unsalvageable) panda but are then unwilling to donate towards the survival of more ugly endangered species.
My personal interest and a further non-fiction element comes through in the setting, Beijing, because this is as true an account of what it is like to suffer through a summer there as I can recount from memory. If it comes across as a little harsh, I felt this was necessary to balance put the overwhelming twee-ness of a story about pandas. The name Zheng Wei is that of a real person, and Tuan Tuan is a real panda, although he is not currently residing in Bejing Zoo, but is in fact one of the pandas given to Taiwan (the other is called Yuan Yuan). All facts about pandas and their digestive systems are also true. Zheng Wei is actually a rather nice man who once bought me lunch, but the story of the disabled girl left in front of the hotel to beg every day is true, as is the story of the grizzly bear being fed Fanta from a balcony (I even have a picture). I appropriated his name to make sure the name used was appropriate.
Although what has emerged from this attempt is a little unwieldy at times I wanted to fracture the vivid and descriptive from the matter of fact dialogue to heighten the contrast between what is truth but has the elaborate language of fiction, and what resembles real reporting but is obviously a pack of lies. I tried to use pleasing words to describe even the banal or horrible aspects of Beijing because my real intention was to inflict on the reader a real sense of the contradiction of beauty and exploitation that really smacks you in the face when exploring Beijing, and the kind of declining beauty implied by the “reeking peaches” (reddish for China) and the white trunks of the businessmen (white is a mourning colour in Chinese culture and as such is generally avoided). I didn’t want to enforce my own interpretation by rubbing an obvious moral around in the mess of it, rather present the facts in a descriptive, vivid way and allow anyone reading it to draw their own conclusions.