Monday, 10 January 2011

Chi Chi the panda and the impossibility of freedom in the shared mind of any given social structure

(From China journal Jan 2010)

China as body politic has been a decade coming out of the big cold war freeze, but it's happening slowly and with contra-indications. On one hand there's an outbreak of Starbucks, on the other there's secret police fingerprints. In Chengdu we find the whole thing exemplified by pandas. Chengdu is one of the big international tourist stop-offs in China because this is, or was, panda country . (Less well-known is the beauty of Chengdu teahouses in summer; even less well-known is the fact that Yan Yan's mum lives here.)

On our first morning in the city, we book an early cab to see the pandas getting their breakfast. It's a cold, bright day with a little mist and we hurtle past dayglo shopfronts and little tableaux of huddled people readying stalls and gossiping, their breath condensing on the cold air. I feel properly a tourist today, snapshotting curiosities from our warm taxi. Julia is still acclimatising to the driving style and has her eyes closed.

We arrive in time for the first panda munch of bamboo shoots. The bears' audience of Chinese and European tourists coo as one. Pandas have the knack of appearing to pick delicately at their food, while in actuality shovelling hundredweights of breakfast down their throats. It's a dodge I envy. They are almost a definition of cute (aka “Q” here) with their Mary Quant eyes and cuddly demeanour and they've a delicacy at odds with their size. I flashback my dad's old cine footage of Chi Chi in the London Zoo of my early childhood.

The panda sanctuary is renowned for its inmates fabulous living conditions so we're disturbed to see the animals in small concrete cells, glassed on one side so that people like us can peer in at the bears despite their shyness. Then as we watch a magic trick occurs, a small steel door opens in the cell we are watching and the bear disappears into greenery. We go around the back to see a large field of grass, shrubs and trees where the bear is free to roam with a couple of companions. This pattern is repeated through the sanctuary. At first it's a relief to see the animals released into a bigger captivity. But of course it is still captivity. And it is one perhaps not so different to that shared by the human population.

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