This Day in History: Nixon-Mao Diplomacy Pandas Debut in US Zoo

By Ned Kelly, April 15, 2022

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On April 16, 1972, two giant pandas – Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling – arrived at the National Zoo in Washington DC, a gift from China to the US following the February visit of President Richard Nixon.

READ MORE: This Day in History: Nixon Signs Shanghai Communique

Tricky Dicky reciprocated by sending back a pair of musk oxen to the PRC.

Over 20,000 people joined First Lady Pat Nixon in welcoming the pandas the first day they were on display, with an estimated 1.1 million coming to see them in the first year.

The popularity of the gift was seen as an enormous diplomatic success – so much so that British Prime Minister Edward Heath asked for pandas for the UK during a visit to China in 1974. Chia-Chia and Ching-Ching duly arrived at London Zoo a few weeks later.

The practice of Panda Diplomacy existed as far back as the Tang Dynasty, when Empress Wu Zetian (625–705) sent a pair of pandas to the Japanese emperor. 

READ MORE: Imperial Pets: Furry Friends in the Forbidden City

The PRC revived the practice in the 1950s, and from 1958 to 1982 China gave 23 pandas to nine different countries.

By 1984, however, pandas were no longer used purely as agents of diplomacy. Instead, China began to offer pandas to other nations on 10-year loans only, with standard terms including a fee of USD1 million per year, and a provision that any cubs born during the loan be the property of the People’s Republic of China.

The first person to bring a live giant panda to the USA was chain-smoking, heavy-drinking socialite turned hardy bamboo forest trekker Ruth Harkness, back in 1936. You can read her fascinating story by clicking the link below.

READ MORE: The Chain-Smoking Socialite & the Panda


For more This Day in History stories, click here.

[Cover image via Alchetron]

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