Chia-Wei Hsu at Cabinet Magazine:
Giant pandas are found in the wild only in a few mountain ranges in China, primarily in Sichuan province, which means that China controls the supply of one of the world’s most beloved animals. Pandas became a key component of China’s diplomatic relations beginning in the mid-twentieth century, with the first instance of such “panda diplomacy”—as the practice of offering the bears as the highest official gift came to be called—occurring in 1941 when Madame Chiang Kai-shek and her sister gave a pair of pandas to the United States in gratitude for assisting the country in its war with Japan. This began a tradition that continued through the Cold War to the present day, with the animal playing a vital role in China’s relationship with countries including Taiwan, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom. In 1936, the first living panda arrived in the West. It was brought to the United States illegally by Ruth Elizabeth Harkness, a fashion designer from New York whose husband, William, had died that February in Shanghai while preparing an expedition to capture pandas in Sichuan.