The name of the cuddly obsession, certain to soon adorn numerous tchotchkes and stimulate the zoo’s gift shop economy, is — Chinese drum roll — Bao Bao. It means “precious” or “treasure” and is pronounced “bough BOUGH.”
More than 123,000 votes came in from around the world, though that was well short of the 200,000 votes cast in 2005 to name Bao Bao’s brother, Tai Shan. Dignitaries unrolled scrolls to reveal the name in Chinese and English following dueling speeches from the U.S. and Chinese first ladies delivered via video.
“Ni hao! And hello,” Michelle Obama said. She stressed the panda caretaking and research partnership between China and the United States, without noting that traditional diplomatic activities remain tense. “So today, we’re thrilled to welcome this little cub — a cub who exemplifies both the common bond between our nations and the brighter future of this magnificent species. That’s a lot for a little bear, but I think she’s up to it.”
Peng Liyuan, China’s first lady, cradled a stuffed animal panda as she spoke.
“Many people love baby pandas as they love their own children,” she said in her native language, according to a transcript, adding, “As ‘living fossils’ that are rare, cuddly, smart and brave, they have captured the heart of the Chinese, Americans, and indeed people all over the world.”
Since Bao Bao’s birth Aug. 23, her daily life has been transmitted around the world — except during the government shutdown — through a popular panda cam, which is sponsored by the Ford Motor Co. Fund. Bao Bao can even be watched on the go via the zoo’s smartphone app, which sells for $1.99.
Bao Bao spent much of Sunday morning lying on her side, appearing either asleep or bored. She occasionally wiggled her toes.
But just before the speeches, as if on cue, a panda-cam monitor on stage showed Bao Bao’s mother, Mei Xiang, going in to cuddle with her. There were many oohs and aahs from the assembled important people in reserved seats and zoogoers crowded in behind them on an elevated platform.
Later, Mei Xiang could be seen pushing her cub across the floor. Bao Bao, who now weighs 11.66 pounds, is taking baby steps toward walking but is still mostly a scooter. Her public debut is set for early next year.
The winning name beat out Ling Hua (darling, delicate flower), Long Yun (Long equals a dragon symbol, Yun equals charming), Mulan (legendary young woman) and Zhen Bao (treasure, valuable).
Just minutes before the announcement, distinct and boisterous name camps formed online. “Hey everyone at the zoo — just start chanting Bao Bao. Please?” wrote @tigerflight on Twitter. This opinion was not shared by @ashleyjtippie, who wrote, “If the name is Bao Bao I’ll be so done.”
Panda obsessors who don’t like the final result, or the choices to begin with, can point fingers at the following name nominators: China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai; Gary Locke, the U.S. ambassador to China, and his family; the panda’s keepers at the zoo; panda keepers at the cub’s future home in China
; and Friends of the National Zoo, who submitted the winning name.
Christie Harper of Derwood, Md., watched the festivities from the platform. She wore a plush panda hat. She is a panda fan of serious dedication, having visited Tai Shan in China.
When the scrolls dropped, Harper was really hoping to see “Ling Hua,” but she’ll live with the results.
“I’m very excited,” she said, “to just have a cub.”