They were superstars the moment they arrived. Accompanied by their very own bodyguards, they stepped out of green lacquered crates to greet thousands of adoring fans. Two roly-poly pandas — gifts from the Chinese government after President Nixon's goodwill visit — took to their new home at the National Zoo and took the national center stage on April 16, 1972.
Newspaper headlines shrieked sheer "panda-monium" as 20,000 zoo visitors stood in long snaking lines, snarling traffic to sneak a peek at the cuddly black-and-white pair: "a darling girl" named Ling-Ling and a "shining star" named Hsing-Hsing. And so for more than two decades, Washington, D.C., and the nation maintained a love affair with China's cutest ambassadors of peace and goodwill.
In any lasting relationship, there are times of joy and sorrow and so it was with Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. They brought us laughter — Ling-Ling put on quite a show from day one, batting her paws, rolling over and jumping on a log pile to the delight of her fans. They brought us comic relief — Hsing-Hsing, in his early years, attempted to mate with Ling-Ling's ear, wrist and foot.
Mating for Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing took on soap-opera-drama proportions. The initial mating attempt was made in 1976 and at first, neither seemed to be in the mood. Zoo officials tried artificial insemination and later introduced a British panda fellow to Ling-Ling, a meeting that soon turned hostile. When mating between Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing was finally successful (Ling-Ling gave birth to five cubs between 1983 and 1989), the baby pandas did not survive past infancy, leaving America heartbroken.
But nothing was more heart-wrenching than actually losing the fuzzy pair. An entire nation grieved at the passing of the nation's pandas — first Ling-Ling in 1992 to heart failure and then Hsing-Hsing in 1999 to kidney failure. Schoolchildren expressed their sorrow in color and crayon, showering the National Zoo with letters and artwork.
For pandas, they lived to a ripe old age. Ling-Ling was 23 when she died and Hsing-Hsing was 28. Most wild pandas rarely make it to 20. They even outlasted five presidents — Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush.
There is no doubt that Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were legends in their time. In 2000 came a new pair of pandas. Is Mei Xiang (pronounced may-SHONG) as sweet as a "beautiful fragrance?" Has Tian Tian (pronounced t-YEN t-YEN) given "more and more" of the panda antics the National Zoo has been missing? The pandas from Wolong, China, had some big paws to fill. See how they stacked up, along with their panda cub, Tai Shan.