What’s in a Name? The Big Bear Cat

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In China, the panda is known today as “daxiaongmao” (大熊猫) which literally translates as “big bear cat”. In English, it is the giant panda bear. However, when looking closely at the Chinese name, one would be forgiven for questioning whether it should not be called Big Cat Bear? Since it is indeed a cat-like-bear….

During the 1930s, the Sichuan Museum held an animal exhibition in which the pandas featured therein were most popular. The museum’s official signage had named the bears, “maoxiong” (猫熊), meaning a bear with cat-like appearance), written in the traditional way; right to left.

However, since around the 1920s, all books, legal documents and newspapers were written in Vernacular Chinese using a national standard, also known as standard or modern, written Chinese. The Chinese journalists who visited the museum exhibit were, as a result, used to reading Chinese headlines left to right and wrongly reported the bears as xiongmao. Media reports at the time were so widely popular that, even some time after it was reported a mistake had been made, xiongmao stuck.

When it was officially named in English, it became known as Panda, a word borrowed from French that is found to be connected to the Nepali word Ponya, which they used to describe their red panda. Before 1901, when it became Panda, the animal was simply known in English as Black and White Cat Footed-Animal.

Throughout Chinese history, the humble bear has been called at least 20 different names, some of which include “spotted bear huaxiong” (花熊) and “bamboo bear zhuxiong” (竹熊).

Despite official writings of its Chinese name in Taiwan; damaoxiong (大猫熊) gained popularity in 1988 and is still used today, with linguists arguing that this version makes the most logic and is more grammatically correct.

Declared an endangered species in the 1980s, it is thought there are only 2,000 Big Cat Bears left in the world today. Mostly found in Western Sichuan province and the surrounding forests, Giant Pandas can also be seen at Nanjing’s Hongshan Zoo.