New movie accused of whitewashing panda trafficking by Westerners

By Huang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2016/11/22 18:58:39

A movie now under production about an American socialite who in 1936 became the first person to take a living giant panda to the West from China has drawn concerns among Chinese panda fans. They say that the film's plot summary filed with the government that claims Ruth Harkness "rescued" the baby panda is wrong, and that she actually trafficked it for profit.

A panda rests on a tree branch in a Beijing zoo on November 8. Photo: CFP

A panda rests on a tree branch in a Beijing zoo on November 8. Photo: CFP

The Lady and the Panda, a UK-China joint production that will tell the story of the American woman who brought the first living giant panda to the West, is scheduled to begin shooting in November in Southwest China's Sichuan Province.

The film, based on Ruth Harkness' correspondence 80 years ago, will tell the romantic adventure of Ruth and Chinese American naturalist Quentin Young, how they "rescued" a panda cub in mountains, and Harkness's  "international journey" to hold on to the panda, according to film's plot summary which the production company filed with China's top film authority. This summary is currently the only thing in the public domain that explains the plot of the movie.

But while the government has approved the shooting of the film, the planned movie has worried some in China who fear that it may glorify Harkness.

The filmmakers describing her actions as a "rescue" has infuriated many Chinese panda lovers, who have written public letters and posts to the authorities and panda breeding bases, urging them to oppose the film if it is going to "distort" facts and "glorify" Harkness.

Some are arguing that Ruth actually trafficked pandas, making her merely one of the many Westerners who poached exotic animals from China and other countries to satisfy their own curiosity and lust for fame and wealth. This was common in the early 20th century, and many of the animals, including pandas, died on their way abroad or a few years after their arrival.

"The accusations are not groundless, but made based on the historical record," Zhao Xu (pseudonym), one of the protestors, told the Global Times.

A worker in the field of environmental science research, Zhao is a panda fanatic.

When opposition to the film arose in early November, he immediately got involved, posting reports and videos which he claims chronicle the true history of this phenomenon. His post "The bloody poaching history of the giant pandas," compiled on November 13, has received 95,000 views and 1,600 reposts on Weibo.

Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Foundation responded on the evening of November 15 on its Weibo, saying the base is not involved in the planning, preparation, shooting or promotion of the film.

When asked to respond to "netizens' criticism of a film that praises a poacher," Qi Xiaomei, manager of the film's co-producer Guangzhou Ouhua Animation Technology Co., Ltd, told the that "it's not the case."

Some netizens have also left messages on the Weibo account of actor Liu Ye as it has been reported he will play Quentin Young, asking him not to star in the film.

"We appreciate international support and aid in panda preservation. But we will never allow history to be falsified," said a panda lover who asked the Global Times to use her Weibo account name Tang Xinlan. She has written a public letter calling on the authorities not to let the filmmakers use any pandas unless they change the plot of the movie.

True or false?

After her husband died in China on his own panda-hunting mission, Harkness came to China in 1936. With the help of Young, she captured a newborn panda cub, naming it Su Lin, according to her 1938 book The Baby Giant Panda.

She managed to slip the cub out of China by registering Su Lin as a Pekinese dog and bribing customs officers with $2, according to her account.

When Harkness returned to her life as a New York fashion designer and socialite in December holding the exotic animal, she created a nationwide sensation.

After keeping Su Lin in her apartment for a month, she sold the panda to Brookfield Zoo in Chicago for $9,000, according to, a news portal in based in New York City.

In the version of the story written by Vicki Croke, author of The Lady and the Panda published in 2006, the zoo paid Harkness $14,000 for the panda. Harkness claimed at the time to be broke and had apparently hoped for $20,000.

Harkness returned to China the following year and brought back another panda, Mei Mei, who briefly joined Su Lin before the animal died of pneumonia 16 months after arriving in the US. Mei Mei later died in 1942.

According to Croke's book, Harkness made a third and last trip to Sichuan where she collected two more pandas, an adult and a young female. The adult was shot sometime after its capture and the other was released by Harkness, because she said it had too wild a temperament for captivity.

Harkness died in 1947 after a lifetime of alcohol abuse, Croke wrote.

Some media outlets have since said she should be "thanked" for her efforts to "conserve" the giant panda.

In January 2014, the Mother Nature Network, a website on the environment, ran a story titled "If you love pandas, you have one amazing woman to thank - Ruth Harkness brought the first live giant panda to the US back in 1936."

The Hollywood Reporter reported in late October when introducing the new film that Harkness "rescued an orphaned baby panda."

Hu Jinchu, 87, an expert on giant pandas who has investigated the period of history, denies Su Lin was an orphan - a claim that was never actually made by Harkness.

"At that time, Harkness and Floyd Tangier Smith, a British explorer, were vying to become the first person to bring a panda to the West alive. But Harkness's team made it first," Hu told the Global Times, "but a cub was less favored than older ones due to its fragility."

Panda mania

Jean Pierre Armand David, a French missionary, was the first Westerner to discover a giant panda in Baoxing, Sichuan in 1869. He sent a deceased specimen to a museum in Paris, which then triggered the worldwide curiosity.

Explorers from Russia, Germany, the US and UK, came to China to hunt the animal. In 1929, Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt, sons of US President Theodore Roosevelt, shot a panda together, becoming the first foreigners on record to do so.

The giant panda mania greatly stimulated the hunting industry among local hunters.

A panda pelt was sold for $8 at the time, a living animal could be sold from $15 to $150, these huge sums were a great temptation for locals at that time, Hu introduced.

According to Tang Xiyang, a pioneering Chinese environmentalist who in 1996 founded Green Camp of University Students in China, before 1949, 16 living pandas were taken to the West and more than 70 deceased specimens were also trafficked.

But Hu said all the exports of giant pandas except for Su Lin were legal and received approval from the government. Many foreigners, such as missionaries, living in Chengdu provided assistance or temporary shelter for the pandas, Hu said.

Between 1936 and 1938, British explorer Floyd Tangier Smith, nicknamed "panda king," captured or bought from locals 11 giant pandas and a cub in Wenchuan, Sichuan Province, according to Hu.

Four died soon after; he sent one to a private zoo in Chongqing and another one to a State zoo in Shanghai; and the other six he sent to the UK via Hong Kong, Hu told the Global Times.

Of these six, one died on the way, one died couple of weeks later and one was sold to a German dealer. The other three were sold to the Zoological Society of London, including a cub named Ming which became a celebrity for "lifting the wartime morale" and died in 1944, according to

Two sides

Tang told the Global Times that if Harkness is portrayed as "rescuing" Su Lin, the film will leave a bad taste in many people's mouths. "I spent two years collecting the facts for my book… and found that no such word was used in any original materials," said the 86-year-old environmentalist. His book A Green World Tour published in 1999 and jointly written by his American wife Marcia Bliss Marks also recorded the story of Harkness.

But both Tang and Hu believe that history should be portrayed objectively. "At that time, the country was by torn apart by the Japanese invasion. Governance and public awareness of wildlife protection was very poor," Hu said.

A panda expert who asked for anonymity told the Global Times that the pandas displayed in UK and the US during the World War II helped increase their friendship with China, and the Westerners' study of pandas also provided experience later Chinese preservation efforts could draw on.

Hu said it's improper to portray Harkness as a heroine, but Su Lin indeed opened Westerners' eyes to the bears and helped them learn to love and protect giant pandas. 

However, Zhao Xu disagrees with this argument. "If what he said was right, we should thank the Western forces who looted relics from the Summer Palace because they have been well preserved and studied in their countries? " Zhao argued.

The anonymous expert says that Harkness helped cause a dramatic shift in Western attitudes to hunting pandas by taking Su Lin to the West. After cuddling Su Lin, three panda hunters - the Roosevelt brothers and Dean Sage - vowed immediately never to kill another panda, Vicki Croke wrote in a 2001 report published by The Washington Post.

Avoiding the Global Times' questions about Harkness, Vicki Croke, who has been writing about wildlife for 30 years, said she can't comment on the movie as it isn't explicitly based on her book.

Also, interview requests emailed to a representative of Justin Chadwick, the British director of the film, were unanswered as of press time.

Zhao hopes the story will be told truthfully so to warn people not to repeat history, just as it was in The Story of Panda Taotao, an 87-minute cartoon produced as a Chinese-Japanese joint venture and released in 1981. The film is a sad tale about Taotao, a panda from Sichuan, who was captured and sold to a European zoo in 1930s after his mother was killed. Taotao lived a miserable lonely life until dying.

Tang said she was disappointed that the filmmakers and the film authorities have not responded to public concerns. If the film turns out as they fear, she said she will join others to call for Chinese not to watch the film and protest it.

Newspaper headline: Rescuer or trafficker

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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