As Germany debates calling its panda twins Hong and Kong, just how do pandas get named?

Crystal Tai

Berlin zoo’s newborn twin panda cubs have attracted a fair deal of attention this week – not so much for their cuteness and for being the first pandas to be born in Germany, but for the naming controversy they are inadvertently embroiled in.

German media suggested the pair – born to Meng Meng, a six-year old panda currently on loan to Germany by China – be named “Hong” and “Kong”, in recognition of the ongoing protests in the city and in criticism of the mainland government.

Calls to name Berlin panda cubs Hong and Kong spark debate

The suggestions drew a wide range of reactions on social media platforms. “The top result is Hong and Kong, followed by Yin and Yang, Ping and Pong. Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow were also suggested,” wrote Twitter user Anthony Yau.

“Can China accept it?” tweeted Chinese journalist and CEO of Caixin Globus Michael Anti in response to the names Hong and Kong.

“Renting pandas for profit is a bit disgusting in the first place, but naming them Hong & Kong would be a cool move indeed,” posted Twitter user Holger Bartel, before adding: “And a huge diplomatic crisis I guess.”

According to The Guardian, the baby pandas technically belong to China, which will likely have the final say on the names and will probably take the pandas back to the country when they are around three or four years old.

Panda Meng-Meng looks at one of her newborn twin cubs. Photo: Reuters

But how do pandas normally get their names?

While most zoos hold contests and polls to select the top names, cubs are not named until they are 100 days old, in accordance with Chinese tradition.

Panda-naming has become such a popular audience pastime that online panda name generators exist to help panda enthusiasts and fans come up with suggestions.

Belgium saw its first pair of panda twins when female panda Hao Hao, living at Pairi Daiza Zoo, gave birth to cubs in August. The “little pink sausages” will have their names selected in the next few months. Meanwhile, Hao Hao’s first cub, Tian Bao or “treasure of heaven” was born to the panda and her mate Xing Hui in 2016. Tian Bao’s name was selected by vote, after beating out other names with 40 per cent of votes.

The panda twins during their first veterinary care at the Berlin zoo. Photo: AFP

Meanwhile in Japan, the birth of Xiang Xiang was a widely-celebrated event in 2017. The name, which means “fragrance” and “popular” in Chinese, was selected after a record-breaking 322,581 suggestions were submitted by members of the public. It emerged that Xiang Xiang was suggested over 5,000 times by people who were only allowed to vote once. The panda will stay in Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo until 2020.

In France, first lady Brigitte Macron notably announced the name “Yuan Meng” – which means “the realisation of a wish” – for the first baby panda born in the country in 2017. The naming ceremony, during which Macron was also named as the cub’s “godmother”, was held at Beauval Zoo near Paris.

And in the US, Bao Bao – whose name means “treasure” and is also a homonym for “baby” in Mandarin – was born in 2013 at the National Zoo in Washington. Her name was selected through a vote on the Smithsonian Institution’s website from a shortlist of five names selected by prominent figures including Chinese ambassador Cui Tiankai and Gary Locke, US ambassador to China at the time.

Another American-born panda Mei Sheng – whose name literally means “born in the USA” – came into the world in 2003 at San Diego Zoo. In his case, the name was selected by the zoo and announced at a media conference when he was 100 days old.

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