Bèibèi panda

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Bloix asked:

Can someone tell me if the name of the new panda cub, Bei Bei, really means "precious treasure"? If it does, how does that work? Does Bei mean treasure and the duplication is emphasis? Or what?

It's Bèibèi 贝贝, where bèi 贝 means "shellfish, cowrie; money, currency; valuables".

Whoever did the translation was being a little bit free in the way they went about it, and they were probably loosely thinking of Bǎobǎo 宝宝 ("precious precious" –> "precious treasure"), which many children are called when they are babies, and I've known some people who have had that as a nickname for their whole life.

You can't tell from the simplified character bǎo 宝, but the traditional character bǎo 寶 has the cowrie shell prominently incorporated at the bottom.

We also have the very common epithet bǎobèi 宝贝 ("darling; baby; treasure") which combines one bǎo 宝 and one bèi 贝.

Note that there is also a Bao Bao in the giant pandas' compound:

"National Zoo’s giant panda cub is officially named Bei Bei" (9/25/15) — with cute video of the unveiling of the name in characters and in Hanyu Pinyin (sans tones) by the First Lady of China, Peng Liyuan, and the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, with gushing "ooohs" and "aaaahs" from the audience.

And note the use of bǎobǎo 宝宝 in the title of this Chinese article about the momentous event:

"Zhōng-Měi dìyī fūrén gěi xióngmāo bǎobǎo qǐmíng 'Bèibèi' yùyì bǎoguì 中美第一夫人给熊猫宝宝起名'贝贝'寓意宝贵" ("The First Ladies of China and the United States give the precious treasure panda [i.e., panda cub] the name 'Beibei' signifying 'precious'") (9/25/15)

I wonder whether President Xi timed his visit to the United States to coincide with this most auspicious event.


  1. Victor Mair said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 10:28 am

    From a colleague:

    I see they were able to recycle a name from the Friendlies, er, "Fuwa" — the Olympic mascots. But back then the panda was "Jingjing" and Beibei was a … fish or something.


  2. shubert said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 11:13 am

    The head of 寶 ( the former PM Wen Jiabao寶) is used as a radical.

  3. K Chang said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 12:35 pm

    Beibei (the Fuwa) is supposedly has a zodiac of Aquarius, and is a good water sports athlete. Though she's supposedly reincarnated koi.

    (Though the five Fuwa added together is supposed to say 贝晶欢迎妮, i.e. 北京欢迎您 Beijing Welcomes you )

    The recycling is not bad, I guess. They can always point back to the Fuwa explanation.

  4. julie lee said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 1:07 pm

    May I add a further note to Victor Mair's post:

    "Darling" is a good translation for the popular Chinese names "Bao Bao" and "Bei Bei" for babies.

    Doesn't English "dar-" come from "dear" (precious)? That corresponds to "Bao" (precious) and "Bei" (precious).

    Doesn't English "-ling" denote a diminutive? Chinese duplication of characters in names is a way of forming a diminutive. It's like Jimmy, Betty, Bobby, Tommy, etc., except in Chinese it would be Jim Jim, Bett Bett, Bob Bob—that is, Bao Bao, Bei Bei, Ling Ling, etc.

  5. Dave Cragin said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 1:44 pm

    Hi Julie,
    You are right that darling comes from Old English "deorling which was made of deore (dear) + ling. And -ling is "young, small or inferior". (from the American Heritage Dictionary).

    I never thought about the potential relationship of darling to dear until your post.

  6. Bloix said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 2:54 pm

    Thank you!

  7. julie lee said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 3:25 pm

    Hi Dave,
    Good to hear from you. Yes, "darling", which Victor Mair in his post gives as a translation of Bao Bao and Bei Bei, is my favorite translation for the two names. Recently I told a friend that I had an older sister called Bao Bao and Bei Bei (she was first-born), who died at thirteen. This friend, a Caucasian-American asked: "What do Bao Bao and Bei Bei mean?" I said: "They both mean Darling." And she said: "That makes me want to cry."

  8. julie lee said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 3:47 pm

    Hi Dave again, Thanks for the etymology.

    A few other words with "-ling" ending :

    duckling (young duck),
    gosling (young goose),
    hireling (servant, inferior person)

  9. JS said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 8:44 pm

    Yuengling :D

  10. rk said,

    September 27, 2015 @ 1:20 am

    Don't forget ding-a-ling!

  11. David Moser said,

    September 27, 2015 @ 1:25 am

    A picky point, but these duplicative syllable names are usually pronounced with a neutral tone on the second syllable. It would be Bèibei rather than Bèibèi. If I'm not mistaken.

  12. Rubrick said,

    September 27, 2015 @ 4:12 am

    There's also "hurtling", meaning a minor injury or wound, and "curling", an unpleasant puppy.

  13. Rodger C said,

    September 27, 2015 @ 9:15 am

    I haven't heard some of these since I was a boiling.

  14. Mark Mandel said,

    September 27, 2015 @ 10:30 am

    Hmph. Earthlings!

  15. Bloix said,

    September 27, 2015 @ 1:44 pm

    Yuengling (Jüngling) is actually a good example – it's a family name that probably originated as a word meaning youth, young man.

  16. Bloix said,

    September 27, 2015 @ 1:56 pm

    Not to mention my old favorite, gruntling.

  17. Dave Cragin said,

    September 27, 2015 @ 7:43 pm

    Bloix – Thanks! Until your post, I always thought about Yuengling as a just name. I didn't think of it having the "-ling" suffix.

    Until reading the many other posts, I never thought about "-ling" as a suffix. With an alphabet, we usually learn words without thinking about the meaning of each syllable, whereas with a character-based language like Chinese, the meaning(s) of each "syllable" is more obvious because each is also a discrete word.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    September 27, 2015 @ 9:40 pm

    @David Moser

    Excellent that you brought this up!

    I polled a number of native speakers of Mandarin. Here are the results gathered this morning (Sunday a.m. on the East Coast):

    From someone with considerable Mandarin teaching experience:


    From someone with no Mandarin teaching experience:

    I would pronounce 贝贝 in the forth tone, 贝(bei4)贝(bei4), and 宝宝 as the 3rd and 1st tone, 宝(bao3)宝(bao1).

    From a senior Mandarin teacher with decades of experience:

    As a Chinese teacher, I know I probably should pronounce them as 贝贝 bèibei and 宝宝 bǎobao (neutral tone on the second character), but in real life I usually pronounce them as 贝贝 bèibèi and 宝宝 bǎobāo

    From a senior Mandarin teacher with decades of experience:

    I would pronounce them 贝贝 bei4 bei neutral and 宝宝 bao3 bao1

    From another senior Mandarin teacher with decades of experience:

    I will pronounce both words with the duplicated 2nd syllable neutral tone. As for Bei4bei4, when two 4th-tone syllables are linked to one another, the 2nd 4th tone is changed to lower pitch: half 4th tone or neutral tone.

    From another senior Mandarin teacher with decades of experience:

    I will also pronounce 贝贝 bèibei and 宝宝 bǎobao.

    Graduate students:

    贝贝 bèi bei
    宝宝 bǎo bao

    I would pronounce '贝贝' as 'bèi bei',
    and '宝宝' as 'bǎo bao'.

    I would pronounce bei(4)bei(轻声)and bao(3)bao(轻声)

    I would pronounce them bei4bei and bao3bao.
    I would pronounce the second character 轻声. But for the word 宝贝, I would say bao3bei4.

    bei (4) bei (neutral)
    bao (3) bao (1)

    贝贝 is bei(4)bei(without tone or sometimes 4)
    宝宝 is bao(3)bao(without tone)

    Feel the standard is
    貝貝: bèibèi/bei (neutral)

    I've never heard anyone actually pronouncing the second 寶 in its original third tone.

    贝贝(bei4 bei5)
    宝宝(bao3 bao5)

    Most Chinese people pronounce them as the following in daily spoken language:

    寶寶 bao bao (low dipping + high level)
    貝貝 bei bei (high falling + high level)

    Non-native graduate student who is a very advanced Mandarin speaker:

    In my experience, in common conversation it has been pronounced



    VHM: 5 designates neutral tone.

    Several comments on all of this:

    1. Few of the respondents linked up the syllables into a single word as stipulated by the official orthographical rules for Hanyu Pinyin.

    2. The changed second syllable of 宝宝 overrides the tone sandhi on the first syllable; all respondents aver that it remains bǎo and does not change to báo.

    3. Respondents differ as to whether the second syllable of 宝宝 should be first tone or neutral tone.

    4. Respondents differ as to whether the second syllable of 贝贝 should be fourth tone or neutral tone.

    5. Most respondents, especially the younger ones, agree with David (you), who is clearly adhering to the prescribed standard.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    October 2, 2015 @ 7:43 am

    @Dave Cragin

    "…with a character-based language like Chinese, the meaning(s) of each "syllable" is more obvious because each is also a discrete word."

    More like a morpheme, and sometimes (as with morphemes that stretch across two syllables) not even that.

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