One legacy of the Nixon Administration that has never ceased to enjoy widespread popularity in America is the tradition of “panda diplomacy,” in which the People’s Republic of China sends giant pandas to the National Zoo, to the delight of visitors of all ages.
This saga began some weeks after President Nixon’s visit to the PRC in 1972, when Chinese leader Mao Zedong sent two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, to the National Zoo. They were the Zoo’s most popular attractions by far until they died in the 1990s, the two oldest pandas to survive in captivity. During their decades in Washington, efforts were made to breed them, but all the offspring died after a few days.

In 2000, the PRC sent two pandas to replace them. Unlike Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, which were gifts to the United States, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are on loan to this country. For five years, the two new animals enjoyed an effective monopoly on American panda-mania.

That changed in 2005, when the black-and-white couple welcomed a son. According to Chinese tradition pandas are not given names until they are 100 days old, so it was not until then that the youngster was christened Tai Shan. But a zoo worker’s remark that the animal, at birth, weighed about as much as an average stick of butter resulted in the nickname by which the panda is far better known.

For the four years since his birth, “Butterstick” has effortlessly projected a charisma unequaled by any other Washington resident, including the current President, and each year on his birthday, thousands descend on the zoo to celebrate, lining up to wait for hours before opening time.

But all good things must, sometime, come to an end, and Tai Shan is no exception. From his birth he belonged to the PRC, under the terms of the agreement which brought his parents to the Zoo, and that nation had the right to ask for his return. This month, the Chinese government asked for his return, and so “Butterstick” must leave the zoo before long, probably at the end of next month. But he’ll be long, long remembered by a city, and a nation, for whom he provided countless hours of fascination and joy. And as he leaves, he has the distinction of being part of a great tradition founded by the two leaders who shook hands in Beijing twenty-seven years ago.