News & Politics

National Zoo Names Giant Panda Cub 67 Days Early

Bei Bei received his name before the traditional 100-day mark. Is he doomed?

Peng Liyuan and First Lady Michelle Obama announce the panda cub's name. Photograph via Smithsonian National Zoo.

In an abrupt shift away from decades of panda-diplomatic protocol Friday, First Lady Michelle Obama and Peng Liyuan, the wife of Chinese Presdient Xi Jinping, announced that the giant panda cub born last month at the National Zoo will be named Bei Bei. The naming decision, which comes well before the traditional 100-day mark upon which pandas raised in captivity are typically named, arrived on the 33rd day of the male cub’s life.

Traditionally, though, panda cubs are not named until they pass 100 days, in keeping with an ancient Chinese custom that is sometimes described as a measure to ward off a lifetime of bad luck.

If Bei Bei is doomed, the first act of misfortune befell most of the panda-gawking public rather than the bear itself, when the National Zoo decided to move up the naming ceremony to coincide with Xi’s and Peng’s state visit. The surprise naming was announced by the zoo on Periscope, a live-streaming video service that Twitter is trying to make a thing. Obama and Peng were joined at the panda exhibit—as two-year-old female panda Bao Bao mosied around behind them—by 15 kindergarten students from Yu-Ying Public Charter School, a Chinese immersion elementary school in DC.

While Bao Bao and the zoo’s previous surviving panda cub, Tai Shan, both received their names after 100 days, spokeswoman Jen Zoon says the waiting period has actually fallen out of style. “Centuries ago it was common for parents to wait 100 days to name their newborn, but parents no longer do that,” she says. Same goes for zoologists in China, who no longer wait to name pandas born in captivity.

And having a state visit from the Chinese president only encouraged the zoo more to push up the naming.

“The importance of the state visit surpassed that of the 100-day mark,” Zoon says.

Obama and Peng chose Bei Bei over Ping Ping, and revealed their choice by unveiling scrolls in Chinese and English. According to the zoo, “Bei Bei” means precious treasure. Many immediately noted the name’s sonic resemblance to “bae,” an acronym used by teens on the internet.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.