Romanization of Tea Terms

by Tony Gebely 769 views3

Romanization of Tea Terms

Surprisingly little is understood within the tea industry when it comes to the romanization of tea terms. This to me is troubling because confused tea vendors result in confused tea consumers. Because the Chinese have contributed the bulk of tea knowledge to the world, much of the romanization issues surround Modern Standard Chinese, though I’ll touch on Korean and Japanese as well.

Romanization refers to the transliteration of any writing system to the Roman alphabet. It is important to understand the difference between transliteration and translation. Transliteration tells us how to say the other language’s word in our own language. Translation gives us a word in our own language that means the same thing as the other language’s word.

For our purpose here, we’ll be looking into the languages of China, Japan and South Korea. These languages are made up of characters that represent spoken syllables — we romanize these languages by expressing the spoken syllables with the Roman alphabet.

Let’s take 茶 as an example, the Chinese and Japanese character that translates to tea in English. However, the Chinese and Japanese do not pronounce this word like we do, they have a different word for tea. Their word for tea does not exist in English. The way to express their pronunciation of 茶 in the Roman alphabet is cha. So 茶 translates to tea  in English and transliterates to cha using the roman alphabet.

Most words floating around the tea industry today were romanized one of three ways:

  1. They were properly romanized via a standard romanization system (yeah! awesome! woot!)

  2. They were romanized using older, non-standard romanization systems (come on! let’s get up to date now!)

  3. They were haphazardly transliterated by traders before romanization systems were in place, often from local dialects (a major source of confusion!)

So back to our example, 茶, you may notice that a bunch of languages have words for 茶 that sound like cha and a bunch of languages have words for 茶 that sound like tea. Where did the word tea come from? There are many dialects of Chinese, te is the word for cha  in Southern Fujian’s Amoy dialect. It is believed that early Dutch and English tea traders wrote down what they heard in their own language, giving us tea, making tea itself a haphazard transliteration.

Hanyu Pinyin became the international standard for romanization of Modern Standard Chinese in 1982. Prior to 1982, Wade-Giles was the primary method of romanization. Even though Hanyu Pinyin is the de facto standard, there are still many terms that were haphazardly transliterated from local dialects or romanized via the Wade-Giles system still in use today.

Hanyu Pinyin became the national standard for romanization of Modern Standard Chinese in Taiwan in 2009. Because this was a recent decision, Wade-Giles is still very prevalent there.

Though the Kunrei-shiki romanization methods are taught to school children today, the Modified-Hepburn system is still the recognized standard. The fact that Modernized-Hepburn is used by the government for the romanization of passports and road signs is a testament to its prevalence.

South Korea
Revised Romanization of Korean or RR is currently the most popular method of romanization present for Korean.  The RR method is also sometimes called the MCT method which stands for Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Common Tea Terms: Hanyu Pinyin vs. Wade-Giles
A lot of the variance in spelling we see in the tea world can be attributed to the mixed usage of the Hanyu Pinyin and Wade-Giles. Here are some of the common words where we still see a lot of Wade-Giles usage:

Hanyu Pinyin


dong ding


tie guan yin


long jing


gong fu




qing xin


bi luo chun


Haphazard Transliterations of Chinese Tea Terms
Even more confusion arises with the prevalence of haphazard transliterations, some as common as the word “oolong” which in Hanyu Pinyin is “wulong.” Transliterations such as this are unlikely to go away. Here are some of the common haphazardly transliterated words that are still prevalent today:

Haphazard Transliteration

Hanyu Pinyin


xiao zhong

lapsang souchong

zheng shan xiao zhong










xi chun

Getting it Straight
There are many tools online that can help you with your romanizations, here are some that have helped me in the past: (Simplified Chinese -> Hanyu Pinyin or Wade-Giles) (Hanyu Pinyin -> Wade-Giles) (Chinese Tea Term Lexicon) (Korean -> RR) (Japanese -> Modernized Hepburn)

Comments (3)

  1. Chin hsin should be ch’ing hsin in Wade Giles. Lots of Taiwanese pronounce the “ing” final much like “in”.

  2. I was born in mainland China and grew up leanring simplified Chinese. Like most of people I know in China, I can read both simplified and traditional. I can even write a good amount of traditional characters because I took 書法 class when I was young. Everything you write in 書法 is traditional, because the simplified Chinese is just not as beautiful as traditional. I really wish the government can bring back the traditional Chinese, at least in all the printed materials, and use simplified for hand writing only. The simplified Chinese was created to allow a person to write faster, because of reduced number of strokes. However, the origins of the characters are lost. Like, the shape of the character can no longer as intuitively tell you what the meaning of the character is; and it can sometimes cause confusion too as some of the different characters are replaced by one character. For example, 髮 hair), and 發 issue publish) are both 发 now in the simplified Chinese. Now we are in the computer age, where we can type traditional and simplified Chinese equally fast with pinyin. In this case, the advantage of the simplified Chinese having less strokes does not apply anymore. And it’s simply more delightful to look at and read the traditional Chinese characters.

  3. Oh, man. Some of these I recognized the “right” version with the one I’m familiar with and some were way wrong (lapsang soughing‽). I’m glad I didn’t embarrass myself more in Beijing!

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