Armand David “discovered” the giant panda.

The scare quotes are there because of course the Chinese knew about this animal before David rocked up in Sichuan in 1869. But they didn’t know much. As far as most panda authorities are concerned, the Chinese have not developed a desire for skinning pandas, a taste for its flesh or a medicinal lust for panda penis. Few people wrote about the panda (see Hunting pandas) and even fewer thought about drawing it.

So it was French missionary David, collecting specimens on behalf of the Museum d’Histore Naturelle in Paris, who really put the panda on the map. And David’s story is therefore a good place to start my book on the parallel paths that pandas and China took towards global domination.

Of course, David gets a mention in just about every article, book or broadcast on giant pandas. But the things that get said are always the same. This is because there’s just one main source with which to retrace his steps, his wonderful diaries. Between 1866 and 1874, David made three expeditions into the heart of China in search of natural history treasures and he filled pages with details of his colourful adventures. It was on the second of these trips that he “discovered” the panda.

The entries in his diary are well worth quoting from. I have just acquired a second-hand copy of a translation of David’s first and second expedition diaries from Amazon at a pretty good price. It’s so nice to have the books to hand when writing as I find myself needing to go back to them many, many times. But beyond the diaries, I’m also trying to think of ways to inject this somewhat well-worn story with a burst of originality.

Here are my ideas so far:

  • I thought I’d begin with a little narrative non-fiction. One kind reviewer of my first book Lonesome George praised my use of this literary style, which was the first I’d heard of it. I guess it’s something I just do naturally – take a few established facts and then write them like a novel (though if you asked how that’s done I couldn’t tell you). So I’ll have dear ol’ Armand scratching his armpit, rearranging his ethnic garb and politely swallowing some dishwater-flavoured tea in the home of a local landowner, a hut halfway up a mountain where he first saw the skin of the “famous black-and-white bear” in March 1869. This will be fun and should bring a bit more colour – albeit imagined colour – to the “discovery” of the panda.
  • I am planning a trip to France to see the actual specimen – the type specimen on which the scientific description of the species is based – that David collected and posted back to his man in Paris Alphonse Milne-Edwards. That’ll give me a chance to flip from the past to the present and then back again, adding to the drama and importance of the discovery. I am just about to begin my gentle approach on the curators at the museum, sounding out the possibility of visiting this natural history treasure.
  • I discover that in August this year, some 20 hikers set out on a 10-day, 350-km climb from Chengdu to the Ya’an Bifengxia Breeding Base, retracing the route that David took to “discover” his panda exactly 140 years ago. I wish I’d known about this expedition; I’d have loved to have been a part of it. Though I’ve missed it, interviewing someone who didn’t would, I think, be a lovely new angle to the David story. What was the journey like, what sorts of wildlife did they see, how much do they think things have changed? From a Xinhua news report on the expedition, I have the names of three hikers: Liu Wanying from Beijing, Zhu Tong from Hubei and Li Guoqing from Y’an. Using a cunning combination of the internet, Facebook and Twitter, I think I may have identified one of them. Don’t laugh. China’s population is only 1.3 billion. I fired off an email last night.

I have a few other ideas of things to weave into this chapter, but if you have a snip of underreported David-related gossip I’d love to hear it.

New life to an old history