How the Giant Pandas Get Their Names

A look at the process for choosing the official names for panda cubs.

By: Mallory Yu

DC is once again abuzz with “panda mania,” after news of a new panda cub born Sunday night at the National Zoo. The cub’s gender won’t be known for at least a few weeks, as scientists are refraining from a full examination while mother and baby bond—but they have caught glimpses of the cub as mom Mei Xiang cuddles and nurses. Speculation has already begun as to what he or she should be named, with the Twitter hashtag #namethepanda, but that won’t happen for some time. Per Chinese tradition, baby pandas don’t get a formal name until they’re 100 days old.

So in the months to come, the National Zoo will receive a pre-approved list of possibilities from their colleagues at the China Wildlife Conservation Association and will narrow the list down to one possibility with the help of an online poll in which people from around the world can vote for their favorites. In 2005, the zoo held a voting contest to name Mei Xiang’s first cub, and “Tai Shan”—meaning “peaceful mountain”—captured 44 percent of the 200,000 votes. Tai Shan might be his official name, but he’s cemented in the hearts of Washingtonians as Butterstick—so nicknamed for an off-the-cuff comment by a zookeeper that he was “about the size of a stick of butter.”

Meanwhile, the San Diego Zoo is about to begin its own naming process for a panda cub born earlier this year on July 29. From September 17 to 24, the zoo will be taking name submissions at its website, with a few requirements: the name should be in Chinese, written in Pinyin (the system used for transcribing Chinese characters into Latin script). With some collaboration with their Chinese counterparts, the SDZ “panda team” will narrow down the submissions to a short list and put the names up for voting from the public.

In the past, names of panda cubs have had some significance to the cub. Tai Shan could have been named “Hua Sheng” which means both “China Washington” and “magnificent.” “Hua Mei,” the name given to the first panda born in the United States, means “China USA” and signified the relationship between the Chinese and US panda conservation efforts.

The San Diego Zoo has plans to host a formal panda naming ceremony sometime in November. And once the National Zoo’s newest arrival reaches that 100-day milestone, he or she too will receive a name.

What do you think the zoo’s new panda should be named? Let us know in the comments section.

See Also:
Panda Birth Prompts Exuberant Tweeting
YouTube’s Cutest Baby Panda Videos
Pandas in the United States: A Timeline