Note: This post is part of a series authored by First Lady Michelle Obama to share her visit to China with young people in the U.S. You can read all of the First Lady's posts at WhiteHouse.gov/First-Lady-China-Trip, and also on PBS Learning Media and Discovery Education's websites.
Today is my last day of my trip, and I couldn’t leave China without seeing the Chengdu Panda Base. I’ve got to say, seeing baby pandas playing together was even cuter than I thought it would be – and the girls and I even had a chance to hold one. [We also walked through an area full of red pandas – a different, smaller species that look sort of like a mixture of a panda and a fox. They’re friendly and will walk right up to you to say hi!]
But learning about pandas isn’t just about seeing [link to panda cam] some incredibly cute animals. It’s also a way to learn some important lessons about caring for endangered species. Fewer than 1,600 pandas remain in the wild, and that’s why a place like the Chengdu Panda Base is so important. The base covers almost 600 square miles and it’s located right in the heart of pandas’ natural habitat. The area surrounding the base is the only location in the world where you can find pandas in the wild and in a research center. Right now, there are about 50 pandas at the Panda Base, ranging in age from infancy to full-grown adults. Chinese scientists spend their days working with the animals to increase the panda population through breeding, conservation, and researching how the bears live and grow.
As we learned about the pandas’ future, I also spent some time reflecting on their past. Believe it or not, pandas have actually played a leading role in world events over the past few decades through a custom known as “Panda Diplomacy.” It’s a tradition that dates back at least to the seventh century, and over the past few decades, panda diplomacy has been a key way that China has reached out to other nations. Since the 1950s, China has given pandas to countries like France, Japan, Great Britain, Mexico, and the United States. It’s a goodwill offering—a way to reach out and build a connection between two countries and their people.
That was certainly the case when China first offered America pandas back in 1972. At that time, there was extremely limited contact between our two governments. From 1949, when the communist party assumed power in China, up until 1979, the United States did not officially recognize the government of the People’s Republic of China.
But in the early ‘70s, President Nixon believed that we could rise above our differences and begin to open relations. So, in 1972, he reached out to the Chinese and became the first sitting U.S. President to visit mainland China. And on that trip, after Mrs. Pat Nixon said how much she enjoyed seeing pandas at a Chinese zoo, the Chinese Premier offered a pair of pandas to the People of the United States. The original pandas – Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing – were housed at the National Zoo, and Chinese pandas have lived there ever since. In fact, just last fall, a new baby panda – Bao Bao, which means “treasure” or “precious” – was born there, giving new life to our growing relationship with China.
And I believe that that history is instructive for us today. It shows that even for nations as big, complex and different as the United States and China, small gestures can mean a whole lot. They can bring people together and form a bond that can stretch across a globe. And in our modern world, where we can connect with someone on the other side of the planet with the click of a button, we all have an opportunity to make those small gestures in our own lives.
So whether it’s reaching out to other students overseas, studying abroad, or simply keeping up on world events, each of us can take a step to build a connection with people and cultures that are different from our own. Because if we do that – if we take the time to truly get to know understand each other – then we’ll be doing our part to keep building.