Taiwanese “Panda” = “adnaP”

A friend just came back from Taiwan where he (somehow) met a local bear expert. The man told him:

“On the mainland they call pandas ‘xióng māo’ 熊猫, but here in Taiwan we say ‘māo xióng’ 猫熊.”

Regional differences are common in the Chinese-speaking world (e.g. spoon). But what’s notable about this example is the man’s explanation for why they say “māo xióng” 猫熊 in Taiwan.

He said, “We think the adjective should be first and then the noun second. It’s not a ‘bear cat’. So we call it a ‘cat bear.'”

I’ve often wondered about this little inconsistency in Chinese: sometimes compound words put the noun first (like the mainland word for “panda”), but usually (it seems to me) the noun is second like it would be in English.

For example:


  • yá shuā 牙刷 = toothbrush [tooth brush]


  • xiàn sù 限速 = speed limit [limit speed]

I should clarify: in a language where words can be nouns, verbs, and adjectives all at once, what I’m talking about here is their function. In other words:


  • “It’s a brush. What kind of brush? A tooth brush.”


  • “It’s a speed. What kind of speed? A limit speed.” (seems to break the rule)

And that’s the bear man’s (what kind of man?) point:

  • “It’s a bear. What kind of bear? A cat bear.”

Let’s ignore for a moment what “cat” has to do with pandas, and concede the man his point. But does that mean they also say “speed limit” differently in Taiwan? I would guess not because there is precedent in the language for N + ADJ construction of compound words (even though I’ve stricken through the above red line).

Can anyone:

  • Confirm / deny that “Panda” really is “māo xióng” 猫熊 in Taiwan?
  • Give other examples of either N + ADJ compound words?

The comments section welcomes you.

16 Replies to “Taiwanese “Panda” = “adnaP””

  1. in 限速 would be a verb, not a noun. There are canonical categories for hanzi compounds based on parts of speech. My familiarity is with Japanese so I don’t know if this helps you, but see this Wikipedia page:

    限速 would be of the 補足構造 category (i.e. V+O; 动宾结构 in Chinese?).

    熊猫 and 猫熊 should be the N+N variety of 修飾構造. The difference then I suppose would be whether you consider the panda to be a bear-like cat or a cat-like bear.

  2. I agree with Aaron – in 限速 is a verb, not an adjective. The more I think about, the more logical the Chinese version seems to me, anyway: to say “speed limit” instead of “limited speed” is just a common agreement.

  3. @ Erik

    See the entry on Chinese wikipedia if you can access it (http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%B0%8F%E7%86%8A%E8%B2%93). What first came to mind for me was 小貓熊 / 小熊貓 (corrobary: try typing ‘xmx’ or ‘xxm’ into a predictive chinese IME and see where they come up) but I don’t think I’ve ever heard people talk about red pandas IRL.

    @ 楼主

    I think the “speed limit” example is misleading — though I am a native english speaker, my ‘语感‘ sees speed limit as referring to ‘the upper speed at which you may travel’ (it’s an actual speed not a limit). By the same token 限速 is a ‘limited speed’. Thoughts?

  4. Kaiwen: Yep, saw that article and its mention of 小猫熊 as a possible name for the animal in question but decided not to reference it as its origin is Taiwanese.

  5. @Adam,

    Thanks for that additional example! The MDBG entry doesn’t indicate an regional information.


    I see what you mean (although I didn’t understand the link 🙂 that “limit” there is the verb. I guess that would also explain “yùnchē” 晕车 (V + O) = carsick [sick car].


    First of all, I felt a little flush of pride at being address (for the first time in my life) as the 楼主. Thanks for that. You’ve also got a great point about the number actually being “a maximum speed”. But, in English we use “limit” as a noun and give an adj. in front to say “what kind of limit”. Perhaps I should think of the Chinese as “limited speed”.

    @My Kafkaesque life,

    Great to have a comeback of “both are ok“! I guess we laowai are doomed to never get agreement from everyone 🙂

    (I’m staying out of the Red Panda discussion because I’ve never been comfortable with calling that red raccoon-looking-thing a kind of “panda”)

  6. Reminds me of Mantaro Hashimoto’s Altaic Hypothesis from back in the 1970s and 80s. He was a prolific scholar in Chinese Linguistics who came up with some interesting – and provocative ideas. Quite controversial stuff – the Chinese weren’t too impressed, I seem to recall ^^…

    In his paper “Language Diffusion on the Asian Continent” Hashimoto discussed syntactic differences in some vocabulary items between northern Mandarin and southern Chinese “languages” – Hakka, Min (Taiwanese etc), Yue (Cantonese etc) and a few others. He noted that there were quite a few words that were Modifier + Noun in Mandarin but had the reverse order of Noun + modifier in the south. His hypothesis was that there was a continuum of “Altaicization” where the north had been more influenced by non-Chinese languages belonging to the Altaic family (e.g. Manchu and Mongolian), while the southern Chinese languages had been in contact with Tai languages (such as Thai and a number of related minority languages in Southern China). The Tai languages have N + modifier and the Altaic modifier + N. He had other evidence apart from the vocabulary as well – diffs in tonal systems etc

    It’s been quite a while since I read that stuff – so don’t remember any examples at the moment. A Google search for Mantaro Hashimoto, Altaic/Altaicization should turn up sth though. I expect you’d need access to a library with English language periodicals to get the original papers. The work was mostly published in JCL (Journal of Chinese Linguistics) and Language a few decades ago.

    Most of the modern work that quotes Hashimoto goes off into prehistory of China and some fairly deep theoretical stuff. So, it might not be that easy just to come up with a nice straightforward list of words, I’m afraid…but the following paper gives some interesting data…

    A Critique of the Altaicization Hypothesis

  7. I just realized your bear expert’s explanation is the opposite of what Hashimoto was trying to show.

    Ok…but you don’t account for the difference. So, on the mainland they think a panda is a cat and the Taiwanese (being smarter^^) know that it’s REALLY a bear? (Just kidding – but we need to explain why we find the variants (along with a whole bunch of other data that shows syntactic diffs between the North and South)…wouldn’t you agree?)

  8. This is a bit like the Chinese surname + person’s name where in China the surname comes first but in the West Chinese people often adopt the Western system and call themselves for exampla Jessie Peng
    (A friend of mine)


  9. 熊猫,猫熊,do you know why it’s different?In 1939,a zoo of ChongQing held a animal specimens exhibitionand the panda’s specimen drew people’s attetion the most.and the panda’s sign’s writing was the popular international Chinese and Latin writing,but as Chinese get used to read hanzi from right to leftthat time,so they all misleaded the 猫熊 as 熊猫。after a long time,people all get accustomed to 熊猫。though a Taiwan newspaper came out with a article to clarify the truth,but we just don’t want to change the habit.very by accident,i knew it some days ago,just want to show you this.so,maybe it has nothing to do with the gramma.

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