How Do You Spell Tie Guan Yin: A Solution to Tea Name Confusion

Some of us on Twitter have been having a discussion today about romanization of Chinese tea names and other tea terminology. It’s a point that's top-of-mind here at the teahouse, as Roy is finishing up his forthcoming book, Great Teas of China, where he chose to title chapters with the pin yin versions of the famous teas (English translations are provided in smaller type). Here’s the statement in Roy’s book that explains his position, which he says “is the only way that makes sense to me”:

With regard to tea names, I have generally elected to represent the names of the teas discussed in the simplified Chinese characters and pin yin romanization of the People’s Republic of China, where most of these teas originate. However, in the case of puerh, I made an exception to follow the spelling convention of the venerable Yunnan Tea Import & Export Corporation, which to this day controls a large share of the market for puerh tea. In any case, it’s important for Western readers to remember that romanization of Chinese characters is only a concern for those who don’t speak Chinese. Everyone involved with tea in China understands tea names and other terminology in the appropriate Chinese characters, and anyone who aspires to communicate in this marketplace must aim to connect their messages to the Chinese language in a direct, consistent, and transparent way.

Without standardization, it becomes almost impossibly confusing to be sure Chinese and non-Chinese speakers are even talking about the same tea. The nightmare example is tie guan yin, which you can find rendered in maybe a dozen different ways. Adding to the complexity, many non-Chinese speakers rely on easily obtained but factually questionable information they find online. A Google search result or two is no substitute for the rigors of actually learning Chinese!

It's vital to remember that unlike Western languages, Chinese isn't phonetic. Characters are the standard of truth, but a given character may be pronounced differently depending on local dialect. When characters are romanized, it's important to use a romanization scheme that's easy for Chinese to connect back to the characters the Latin alphabet is trying to represent.

As global interest in tea is growing, now is the time for those who regularly interact with Chinese producers and merchants to agree on some basic principles and offer a unified solution to questions of spelling and naming. It will help everyone interested in tea to speak the same language so we can focus on the tea itself without having to worry about the nomenclature. On Twitter, fellow teaseller Winnie Yu called many common Western tea terms “still rather colonial” and tweeted, “time to step up and out of 1700s black tea perspective and understand tea from its origin.” We’re on board with that mission and hope Roy’s new book contributes to the clarification.

If you’re looking for a good online source for pin yin tea names, many people use Babelcarp. While the information isn’t bulletproof and is best verified with a Chinese speaker who’s knowledgeable about tea, it’s a good starting point for sifting through an overabundance of conflicting romanizations, translations, misspellings, etc.

UPDATE: Apropos of this discussion, an article from today's New York Times: In Chinatown, Sound of the Future Is Mandarin.