Yesterday (24.9.2017), we visited London Zoo situated in North London. One exhibit we had not seen before was the statue of ‘Ming’ (明) – commemorating the giant panda that lived in London Zoo from 1938 to her death in 1944. This statue (and plaque in the Chinese and English languages) was presented to London Zoo (as the chosen representative of the British people), by officials representing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 21st, 2015 – to mark the 70th Anniversary of the end of WWII – and Britain’s victory of Nazi Germany. As we had never heard of this panda – or that statue and plaque – I was inspired to research this story on the Chinese language internet. As usual, the current wikipedia page covering the history of London Zoo is incomplete and inaccurate, and omits any mention of Ming the giant panda. This is peculiar when it is considered that Ming the giant panda received an ‘obituary’ in the London Times Newspaper at the time of death – so loved was she by the British people!
Ming the giant panda – during her stay in London Zoo – brought both courage and joy to the British people, both locally and nationally. The BBC would routinely mention this bear in their radio broadcasts, and often film her in her enclosure at London Zoo for the old newsreels shown throughout the UK (in the cinemas). The antics of Ming also made their way into the local press around the British Isles, and she became a symbol of British anti-fascist resistance. As the bombs fell on London, (many deliberately targeting London Zoo and its environs), Ming was presented as continuously going about her day undisturbed. She was shown to be a very peaceful and happy bear, and never became agitated by the bombing – or disturbed by the constant stream of visitors – which at one time even included Princess Elisabeth (who would eventually become Queen Elizabeth II).
According to Chinese language sources, in 1938, five giant panda bears from China were illegally smuggled into the UK (by Japanese-American explorer Floyd Tangier-Smith) – with London Zoo purchasing three for its animal collection. One extraordinary photograph shows Ming the giant panda pretending to take a picture of the son of Bert Hardy:
After the founding of New China in 1949, there were three ways a giant panda bear could be sent abroad – these methods lasted from 1957 – 1982:
a) As a gift from the People of China.
b) As a symbol of co-operation and friendship.
c) Scientific purposes.
Since 1982, the convention of presenting giant panda bears as ‘gifts’ was discontinued, primarily over concerns for welfare and preservation (the other famous giant panda bear – Chi Chi – for instance, was often fed chocolate and refused to eat enough bamboo).
The two other giant pandas that arrived with Ming – named ‘Tang’ and ‘Sung’ by staff at London Zoo – did not live very long (Sung died in 1939, and Tang in 1940), but Ming being the youngest and the most playful, became very popular, even if by today’s scientifically-led standards of giant panda maintenance, the manner of her care in 1940’s London would be seen as highly inappropriate. Indeed, evidence suggests that upon her death, her health had suffer terribly from the war-time ‘Blitz’. Although Ming (who was born in Sichuan province in 1937) was very calm and playful before the war, her exposure to war-time conditions (and regular travelling) did in fact take its toll on her health, which led to a nervous disorder and loss of fur. Although evacuated during the war to Whipsnade Zoo (another larger part of London Zoo situated in Bedfordshire), she was continuously returned to London Zoo (near Camden in Northwest London) as a means to boost British morale. Ming the giant panda died whilst suffering an epileptic seizure on Boxing Day, 1944. The Times wrote:
‘She could die happy in the knowledge that she gladdened the universal heart and, even in the stress of war, her death should not go unnoticed.’
Ming suffered terribly en route from war-time China in 1938 – along with five other giant panda bears. One of her colleagues died during the journey, and another died waiting to clear Customs, as they prepared to entered the UK. A third colleague was then sold to a collector (ironically, in Nazi Germany). The fact that Ming was born ‘wild’, and yet wandered around amongst other animals and humans without ever a thought of violence, is quite extraordinary in itself. Particularly so considering the inappropriate conditions within which she had to live in London. Although her health definitely suffered as WWII progressed, prior to this she was a very happy, tolerant and deeply caring giant panda that seemed quite legitimately to be friendly toward children. Today, the attitude in modern China is one of high regard and immense respect for Ming the giant panda – who is viewed as an ‘ambassador’ of the Chinese people during very difficult times. Ming was able to fulfil her ‘diplomatic’ mission of bringing two countries together, and served an important part of boosting the morale of the British people. This is why a group of conservationists and artists from Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces collaborated to design and construct a statue of Ming, and as a symbol of ‘friendship’ and ‘anti-fascism’, present this statue to the British people in 2015. We, as British people must do our part in remembering this little bear with a kind heart.
Chinese Language Source Articles: