Panda Cub's Birthday Present: A Name

By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The National Zoo's giant panda cub was officially dubbed Tai Shan yesterday and heralded as a symbol -- a very cute symbol -- of friendship between the United States and China.

Tai Shan, pronounced tie shahn and meaning "peaceful mountain," was the favorite in the zoo's online poll offering five choices approved by the China Wildlife Conservation Association. One of three names suggested by the Panda House staff, it garnered about 44 percent of more than 202,000 votes cast.

Until yesterday's announcement, the winning name was a closely kept secret, but at least a few key people were in the know. Friends of the National Zoo, the zoo's support group, immediately began selling plush panda toys with the Tai Shan moniker, and that's just the start of a marketing push.

Tai Shan will not make his public debut until December at the earliest. But there was still plenty of fanfare surrounding his naming. The zoo's new director, John Berry, called for a drumroll and revealed the choice at a ceremony outside the Panda House that also celebrated the cub's landmark 100th day. The event featured costumed dancers and a delegation of Smithsonian Institution and Chinese officials.

"For 14 weeks, millions of people have delighted in watching him," Berry said, referring to a worldwide legion of fans that has monitored the cub on the zoo's 24-hour Web camera since his birth July 9. "We strained to see his tiny body when his mother cradled him in her arms to nurse him. Now he's more than two feet" in length.

Berry described the cub as "healthy and strong," adding, "He's got a lot of spunk in him." Chinese officials noted that Tai Shan is the name of a famous mountain north of the city of Tai'an in Shandong Province in eastern China. They embraced the theme of peace embodied in the choice.

"Giant pandas are a valuable resource in China and also a great gift of China to the world and the United States," Yan Xun, deputy director of China's Conservation Department, said through a translator.

Panda diplomacy was launched at the National Zoo more than 30 years ago. The zoo's first two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, were a gift from the Chinese government in 1972, when China and the United States were trying to improve relations.

Zheng Zeguang, deputy chief of mission at the Chinese Embassy, noted that those pandas entertained the American people and others for two decades. Speaking in English, he declared that the current pair, Tian Tian (t-yen t-yen) and Mei Xiang (may shawng), have created a fresh sense "of pandamanium . . . . All contributed in their very special way to the understanding and friendship between two countries."

John Gibbons, a zoo spokesman, said Tai Shan "is a unique name among pandas. It's also a symbolic name for friendship and kindness."

Among the online voters who liked the name was Elizabeth Botten, 32, of Washington.

"I'm an art historian, and I've looked at a lot of paintings of Chinese mountains. It was a nice image for me," Botten said. She also liked the notion of peace, "especially with all the ills in the world these days."

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