Literal Mandarin: Animal Names

Did you catch our listicle  about funny English translations for Mandarin food vocabulary?

Here’s a follow-up list on the literal meanings of animal names in Mandarin.

Picture this: A Chinese man encounters an alpaca for the first time, scrutinizes its appearance, and likens it to the love child of a sheep and a camel, hence the alpaca’s Mandarin name, ‘sheep camel.’ While we can’t confirm if the above actually happened, we can kind of see how the name came about.

ALPACA  羊驼 (yángtuó)


Meaning ‘water pig’ in Mandarin, shuǐ tún makes complete sense when taking the capybara’s strong swimming skills into consideration.  Blessed with webbed feet (all the better for doing the breaststroke), the world’s largest living rodent is also incredibly chill, and makes friends with other animals easily.

CAPYBARA 水豚 (shuǐ tún)


Some might think this one’s a bit of a stretch!  While giraffes (Giraffidae) and deers (Cervidae) come from completely different families, chángjǐnglù, the Mandarin word for giraffe, literally translates to ‘long-neck deer.’

GIRAFFE 长颈鹿 (chángjǐnglù)


Called shǔimǔ or ‘water mother’ in China, the jellyfish’s poetic moniker in Mandarin might have something to do with its tentacles, which gives it a ‘skirted’ appearance. Fun fact: In the field of psychology, ‘jellyfish parenting’ refers to a permissive parenting style.

JELLYFISH 水母 shǔimǔ


KANGAROO 袋鼠 dàishǔ


One a handful of animals (mostly marsupials) born with a pouch, the kangaroo is called a dàishǔ or ‘pocket mouse’ in China. That being said, while the average adult house mouse weighs between 0.23 to 0.28 kg, kangaroos can weigh between 18 to 100 kg!

OWL 猫头鹰 (māotóuyīng)


Question: What do cats and owls share in common?  Answer: Both are nocturnal hunters with spectacular night vision. ...which might explain why an owl is called a ‘cat-headed bird’ in Mandarin. We can’t unsee it now.

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