Ruth Harkness and Su Lin: The first panda to leave China

Ruth Harkness holding Su Lin

A baby panda born at the National Zoo in Washington DC has captured the hearts of Americans, who have been voting to decide the name she will be given on Sunday, and watching her every movement via webcam. The country's love affair with pandas began nearly 80 years ago, with the first ever taken from China alive.

American socialite Ruth Harkness was more accustomed to holding a cigarette and a cocktail than a gun - her husband Bill was the explorer.

But after his death in 1936, the 35-year-old New York dress designer made her way to China to fulfil his dream of bringing a giant panda back to the US.

She found a guide to take her through bandit territory into the rugged mountains of central China - a Chinese-American, 22-year-old Quentin Young.

"He was very good-looking," says his niece, Jolly Young King. "I think there was a certain presence about Quentin - he had this slicked-back hair - to me I guess it was more like a movie star."

Quentin Young, Ruth Harkness and a panda

Start Quote

I hope that I can get a baby one... I have nursing bottles, [rubber] nipples and milk”

End Quote Ruth Harkness

Young's brother, Jack, had helped the sons of former US President Theodore Roosevelt to track down a giant panda a few years earlier. They shot it and took the dead animal home.

Harkness was determined to bring one back alive.

She and Young left Shanghai on 26 September 1936 on a steamer, and made their way to Chengdu, where they hired a team of helpers.

"In spite of all efforts to keep down luggage we left in true caravan style. Sixteen bearers, six loads, two chairs, one cook... Quentin and myself," Harkness wrote in one of her many letters to a friend, Perkie, back in the US.

Porters carrying luggage

"I don't know whether it will be humanly possible to get a panda or not, but I feel that if it is, I will. After all my dear, there probably aren't more than three white people who have ever seen one and no-one knows his habits or what he eats, or anything about it," she wrote.

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She went by instinct - they fed the baby every so many hours”

End Quote Jolly Young King

"I hope that I can get a baby one... I have nursing bottles, [rubber] nipples and Dryco milk for him," she wrote.

Over the next two months an affair between Harkness and Young developed.

She was very impressed with him, asking him endless questions about China. Young was keen on her too - to an extent.

"He didn't find her particularly attractive and I don't think it was just because she wasn't Oriental," says King.

"However I think he admired her determination. He could never understand why she carried that typewriter with her all over the place."

Su Lin with Harkness, and being inspected by a doctor Harkness asked a doctor to examine Su Lin when she got back to Shanghai

In early November the expedition reached the bamboo forests - the home of the giant panda.

"We are camped in a beautiful spot - the only level one I can see - the stream in the valley and snow 600 or 700 feet above us. Quentin shot a goral, a sort of sheep, this morning and we had liver of it for tiffin," wrote Harkness.

Three days later, amid reports that there were pandas close by, they heard shouting and confusion in the dense forest, followed by a gunshot.

Then Young found a tiny panda cub nestled in the hollow of a tree.

Panda mania

Two pandas looking at each other
  • Giant pandas are only found in the wild in China - there are fewer than 1,600
  • The name giant panda came from French missionary Armand Pere David, who sent a dead specimen to the Natural History Museum in Paris in 1869
  • The museum declared the panda a "new species" in 1870 sparking worldwide "panda mania"
  • In 1928 Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt, sons of the former president, became the first Americans to kill a panda in China
  • From 1869-1946 more than 200 foreigners went to China in search of pandas
  • Chinese leader Mao Zedong used pandas for international diplomacy and gave a pair to the US in 1972 after President Richard Nixon visited Beijing
  • Source: Science Museums of China

"He had heard a shot right before he found the baby, and his thought was that someone had probably killed the mother but he wasn't sure," says King.

"He put it inside his shirt - the baby - and then they slid back down to take a look at it."

Find out more

Harkness holding Su Lin
  • Jolly Young King spoke to Witness
  • Witness airs weekdays on BBC World Service
  • It tells history through the eyes of people who lived it

Harkness was ecstatic and named the panda Su Lin after Young's sister-in-law. It means "a little bit of something precious".

She kept the baby panda alive as they trekked back through the forest.

"She did have those supplies - the powdered milk. She went by instinct - they fed the baby every so many hours, they made sure it had some sort of fur or something that made it comfortable… the porters took turns carrying the baby in the basket," says King.

At this point Harkness, who had never had children, wrote home to say: "I'm sorry I don't know more about babies... that, at times, I think is the only thing that I have not experienced."

Her next challenge was to get the animal out of China, but when she arrived at the docks in Shanghai, Chinese customs officials confiscated it.

Her ship sailed without her. She stayed in the customs shed with the panda all night until it was released and in the end, Harkness got the animal out of the country listed as a dog.

For several months Su Lin lived in Harkness's apartment in New York, but the plan had always been to sell the animal. Su Lin became the star attraction at Chicago's Brookfield Zoo.

Harkness returned to China the following year and brought back another panda, Mei Mei, who briefly joined Su Lin - but Su Lin died of pneumonia soon afterwards.

Today his body is on display at the Field Museum in Chicago.

Mei Mei died in 1942.

Harkness wrote a book about her adventures, The Lady and the Panda. She died in 1947 at the age of 46.

Photographs courtesy of Jolly Young King. Thanks to Vicki Constantine Croke, author of The Lady and the Panda (2005), for help with this story.

Jolly Young King spoke to Witness - which airs weekdays on BBC World Service radio. You can hear her here.

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