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Birthday party of firsts for panda

By Chen Weihua in Washington | China Daily USA | Updated: 2016-08-22 10:49

DC-based Bei Bei gets wishes on 1st birthday from first ladies of China, US

Bei Bei, the giant panda cub at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, had a very special first birthday party on Aug 20.

The first ladies of China and the United States both sent their greetings. China's first lady Peng Liyuan said she was sending greetings from China, the hometown of pandas a world away.

"The giant panda is China's national treasure. Bei Bei's birth was the fruit of collaboration between China and the US and a strong symbol of our friendship," Peng wrote in a message read by Chinese ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai at a birthday celebration in the zoo's panda yard.

In September 2015, Peng and US first lady Michelle Obama visited the zoo and named the new-born panda cub Bei Bei, meaning "precious one" in Chinese.

Peng expressed her appreciation to the staff of the National Zoo for taking such good care of Bei Bei and to all American friends who love and cherish pandas.

Michelle Obama tweeted in the early morning, saying: "Today we celebrate the National Zoo's 'precious treasure' as he turns one year old. Happy birthday, Bei Bei!"

The zoo and the Chinese embassy held a special zhuazhou ceremony, a traditional ritual to honor a baby's first birthday that dates back to the Song Dynasty about 1,000 years ago and involves choices to foretell a child's future.

Three banners, with drawings and calligraphy symbolizing long life, health and habitat, luck and friendship, were placed in Bei Bei's yard. The artworks were created by children of Chinese diplomats in Washington. Panda keepers doused the poles of the banners with honey to get Bei Bei's attention.

 Birthday party of firsts for panda

Mei Xiang takes a taste of her son Bei Bei's first birthday cake on Aug 20 at the Smithsonian National Zoo. Provided to China Daily

Bei Bei appeared to be in good spirits when he strolled into the yard, but climbed a tree far from the banners and hung out despite the keepers' efforts to nudge him toward the banners.

Finally, it was the mother, Mei Xiang, who did Bei Bei's zhuazhou for him. She picked the banner of "luck and friendship," then moved to the next of "health and habitat".

Laurie Thompson, panda keeper and biologist at the National Zoo, said they had been trying to train Bei Bei to go out into the yard in past days, adding that Bei Bei feels more comfortable when his mother is out there too.

There was a line of hundreds waiting along the Asia Trail to get a look at Bei Bei on his first birthday.

Suzy Johnson, wearing a red T-shirt with the words "Happy Birthday, Bei Bei", said she had tweeted about Bei Bei's birthday that morning.

Like many of the visitors on Saturday, Johnson has been a panda fan for a long time. She said that back in the 1970s, her mother took her to see Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling, the first pair of pandas to come to the US after President Richard Nixon's historic trip to China in 1972.

Johnson said she was devastated when Mei Xiang lost her baby in 2012 after being pregnant for a few days, but the next year Bao Bao was born.

"We love Bao Bao, everybody loves Bao Bao. And Bei Bei was born and everybody loves him too," Johnson said. "He's got a different personality, a very easygoing guy,"

"We love the pandas, they are very peaceful. It's all about peace and friendship and love. The world can use a lot more of that," she said.

It is a birthday week for the pandas at the zoo. Bei Bei's birthday was actually on Aug 22. His elder sister, Bao Bao, will turn 3 on Aug 23, while his father, Tian Tian, will be 19 on Aug 27. Mother Mei Xiang celebrated her 18th birthday on July 22 with an ice cake.

Chefs at the Chinese embassy prepared dandan noodles for guests on Saturday. The noodles originated in Sichuan province, home of the giant pandas. T-shirts, postcards, pins with birthday greetings to Bei Bei were made available to visitors.

Ambassador Cui said that preserving the giant panda mirrors the cooperation between China and the US and reflects the concerted efforts by the two countries to protect endangered species and natural habitat and fight climate change.

Dennis Kelly, the zoo's director, said the two countries have conducted good cooperation in preserving giant pandas, calling them important bridges of US-China friendship.

Under the current loan agreement, giant panda cubs born outside China also belong to China. Thompson, the panda keeper, said it will be hard for them to see the panda cubs leave the zoo when they are 4 years old, as the agreement stipulates.

"We know from the time they are born, they are going to go to China. We try to prepare ourselves," she said.

"The good thing is that we compare it to being just like sending your child to college," she said.

Thompson said they are giving the panda cubs all the tools needed to be an adult.

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