In the annals of fables and folklore, almost every animal carries with it a certain symbolism. The owl is wise, the elephant is known for its memory, the lion is brave is mighty. But what about the meaning of the Panda Bear?

It’s pretty impossible not to love the Giant Panda. They star in Kung Fu movies, they adorn the signage of Chinese bistros, and the live in seclusion among the mighty bamboo forests. The Panda’s status as an endangered species makes them all the more lovable. They even serve as the mascot for the World Wildlife Fund.

What is the deeper meaning of the Panda Bear?

The Giant Panda is a creature of uncommon beauty with an unusual lifestyle. It’s one of a handful of animals that is entirely black and white, like the zebra and the penguin. Being an endangered species also makes it very special. But at Bambu Batu we are especially interested in the Panda because of its special relationship with bamboo.

We’ve already written at great length about the significance of bamboo in Asian mythology and folklore. The myths and legends surrounding bamboo are voluminous.

But today I’d like to look at the meaning of the panda bear and the lessons we might infer, if we just use a little imagination.

Panda as the black and white beauty

The coloration of the Panda Bear makes it easy to recognize and impossible to mistake for any other creature. It has a white body with black limbs. It has a white head with black ears and black eyes. There have no other colors, and no grey areas.

When you think about it, the Panda Bear is a picture perfect embodiment of opposites. They remind me of another symbol of Asian origin, the Yin Yang.

The Yin Yang, like the Panda Bear, illustrates the partnership of black and white, the importance of opposites. It is through the pairs of opposites that we as conscious beings experience and understand the world.

We recognize things as good or bad, hot or cold, wet or dry. We classify things as dead or alive, worldly or divine. We contemplate the future and remember the past.

But it’s in that meeting place between the opposites where things really get interesting. That’s the special dance that the Yin Yang performs, and which the Panda Bear suggests. It’s the magic moment of now, where past and present threaten to overlap.

F. Scott Fitzgerald defines intelligence as “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” That’s precisely the notion portrayed by the Yin Yang and the Panda Bear. Black and white, the opposites, move together in synchronicity, never turning into grey.

Whether it’s merely the nature of our consciousness, or an absolute fact of reality, a concept really cannot exist without its opposite. Light means nothing unless you have darkness to compare it. And you can’t truly feel joy until you’ve experienced sorrow. We need both extremes at once in order to keep the wheel spinning.

The Panda’s exclusive appetite

Metaphorically speaking, what could be the meaning of Panda Bear’s special diet? The creature who displays the opposites so boldly has only one meal in its diet. Panda Bears eat nothing but bamboo, or about 99 percent bamboo.

So how can a Panda understand and appreciate bamboo when it has nothing else to compare it to? That seems to contradict what I said earlier. Maybe it does, but let’s take a closer look at the Panda snacks.

Bamboo, rather like the Panda, is also something of an embodiment of the opposites. Technically a grass, bamboo can grow to be taller than a ten story building, with canes as hard as oak. Yet, because they are hollow, bamboo poles are also very lightweight and remarkably flexible.

Now Panda Bears are obviously neither lightweight nor flexible. But from the way they eat, you’d think they were hollow. Like my son with his hollow leg, who always has room for desert, the Panda always has room for another mouthful of bamboo.

The disadvantages of a bamboo diet

Bamboo is fast growing and abundant in the mountains of Southern and Central China, where the Giant Panda lives. But this is a story about opposites, so let’s consider the downsides of a bamboo diet.

As mentioned above, bamboo stalks can grow to be very woody, as hard as oak. That requires a lot of chewing, and yes, Pandas do have incredibly powerful jaws. But at the end of the day, the Panda has to spend most of its time chewing, just to get enough nutrition. The tender leaves and fresh shoots make for a more easily digestible snack, but there’s only so much of that to go around.

At the other end of the dietary spectrum sits the omnivorous human. Yes, we can eat nearly anything, and that’s one of the secrets to our evolutionary success. It allows us to feed ourselves in virtually any habitat, so that we’ve managed to inhabit nearly every corner of the globe.

The Panda Bear, however, has such a specialized diet that it can’t dare stray outside of the bamboo forests. Should we stop harvesting bamboo then, to protect the Pandas?

Actually, Panda’s only eat a couple varieties of bamboo. They do not eat Moso Bamboo, which is the primary species used for bamboo construction, flooring, clothing and textiles. The loss of Panda Bear habitat has more to do with other types of human activity in China, such as farming, deforestation and construction.

Lessons from the Panda Bears

Panda Bears could mean a lot of things to a lot of people. But we can all agree that they are one of the world’s most adorable animals. Perhaps that has something to do with the black and white markings. There’s something about the coincidence of opposites that the human mind finds very satisfying.

And that’s good news for the Pandas. Thanks to recent conservation efforts, the Giant Panda was recently reclassified from “endangered” to “vulnerable”. If only sharks were so cute, people would probably be doing a lot more to protect them as well.

Further Reading

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PHOTO CREDIT: Panda bear chewing on some bamboo (Unsplash)

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