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Wild Pandas, Wild People:
Two Views of Wilderness in Deng-Era China

Sigrid Schmalzer and E. Elena Songster


Figure 14.1

"Spring in the Chinling [Qinling]Mountains," by Chintu People's Commune Spare-Time Art Group. This painting reflects an official Mao-era perspective on human intervention in nature. By mobilizing the masses and bringing science and technology to bear, people could transform nature for society's benefit. Here, the lower hills are terraced and sown with crops, the mountains planted with trees, and the river dammed for irrigation and power. Ostensibly painted by peasants learning art in their spare time, the "peasant paintings of Huxian" represented the state's vision of ideal rural life undersocialism. It projected this vision to rural and urban Chinese people, and to foreigners by way of traveling exhibitions and English-language books like the one in which this print appeared.

Source: Fine Arts Collection section of the Cultural Group under the State Council of the People's Republic of China, Peasant Paintings from Huhsien County (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1974), p. 76.

Figure 14.2

Scientists place a radio collar on a giant panda in the mountains of Sichuan in 1982 as part of a five-year behavioral study on wild pandas. In 1976, widespread reports of panda deaths moved the state to study the causes of the pandas' plight and save a species that had become a nationalicon and that served an important role in international diplomacy. In following years, giant pandas continued to garner attention from scientists, and popular media in turn celebrated the ability of science to intervene in nature for its own good. The image appeared on the cover of China Pictorial1982 (no. 1), one year before vast stretches of bamboo simultaneously flowered, seeded, and died in thesame Qionglai Mountains pictured here. China Pictorial was a state-produced magazine published in Chinese and many other languages; it provided the voice of the Chinese state with a colorful, appealing face for popular audiences. Media attention like this helped prepare the public for the state'smassive mid-1980s campaign to mobilize resources to save the panda.

Figure 14.3

This black-and-white sketch of two men assisting a panda appeared in a 1980 issue of the Chinese magazine Bowu (Natural Science). It accompanied a “diary segment” outlining the author’s work responding to the 1976 panda starvation scare. The image portrays a weakened nature (the ill panda) dependent on human society, represented by the two happy, healthy, and assertively helpful men. One man is kneeling and gently touching the panda’s back apparently as a means of assisting or comforting the animal. The other man is standing and confidently holding a rifle and a flashlight. Together, they represent both human compassion for and human dominance over nature. The article was one of very few popular publications that discussed the 1976 panda starvation episode—in striking contrast with the flood of articles that accompanied the mid-1980s crisis.

Source: Jiang Tingan, “Zai da xiongmao de guxiang—yewai gongzuo riji er ze” [Diary of my wilderness work in the native place of the giant panda] , Bo wu [Natural Science] (November 1980): 15-16.

Figure 14.4

This illustration of a peasant man cradling a panda cub is from a seven-volume series of books on the giant panda, captive and wild. Published in 1988 and translated into English, the series glorifies the compassion of Chinese people and their arduous efforts to save pandas. Each page presents a full-color painting and a small amount of text, often a vignette describing the efforts of a specific individual. Such stories provide a feeling of authenticity and put a human face on the panda rescue campaign. While some of the other pages illustrate ethnic minorities aiding the panda, this image makes a point of demonstrating that the panda is precious to the majority Han people who also live in panda habitat.

Source: Source: Ma Xingjin and Tang Guangyou, illustrated by Guanqige and Gege, Giant Panda’s Habitat. Beijing: Dolphin Books, 1988.

Figure 14.5

This photograph of school children raising money to save giant pandas appeared in People's Daily (Renmin ribao), China's most important state-sponsored newspaper, on 9 May 1984. During the early 1980s the Chinese government used its media resources to convince people across thecountry that giant pandas were threatened with starvation because of massive bamboo die-off, and to mobilize all sectors of society to take whatever action they could. The energy and dedication of these children made them perfect role models for such a propaganda campaign.

Source: Source: Renmin Ribao, 9 May 1984.

Figure 14.6

Responses to 1970s eyewitness reports of yeren (half-ape, half-human creatures similar to Bigfoot in North America or yeti in Tibet) often involved teams of men with guns and reflected a combative approach toward wilderness characteristic of the Mao era, when people were urged to "struggle" with nature for the benefit of humankind. This image accompanied a recollection of a supposed real-life encounter with a yeren, published in a mid-1980s popular science magazine, recalls this attitude. The author of the article is supposed to be defending himself (his dominating pose notwithstanding) from a lusty female yeren whom he first "mistook" for a woman of the Wa ethnic minority. The attitude toward wildness and primitiveness (including the ugly stereotyped perspective on ethnic minorities) represented here is clearly hostile.

Source: Li Mingzhi, "Wo he yeren bodou," Huashi [Fossils] 1984.4, 6.

Figure 14.7

The cover image for a 1985 book of short stories on yeren encounters. The 1980s witnessed a renaissance in popular fiction, including sensationalist stories like these that would not have been publishable during the Mao era. This image reflects a different attitude toward the wild(er)ness yeren were imagined to represent: it depicts the yeren as savage but also beautiful. The story it illustrates is sympathetic to the yeren, whose "primitive" humanity stands in contrast with the lapsed morality of modern society.

Source: Zi Feng, ed. Yeren qiu ou ji [A yeren seeks a mate] (Beijing: Zhongguo minjian wenyi chubanshe, 1988).

Figure 14.8

Following changes in cultural attitudes toward wilderness, yeren have increasingly Yeren tracker Zhang Jinxing has grown his hair and beard and encourages people to think of him as almost a yeren himself. Posed with a camera and hiding in the brush, he is blurring the distinction between seeker and quarry, human and yeren. The photograph, by Sahid Maher, appears in Anne Loussouarn, "What's Out in the Woods?", City Weekend, trial issue (2000), 9. City Weekend is a popular newspaper for foreign residents of Beijing. Zhang Jinxing's appearance in an "expat" newspaper, together with the many articles about the North American Bigfoot in post-Mao books and magazines, testify to the transnational character of cultural phenomenon of interest in yeren/yeti/Bigfoot.

Chapter Sample


he fall of the Cultural Revolution radicals in 1976, followed by the rise of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, produced fundamental changes throughout China's political, economic, social, and cultural spheres. This chapter explores one specific aspect of this transformation: the dramatic shift in both official and popular Chinese understandings of nature. China had developed policies to address environmental issues as early as the 1950s, but during the Mao era the goal of conservation was to protect resources valuable to the state. The arrival of the post-Mao era saw a new understanding of nature as an endangered wilderness with inherent worth and in need of protection. While the concept of the endangered wilderness became widely accepted in the 1980s, it did not resolve into a single vision. Rather, two distinct views emerged that reflected two very different perspectives on the broad changes China was experiencing under Deng Xiaoping’s rule (1978-1997). One was the idea that a new state strengthened by scientific modernization and economic reforms could rescue the wilderness from crises brought on by nature’s intrinsic fragility. The other presented the wilderness as threatened, rather than protected, by state-supported modernization efforts.

In order to capture these two very different perspectives on the landscape of state-wilderness relations, we will ask you to imagine that you have in front of you two telescopes. The first directs our gaze onto efforts to save the giant panda from starvation. Through official, state-produced documents on panda preservation, we obtain the state’s view of the power of modernization to protect the wilderness. The second telescope focuses on the search for a legendary, Bigfoot-like creature called yeren. Through popular science writings, fiction, and poetry about yeren, we gain the perspective of critical intellectuals, who see the power of modernization to destroy the wilderness.

We use telescopes as a metaphor to make explicit the reflexivity of this volume’s approach. Like the people we study, modern historians inhabit a “visual culture.” Metaphors of visuality abound in our writings. We talk about people in history “constructing images,” “outlining visions,” and “sharing views” even when there is nothing literally to “see.” Historians also sometimes use such language to explore the way we go about the very act of studying the past. For example, we may talk about different “perspectives” on historical events or about using a small episode as a “window” onto larger historical changes. In adopting “telescopes,” we are raising specific questions about the powers and limits of historical sight. A telescope zooms in on an object in a circular field of vision while rendering the larger context invisible. Similarly, a specific body of historical sources may provide rich detail about one subject from one perspective while leaving out many related subjects and oppositional viewpoints. Thus, we will need to return in the conclusion to the question of what each telescope (panda rescues and yeren explorations) does and does not reveal about Deng-era China. To what extent does a focused examination of a specific case offer insight into an historical era? Are there limits to such visions, and if so, can we overcome them?

Further Reading

Dikötter, Frank. "Hairy Barbarians, Furry Primates, and Wild Men: Medical Science and Cultural Representations of Hair in China." In Hair: Its Power and Meaning in Asian Cultures, edited by Alf Hiltebeitel and Barbara D. Miller, 51-74. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Dreyer, June Teufel. China's Forty Millions: Minority Nationalities and National Integration in the People's Republic of China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Economy, Elizabeth C. By All Means Necessary: How China’s Resource Quest is Changing the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Economy, Elizabeth C. The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future. Ithaca: A Council on Foreign Relations Book, Cornell University Press, 2010 [2004].

Edmonds, Richard L. Patterns of China’s Lost Harmony: A Survey of the Country’s Environmental

Degradation and Protection. London: Routledge, 1994.

Elvin, Mark. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Gao Xingjian. Soul Mountain. Translated by Mabel Lee. New York: Harper Perennial, 2001.

Gao Xingjian. “Wild Man: A Contemporary Chinese Spoken Drama,” trans. Bruno Roubicek. Asian Theatre Journal 7.2 (1990 [1985]): 195-249.

Geall, Sam. China and the Environment: The Green Revolution. London: Zed Books, 2013.

Gladney, Dru C. "Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/Minority Identities." Journal of Asian Studies 53.1 (1994): 92-123.

Hathaway, Michael J. Environmental Winds: Making the Global in Southwest China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

Huot, Claire. China’s New Cultural Scene: A Handbook of Changes. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

Jiang, Rong. Wolf Totem. Translated by Howard Goldblatt. New York: The Penguin Press, 2008.

Litzinger, Ralph. Other Chinas: The Yao and the Politics of National Belonging. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

Marks, Robert B. China, Its Environment and History (World Social Change). Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2011.

Marks, Robert B. Tigers, Rice, Silk & Silt: Environment and Economy in Late Imperial South China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Nicholls, Henry. The Way of the Panda. New York: Pegasus Books, 2011.

Poirier, Gene and Richard Greenwell, dir. The Wildman of China. New York: Mystic Fire Video, Inc., 1990.

Schaller, George B. Tibet Wild: A Naturalist’s Journey on the Roof of the World. Washington: Island Press Books, 2012.

Schaller, George B. The Last Panda. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Schmalzer, Sigrid. The People’s Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Scott, James. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Shapiro, Judith. China’s Environmental Challenges. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012.

Shapiro, Judith. Mao’s War against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Songster, Elena. “A Natural Place for Nationalism: The Wanglang Nature Reserve and the Emergence of the Giant Panda as a National Icon.” University of California, San Diego: Ph.D. Dissertation, 2004.

Sturgeon, Janet C. Border Landscapes, the Policies of Akha Landuse in China and Thailand (Culture Place and Nature). Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007.

Weller, Robert P. Discovering Nature: Globalization and Environmental Culture in China and Taiwan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Study Questions

These questions can be explored without outside reading:

1) How do depictions of the wilderness discussed in this chapter compare with depictions of human environments (village life, urban life, etc.) depicted in some of the other chapters of the volume (see especially Chapters 11, 13, and 15)? Putting this evidence together, is there something more that can be said about overarching concepts of human vs. nature, or civilization vs. wilderness, in post-1949 China?

2) What role does gender play in how the wilderness has been conceptualized and "managed" in China? How do representations of gender in these materials resonate (or not) with representations of gender in the materials discussed in other chapters?

3) How is the relationship between humans and yeren depicted in the images provided here? How about the relationship between humans and the giant panda? Do you see important similarities or differences? What do we learn about attitudes toward the relationship between humans and nature?

4) The two case studies in this chapter show very different attitudes toward the relationship between nature and human society. The panda starvation scare section reflects an assumption that human society could and should rescue nature; the yeren example, however, illustrates a concern that modern human society might destroy nature. How do you reconcile the coexistence of these divergent views of nature during the early Deng era?

5) The first image in this chapter presents an idealized picture of the socialist transformation of nature to serve human needs. Is this notion of nature as "useful" to society apparent in the portrayals of pandas and yeren? Or did nature appear to lose its usefulness to society when perceived as threatened and in need of rescue?

For these questions, consult the "Further Readings" section:

1) Read Gao Xingjian's play Wild Man. How does it expand your understanding of the significance of yeren and wilderness in 1980s China? After reading it, do you see any new significance in the images of yeren presented in the Visualizing Modern China book and website? (You may also wish to consult Gao Xingjian's Soul Mountain, Chapter 7 of Schmalzer's The People's Peking Man, Dikotter's "Hairy Barbarians, Furry Primates, and Wild Men," and/or the documentary The Wildman of China.)

2) China Pictorial is the English-language edition of a magazine that has been published in China by an arm of the Chinese Communist Party since 1950. Browse through the issues. How is China's wilderness, or nature more generally, represented? How have images of wilderness or nature changed?

3) How does the post-Mao fascination with yeren as a symbol of "the primitive" relate to Han Chinese interest in (and objectification of) the cultures of ethnic minority groups in China? On the Further Readings list, see especially Dreyer, Gladney, Huot, Litzinger, and Schmalzer.

4) The human relationship with animals is complex: humans view animals as pests, threats, tools, assets, spiritual inspiration, and much more. In what ways can we better understand human history by focusing on these relationships? Compare the significance of animals in this chapter with the ways they are discussed in Elvin, Hathaway, Jiang, Marks, Nicholls, Schaller, Songster, and/or Weller.

5) How has the relationship between human society and nature continued to shift in China since the early Deng Era? After reading Economy, Geall, Shapiro, and/or Sturgeon, do you see continuities or changes in patterns of ecological degradation, environmental policies, and grassroots activism across time?