How to become a leader

Best-ever 48th birthday: Volunteering for China’s pandas



This summer, I spent my 48th birthday in the remote mountains of Sichuan, volunteering as an ambassador for Operation Earth and China’s panda conservation program. I was so honored that my benmingnian was launched with an unforgettable bonfire banquet hosted by the local Qiang people. The embroidery, language, singing and dancing of our Qiang sisters are all simply spell-binding.

The Qiang ladies who sang and danced for my 48th birthday

My special childhood connection with China’s pandas

Even though I was born and raised in the United States, I’ve always enjoyed a special connection with China’s pandas. I was born in 1969, at a time when the world regarded China as a strange, poor, backwards and isolated place. This image also informed America’s impression of the few of us Chinese who lived in the States. America saw us as polite, meek — and foreign.

But then, in 1972, two VIPs immigrated from China to America. They were not humans, but pandas, roly-poly and ridicuously lovable, gifts of friendship by Chairman Mao to the American people.

“Hsing-Hsing” and “Ling-Ling” became instant superstars. You could say they and I grew up together, since Ling-Ling was born the same year as me, and Hsing-Hsing just one year later, and they lived at the National Zoo, just 20 minutes away from my family.

Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, with then-U.S. President Richard Nixon

For my generation, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling were the constant symbol of friendship between America and China. Each time I visited them, I felt proud that they were Chinese, just like me.

So Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling were a huge success in entrancing a generation of Americans. The one thing that they did NOT do is give the world a new generation of pandas. This was not for lack of trying by zoo officials. Female pandas are fertile only 2-3 days a year, and each Spring during that golden period, zoo officials fervently tried to get Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling “in the mood” and then to successfully “do the deed.”

After many years of failed attempts, zoo officials did joyfully announce a baby on the way, on five separate occasions. Each time, Americans rejoiced when a new baby panda was born.

And then, each time, American children cried at the news that the baby panda had died. Not a single one of Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling’s five cubs survived even five days.

Should we be saving pandas at all?

It was with all those joyful and tragic memories of China’s pandas still fresh in my mind that this summer, I journeyed to Wolong to visit China’s panda conservation program. But now, decades later, I had a whole set of new questions.

By now, I’d had a brief career as a biologist. Actually, I should say my biology career was very very brief, because it consisted of a single year as a marine-biology major at Duke, before I transferred out to study the humanities. But as they say, “a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.” And this summer, the mini-biologist inside me had some tough questions for the panda conservationists.

To wit: Should we be saving pandas at all? As a species, they seem to be lacking on a number of fronts. They’re obviously bad at sex, their fertility windows are unreasonably small, and when they’re not sleeping, they do nothing but eat. That’s because their diet consists of almost nothing but non-nutritious bamboo, a plant that’s disappearing in the wild. Sure, pandas are darn cute but, I wondered, have pandas as a species simply gone down an evolutionary dead-end? If nature has decided it’s time for pandas to go, should humans be trying to save them at all?

Zhang Hemin, the Panda Daddy of China

Well, I gained an education there in Wolong. I learned from the best. Zhang Hemin is the Panda Daddy of China, who for decades as led China’s panda conservation program. Mr. Zhang has a colorful personality, and his enthusiasm is infectious as he describes how they use Viagra and panda porn videos to help the males get into the mood and learn how to do the deed. By now, he and his team have become so successful in helping captive pandas procreate that they now are working on training the baby pandas for life in the wild, in order to expand the overall genetic diversity of the species.

And I met Leon Chen, the former United Nations environmental official who founded Operation Earth. Leon explained to me that the panda is an ancient species which has survived on our planet for millions of years, through the Ice Age that killed off many other mammals. Unusual among mammals, the panda has evolved from carnivore to herbivore, and its amazing survival through time holds important lessons, particularly as we humans must learn more about how to adapt to our rapidly-changing environment.

Baby pandas in “panda kindergarten”

Leon taught me that in fact, the existential threat to pandas is not evolutionary. Actually, pandas were doing fine, until humans came along. The threat to pandas’ existence comes from the fact that humans have fragmented and destroyed their habitat through climate change and physical development. After all, animals that have evolved for millions of years can’t just change in a few decades as people move in, destroy their habitat and eliminate their food source.

Saving the pandas is not just about saving the pandas. It’s about saving an entire ecosystem in Western China. By eating bamboo and distributing bamboo seeds, pandas allow the forests of Western China to survive and provide a habitat for the birds, insects, and mammals that live there, including untold numbers of rare plants and animals.

In fact, saving the panda is not even just about saving one ecosystem. It’s about saving our planet. As a species indigenous only to China, pandas are China’s international symbol of friendship and peace. And they are perhaps the world’s most adored species of animal. Conserving and presenting pandas in zoos is really about getting the world’s people to care about biodiversity and conservation. So, helping secure a future for pandas is also about helping secure a future for homo sapiens.

My next benmingnian project: New book coming in September!

Me (Joy Chen) on a panda expedition in the remote mountains of Sichuan

Having grown up as a child alongside two very special pandas, I was honored to had the privilege of spending my 48th birthday with a new generation of these ancient and modern creatures.

Having kicked off my benmingnian with such a bang, I feel I’d better make my next 12-year cycle count, and seize the time to do some good in the world.  If I retire at around 96 years old, I only have four more cycles left to get shit done. Time is limited; must wisely use the coming years.

My next big project is releasing the new book that has fascinated me for the past year. The book will arrive in September in Chinese language and in China, with an ebook edition available in China and the USA. I hope that this book will change your life for the better. I’ll tell you about it in my next post!


** Special note for Media friends: If you are in China and would like to consider interviewing me for my new book launch, please use the CONTACT tab on the blog banner above, and provide us with your name, title, media organization, physical address, phone and WeChat contact. My team will send you more information on the book – AND a free copy when it is available!