The giant panda is also known as the panda bear, bamboo bear, or in Chinese as Daxiongmao, the "large bear cat." The scientific name (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) means "black and white cat-footed animal."
The giant panda is believed to have made its first appearance during the late Pliocene or early Pleistocene, perhaps no more than two to three million years ago. Panda fossils have been found in present day Burma, Vietnam, and particularly early in eastern China, as far north as Beijing. In the second century AD the giant panda was a rare and semi-divine animal inside China. In the Han dynasty (206 BC-24 AD) emperor's garden, in the then capital Xian, held nearly 40 rare animal species, of which the panda was the most highly treasured.
The Chinese poet Bai Juyi credited the panda with the mystical powers capable of warding off natural disasters and exorcising evil spirits. Panda skins appear scattered throughout Chinese imperial records, as gifts or tributes on great occasions of states. The giant panda was totally unknown outside the secretive "Middle Kingdom" until the declining Qing Dynasty was slowly forced to open its doors to trade and Christianity towards the end of the 19th century.
Scientists have debated for more than a century whether giant pandas belong to the bear family, the raccoon family, or a separate family of their own. This is because the giant panda and its cousin, the lesser or red panda (Ailurus Fulgens), share many characteristics with both bears and raccoons. Recent DNA analysis indicates that giant pandas are most definetly of the bear species although different enough to be put into its own sub family. The red pandas are more closely related to raccoons. Accordingly, giant pandas are categorized in the bear family (Ursidae) while red pandas are categorized in the raccoon family (Procyonidae).