In Panda Diaries, Alex Kuo’s latest novel, a panda mailman chastises his improbable cohort, Ge, for buying into its pop image. “You’re supposed to be in intelligence. You’ve seen me smoke. If I relied only on that bamboo diet, we’d all be extinct by now. That’s just a story our lobbyists invent for the foreign journalists in Beijing when they have nothing else to write about.” And unlike the surly postal carriers of America, this zoological civil servant is, in many ways, more contemplative and human than Ge can claim to be. A colonel in the Chinese secret service, Ge has been exiled to Changchun, an armpit city in the frigid northeast corner of China, after refusing to follow the party line in the wake of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989.
Kuo, a professor of English and writer in residence at Washington State University who taught in Beijing during the spring of 1989 and later as a Senior Fulbright Scholar in Changchun, is able to expose the vagaries and deceptions of this tumultuous era without polemics. There is a morality beyond politics and borders, espoused by a chain-smoking panda bear who criticizes American historians Arthur Schlesinger and Stephen Ambrose as easily as he questions Ge. Using multiple storylines, Kuo reveals Changchun as the least of Ge’s worries. From an estranged wife and son, to an underling officer who still embodies the implacable ambitions of the Cultural Revolution, to short asides in which the absurd historical context of modern Sino-Western relations are exposed, Ge’s disjointed narrative serves as a metaphor for the helpless individual in the face of obdurate global politics, by which governments reserve “the right to expansion and the right to kill everything” in their way, and the calculated mistreatment of animals is a political act.
Panda bears, like diplomats or soldiers, serve as ambassadors for governments less concerned about their personal welfare than their ability to further nationalistic interests. Why are westerners so enamored of these creatures, Kuo seems to ask, as zoo directors beg the Chinese for more bears, and crowds clamor for the chance to gaze upon the black-and-white wonders? Most average Chinese find our fixation with the bears perplexing. Perhaps these fuzzy emissaries serve to settle American misgivings about a foreign nation we are taught to distrust from an early age. The panda bear, recently rescued from near-extinction, now commands six-figure rental fees, with the Chinese government even demanding a percentage of souvenir profits. If history has proven that species die out when their usefulness to humans expires, then the panda’s existence relies on its profit-making abilities and talent for international détente.
There is language of great compassion in Panda Diaries. Besides the infamous images of child armies thrusting Mao’s Little Red Book, or the lone student standing down tanks in the summer of 1989, there are scenes silenced by history’s enormity. When Ge is orphaned as a boy by the Cultural Revolution and exiled to the northern forests, the death of his sickly classmate reminds us of these hidden tragedies. “Let’s not lie about this. That boy inside this deerskin tent is dead. His breathing had stopped in the middle of the night, and Ge could not mirror the motes of vapor rising from him in the morning. He has left his story with us.”
Panda Diaries is a timely novel. Just last year, the gifting of two giant pandas to Taiwan touched off a maelstrom of suspicion and accusations of backroom politicking. If a nation or a people are to be judged by how they treat the most helpless members of their society, then all parties in this global farce need to be held accountable, and all citizens beware. As Kuo succinctly states, “The lord is our shepherd, and were it not for random providence, we could all be sheep and be led away to slaughter.”
– Lee Minh McGuire ’03
McGuire is a lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.