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Know Your Lore: The mysteries of the pandaren

Matthew Rossi

The World of Warcraft is an expansive universe. You're playing the game, you're fighting the bosses, you know the how -- but do you know the why? Each week, Matthew Rossi and Anne Stickney make sure you Know Your Lore by covering the history of the story behind World of Warcraft.

What do we actually know about the pandaren? We simultaneously know a great deal and very little about them. Even now that we've passed through the mists that once veiled their homeland from the rest of Azeroth and explored these lands, we are far from knowing everything about them. We know they helped overthrow the mogu who once ruled their continent, but while we know the origins of the saurok, the grummles, and the jinyu (and to a degree even the origins of the mogu) we do not know if the pandaren are a natively evolved race or one uplifted by the waters of the Vale of Eternal Blossoms, or even one forced to change by the mogu. We know they existed in other parts of Azeroth - there were feral pandaren in Northrend, after all - but how closely related the pandaren are to other similar races like the furbolg of Northrend and Kalimdor is also unknown.

We know of how the last Emperor, Shaohao defeated the Sha and his own emotions to prepare to defend all of Pandaria against the Sundering, but we know little of what the Pandaren Empire itself was like before Shaohao vanished into the same mists that have but recently parted. The pandaren of today, both the ones of the Wandering Isle and the ones on Pandaria itself, seem to exist in a stasis, neither stagnating nor changing very much for thousands of years. We know them, and yet we do not know them. Furthermore, their very land seems to force the pandaren to be somewhat inscrutable - a continent infested by the Sha causes its people to behave in a specific way, thus skewing our impressions of them.

Know Your Lore The mysteries of the pandaren
One of the most interesting aspects of pandaren culture is its rooting in opposites. If you travel the breadth of Pandaria today, you will find many pandaren living settled lives as farmers, villagers, homesteaders. Even with the great temple monasteries, the majority of pandaren are farmers and settlers. Towns like Halfhill and settlements like Binan and Dawn's Blossom serve for cultivators to bring their goods to market. There's a great pastoral feeling to the pandaren, but it is hardly all there is to them. Between the pressures of the mantid and yaungol attempting to breach the Serpent's Spine and the danger of the Sha, the pandaren must maintain the ability to fight. Their monastic tradition is one that concentrates on the unity of body and mind, and they also maintain warriors ready and able to bring war to their opponents.

Furthermore, the pandaren also maintain a desire for adventure and exploration. Not many pandaren seek to see the world, but enough did over the years to populate the back of the vast sea turtle Shen-Zin Su, who himself hatches on the beaches of Pandaria's Krasarang Wilds. Befriended by Liu Lang, this great turtle first served as the pandaren explorer's path out to the wider world, and later as the home for a colony founded by the disciples of Liu Lang. In so doing, they unconsciously mirrored their ancestors in creating a colony at once like and unlike Pandaria, a tiny microcosm of the larger land. Liu Lang's spiritual descendants are themselves now as settled as he himself was, yet still from the Wandering Isle come explorers gripped by the urge to see the greater world.

It's this dichotomy between wanderlust and the desire for settled, orderly lives that has me wondering about the pandaren as a whole. Was Shen-zin Su the only such excursion, or did other pandaren leave their mist shrouded continent? We know that before Liu Lang's return five years after his first trip, the people of Pandaria believed the outside world had been utterly destroyed. Indeed, his own people thought Liu Lang addled for attempting to explore the outside world, since it was so clearly not there anymore. It was only when he returned with his tales of places he'd seen and visited that his people began to believe there was a world to explore at all. This, however, leads one to several questions. How long was it from the raising of the mists to the first trip out by Liu Lang? Did anyone else make such a journey?

I mentioned before the feral pandaren of Northrend. There's also a gigantic pandaren found in the Barrow Den where Illidan was imprisoned, but he could have been imprisoned there after the Sundering. The problem we have here is the same problem I mentioned before - despite appearances, we don't actually know much at all about the pandaren as a people. Why were there feral pandaren in Northrend, and what happened to them in the past ten years? For that matter, how did they get there in the first place? How did Garithos get pandaren to serve in his military forces? Did he somehow get them from the ruins of Dalaran, perhaps through a portal of some kind? You could of course argue that these were just easter eggs in a game released almost a decade ago, of course, but where's the fun in that? Granted, I'm also ignoring that Garithos had red dragons working for him, but I will get to that down the road. For now, back to pandaren.

There's a period of about two thousand years after the fall of the mogu where the pandaren ruled the lands today called Pandaria. They sent emissaries into night elf lands (going so far to send their elven neighbors an empty box containing 'all the arcane magic they would ever need') and it's unlikely that their racial wanderlust began after the Sundering. Those feral pandaren in Northrend had to come from somewhere. We know so little of the pandaren in that period between the fall of the mogu and Shaohao's self-sacrifice that it's easy to forget that it lasted for two thousand years at least. That's a lot of time. We also don't know if there were pandaren outside of those lands before the rise of the mogu that enslaved them. Because we don't know the origin of the pandaren, it's possible they predated that time. Interestingly, we don't even know if there is actually a connection between the pandaren and the furbolg. Yes, that's correct - we have two races of bear men in the World of Warcraft and we have no idea if they're related or not!

Know Your Lore The mysteries of the pandaren

This isn't a Tinfoil Hat post (expect one) but rather an exploration of how interesting the pandaren blind spot is. Even the Lorewalkers, a group dedicated to the history of their land, do not tell you where the pandaren come from, where they've been, if they were made - or just happened. Even the tauren have stories about where they come from. If the pandaren do, they haven't shared them with us.

Next week, we start tying these threads together. What are the pandaren hiding?

While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.

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