But What’s in a Name? The Failure of Panda Diplomacy

Taiwan has now officially rejected China’s offer of pandas, the much-famed “goodwill ambassadors” that represent a unique breed of zoological diplomacy in China’s recent past. DC’s National Zoo once boasted of its own, freely given representation of Sino-American friendship that was black and white and fuzzy all over. It is, perhaps, symbolic that Washington now leases its pandas from China, at a rate of $2 million a year for the pair (and a promise to send back any panda cubs once the initial, fund-generating cuddly childhood is behind them).

Taiwan says the problem was its ability to care and provide for the pandas. Having been to one of the candidate zoos in Taipei, I do understand their concerns – a certain sort of anarchy reigns there. I once found a lost zebra wandering about the antelope pen, dazed and clearly as confused as I as to how it got in there. In the heat of the August sun, animals would be lined up in the little shade provided, as if awaiting their commanding officer for inspection.

Then again, having seen panda habitats in China, I will say that Tuan-tuan and Yuan-yuan could do a lot worse than Taipei.

Beyond the Chen Shui-bian quest for Taiwanese identity, I suspect that the real problem with this pair was their names.

Yuan-yuan (圓圓) means round, implying roly-poly loveableness. Tuan-tuan (團團) on the other hand, means unite or reunite. The two were named during a national voting contest in China (see, the Chinese do vote… just not for anything that counts) that involved several newspapers and websites. Suggestions were taken and voters could weigh in on line or through telephone text messages.

Now, I grant that Tuan-tuan is ever-so-slightly more subtle than some of the other suggested names I saw, like one proposal to name the two “Peaceful” (和平) and “Reunification” (統一). “There is only one China and Taiwan is a part of China” must have been deemed too long.

But by far the cleverest suggestion for panda names were “Zhi-ming” (志明) and “Chun-jiao” (春嬌). Beyond being common names in Taiwan, these two are the lead characters in a Taiwanese (Hokkien) language song by the band Mayday (五月天).

When “Zhi-ming and Chun-jiao” (in English, aptly titled “Peter and Mary,” as a recognition that these two names are common, everyman sort of names) first hit the airwaves in 1999, it turned Mayday into something of a sensation. The song was so very Taiwanese – not only because few popular artists sing in the local dialect, but because it spoke directly of the two lovers visiting Danshui (淡水), the northernmost point on the Taipei subway line that includes a boardwalk covered with restaurants and arcades and that is a favorite date spot for young couples.

(As one of the few artists in the world of Mandopop – Mandarin language pop music – to write their own music and play their own instruments – Mayday has since been dubbed by the press the “heavenly band.”)

Since that first major hit, Mayday has put out five albums, a compilation album, untold singles, music videos, concert DVDs – they even played two packed houses in California last year (we won’t discuss how many of these items I own. The number is not small). In short, even with a two year break in 2002-03 to fulfill their mandatory service in the Taiwan military, they are an international sensation. Like all Taiwanese artists courting mainland fans, they demonstrate a fair amount of diplomatic savvy, referring to China in the local term “nei di” (內地), or inland, instead of as a separate entity from Taiwan (but without saying anything to imply Taiwan is not separate). The band sings more songs in Mandarin lately, to reach out to that audience, and carefully refers to their “Taiwanese” songs on the mainland as using the Min-nan hua (閩南話), the language from south Fujian Province from which Taiwanese emerged.

There was a huge scandal a few years back with lead singer Ashin (full name Chen Xin-hong 陳信宏) was thought to be on the roll as a contributing member of the DPP, the party of Chen Shui-bian. As it turned out, his was merely a common name. The band’s bass player diffused the uproar on the mainland by noting than all of the band members take care to stay out of formal politics (though the band did contribute to an album about the President, it was not a campaign related item. President Chen did quite publicly attend the boys’ last concert before their military service), and anyway, every year someone named Chen Xin-hong tests into the National Taiwan University, and we can all have no doubts that it has never been Ashin.

In short, Mayday – like every Taiwanese act with Chinese fans – has to play to its home audience in Taiwan, but take great care not to alarm or offend anyone on the mainland, a bit of diplomacy the leadership in each government could do to study. (I admit, though I appreciate the freedom in the US to spout any political view you like, I sometimes wish my favorite bands would tone down their politicking, as I almost inevitably disagree with them and tire of their uninformed punditry.)

The proposal to make “Zhi-ming” and “Chun-jiao” the pandas’ names emerged no doubt from the whimsy of a fan-girl, but the campaign took off and they became the dark horse candidates. In the final vote, it came in second place – not bad, given the hundreds of millions of votes counted.

During the voting period, certain websites opened places for voters to make campaigns on behalf of their preferred names. The most common (and obviously fairly convincing) argument for Zhu-ming and Chun-jiao was that these names were familiar to the Taiwanese, they would feel local, make the pandas (and presumably, by extension China) feel like a part of Taiwan. Even the (probably twelve or so) people not familiar with the song would hear the names as being Taiwanese.

One Shanghai middle school student wrote her essay as an open letter to the Taiwanese on one of the websites, promoting the names as ones that her friends across the strait could appreciate and accept (from www.sina.com.cn, via forum.maydaymayday.net).

She entitled the essay, “You Over There,” and stressed what she felt were some of the similarities and differences between the two places. People on both sides of the Taiwan Strait work, go to school, see their families, buy snacks at the local convenience store, live in the beautiful nation of China – if separated by a tiny bit of water.

The people in Taiwan are, she suggested, particularly blessed, though. They are blessed because Mayday is from Taiwan. Ashin, Guaishou, Masa, Guanyou, and Shitou wander the streets of Taipei for all to see, they produce their music there, and the people of Taiwan get more concerts and public events with the fantastic five.

But the Taiwanese people are also to be pitied, she noted. Pitied because politics pull them in every direction. During elections, they cannot even hear themselves think for all the candidates yelling “elect me” at them, then they can only shout at their “representatives” that they should “stop causing trouble” (麥來亂 – cleverly, also a recent Mayday song title), but can’t do anything about it. Then, when they turn 20, the Taiwanese have to take the responsibility of voting onto themselves – deciding who will rule and with the wrong choice, suffering. How pitiable are the Taiwanese.

But, she notes, we love you anyway.

Voting on panda names is all good fun, it seems, but voting for government is a miserable burden any true friend would never wish on another. This tells us, no doubt, a little something about the way the concept of representative government is taught in Shanghai. While living in China, people would always tell me that American-style democracy just doesn’t suit the Chinese. I would argue that it seems to suit the Chinese people in Taiwan just fine, and they’d inevitably give me a dark look and claim that Taiwan’s democracy is chaos and a misery for her people. Now, I guess, I know where they learned this idea.

Tuan-tuan and Yuan-yuan will not be heading over to Taiwan any time soon. Taiwan’s democratically elected leadership has ensured against that. Though I’m sure the reasons why are myriad and various, I would suggest that the next time the Chinese people vote to name a bit of public diplomacy, they study the more politic maneuvers of Mayday and opt for subtlety over symbolism.

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