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As cute as a panda

Updated Tuesday, 13th December 2011

To celebrate the arrival of giant pandas Yangguang and Tiantian to Edinburgh Zoo, Dr Qian Kan teaches us how to talk about pandas in Chinese  

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Panda Creative commons image Icon By Darryl Snow via Flickr under Creative Commons license under Creative-Commons license The arrival of pandas Yangguang and Tiantian to Edinburgh Zoo has brought if not a little ray of sunshine, definitely some sweetness to Scotland as their names suggest (Yangguang 阳光,means sunshine and Tiantian 甜甜, means sweety). 

The Chinese word for 'panda' is 熊猫 (xióng māo), which literally means 'bear cat'. Pandas are also known as 大熊猫 (xióng māo), literally 'big bear cat', as in 'giant panda' in English. While giant pandas' bodies look like bears, they have cat-like eyes. Most bears' eyes have round pupils. The exception is the giant panda, whose pupils are vertical slits, like cats' eyes. These unusual eyes inspired the Chinese to call the panda the 'giant cat bear'.

Click below to hear how they are pronounced.

These two characters are quite difficult to write as the first one consists of 14 strokes and the second one of 11 strokes. Let us take the character (xióng, bear) apart. It is made of two parts. The top part is an independent character, which is pronounced néng and it means 'capable' or 'can'. The bottom part is what is known as a radical, which usually gives a hint of the meaning association of the character. The radical is usually associated with fire or high temperature. In order to memorise this character, you can make up a story, for example, a bear is a capable creature that sits on fire! Click on the video below to see how these two characters are drawn stroke by stroke on the L197 Chinese Characters First Steps App, developed by the Open University.

Why have pandas become China’s national symbol? China is the only country in the world where pandas still live and breed - pandas are an endangered species because of the low birth rate and destruction of their natural habitat. Also, Pandas together with Ping-Pong (the Chinese table-tennis team visited the US before China and the US normalised their diplomatic relationship), formed an important part of China’s diplomacy with the West in the 1970s. The well-known term 'panda diplomacy' refers to the practice of giving pandas as political gift or loans of pandas to promote cultural exchanges between China and other countries.

 Do you know?

  • Panda eating bamboo Creative commons image Icon By fortherock via Flickr under Creative Commons license under Creative-Commons license The average weight of a baby panda is 100 to 200 grams. The average weight of an adult panda is around 100 kilos, and that’s why they are often referred to as ‘giant pandas’.
  • A panda’s life span is around 15 years
  • In the world, there are approximately 300 pandas in captivity and 2000 in the wild.
  • An adult panda eats 10 to 15 kilos bamboo every day.
  • Pandas mainly live in the mountain ranges in Sichuan province, central China.

Pandas are cute and much loved by both children and adults. Their black and white colours, and unthreatening temperament make them particularly appealing. If you ever get a chance to see them in the Edinburgh Zoo, a useful Chinese term to learn is the word for 'cute': 可爱 kĕ’ài, which literally means 'may love'. Click below to hear how it is pronounced. 

If you have learnt some Chinese and want to hear a soundtrack from Open University's beginners' Chinese course, here is a phone message left by Amy advising David who is going to China to see giant pandas so you can test your language skills:



大卫,你好! 我是爱米。

听说你就要去中国云南了。我去过那儿,很漂亮。去了云南,你可以去四川看大熊猫。你在中国的时候,可以练习说汉语! 好好玩儿!

Dàwèi, nǐ hǎo! Wŏ shì Àimĭ.

Tīngshuō nǐ jiù yào qù Zhōngguó Yúnnán le. Wǒ qù guò nǎr, hěn piàoliang. Qù le Yúnnán, nǐ kěyǐ qù Sìchuān kàn dà xióngmāo. Nǐ zài Zhōngguó de shíhou, kĕyĭ liànxí shuō hànyǔ! Hǎohāo wánr!

Of course, the cultural importance of pandas is not the only interesting feature of China. Learn more about the beginners' Chinese course at the Open University, and find out more about the L197 App ‘Chinese Character First Steps’.

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