Ching Ching and Chia Chia: London Zoo's giant pandas

The arrival of two pandas, a gift from Mao Zedong to Edward Heath, in September 1974, as reported and photographed by the Guardian and Observer

On 13 September 1974, the Guardian announced the transglobal transfer of two adolescent pandas to Britain: “Chia Chia and Ching Ching, the two young pandas given to Britain by China, will leave Peking today for their new home in London Zoo. They each weigh about 100lb.”

Ching Ching at London Zoo - GNM Archive ref: OBS/6/9/2/1/A box 5
Ching Ching at London Zoo - GNM Archive ref: OBS/6/9/2/1/A box 5 Photograph: Jane Bown/The Observer

The pandas were fussy about their food, eating perhaps “half a ton a week” of bamboo. But not just any old type. It needed to be the “right kind of exotic bamboo” that grew in Cornwall, sent on a train to Paddington twice a week. The pair’s expensive taste forced London Zoo to appeal for public funds to keep up with their enormous appetite.

Ching Ching and Chia Chia proved popular. Within three weeks, attendance at the zoo doubled from 8,000 to 16,000. Despite the public’s affection for the bears, the pair showed no romantic interest in one another; head zookeeper George Callard described how “theirs is a life of eating and sleeping by all accounts.”

They were separated for nine months in 1981 while Chia Chia - whose name meant Most Excellent and Very Good - was ferried to Washington on an unsuccessful mating mission. Ching Ching made headlines later that year following announcements that she “may” be pregnant via artificial insemination.

Observer, 6 September 1981, Zooming in on the zoo baby
Observer, 6 September 1981, Zooming in on the zoo baby Photograph: Mena Sultan/The Observer

The Guardian reported that visitors flocked to see her and a closed circuit television set was rigged up to allow the public to see her birth. But the rumours were unfortunately true. Ching Ching’s pregnancy was false.

Inscrutable giant panda fails to deliver

The intentions behind the panda gift were discussed in several articles. When one spokesman was asked about the deal between the then prime minister Edward Heath and President Mao Zedong, he said: “China has known of our interest in giant pandas for some time. I shall not say more than that. But last November we sent them some deer which they wanted very much.” Heath also described it as merely a “friendly gesture” conducted in hopes of the pair breeding.

Other articles suggested a political advantage. China’s long history of Panda diplomacy, stretching as far back as the Tang Dynasty, was revived by Mao in the 1950s when he sent a panda to the Soviet Union as a symbol of thanks for being the first country to establish diplomatic relations with China. The well timed arrival of the pandas in the UK could therefore be a “somewhat inscrutable move by the Chinese to help Mr Heath in the election.” The Conservative Central Office welcomed the pandas as a potentially major diplomatic coup for Heath, one spokesman saying: “We’d better have a picture of him with the pandas as soon as possible.”

More recently, even, panda loans have often coincided with trade deals for valuable resources and technology. This only echoes the 1970s sentiment of one journalist: “Long gone, of course, are the days when alliances were made by ambassadors, but gone too are the days of Kissinger diplomacy when Foreign secretaries flew around the world and counted for something. Both are replaced by animal diplomacy.”

Chia Chia at London Zoo. GNM Archive ref: GUA/9/1/1/A box 13
Chia Chia at London Zoo. GNM Archive ref: GUA/9/1/1/A box 13 Photograph: Garry Weaser/The Guardian

These photographs have been taken from the old picture libraries of the Guardian and Observer newspapers, now held at the Guardian News & Media Archive. Catalogues of the picture library holdings are available to search online (for both the Guardian and Observer collections) and researchers interested in making an appointment to consult the collection should email the archive team.

Further reading

China’s cuddly ambassadors with diplomatic clout

Hard to bear: pandas poorly adapted for digesting bamboo, scientists find

How feeding two giant pandas led to a diplomatic dilemma

Giant pandas touch down in Edinburgh

Ming, the first panda to arrive in Britain

Previous archive resources


Mena Sultan

The GuardianTramp

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