Buying, selling, writing, and talking about Chinese tea in the English language can be rather complicated and confusing, owing to uncertainty about the names of teas. The Chinese language is unfamiliar and alien-sounding to most English speakers, although the base-level of cultural awareness of the Chinese language among the general U.S. population has increased dramatically in recent years. One thing that complicates the naming and spelling of teas is the use of different systems of Romanization. The following screenshot of a chart on Wikipedia shows a few common Romanizations of Chinese:
Romanization is the translating of names from one language into the characters of the Roman alphabet, the alphabet used in English and many other Western languages. There are several different systems of Romanization of Chinese, but the most well-known two of these are Pinyin and Wade-Giles.
Wade-Giles Romanization is an old system for transcribing Chinese characters that was developed by Sir Thomas Francis Wade, a British Diplomat, during the mid 19th century. Wade-Giles romanization was the dominant form of Romanization in English speaking countries for most of the 20th century, and was used in an overwhelming majority of books published on China until Pinyin began to be adopted.
Because tea culture was firmly established in the West during this period, many of the Wade-Giles spellings of names of tea, such as Pouchong, stuck, either in their literal form or in closely-related spellings. Other spellings, like Lapsang Souchong and Oolong, are artifacts of some other Romanziation system.
Pinyin is a more modern system of Romanization, which was developed organically, based on building off earlier systems. Zhou Youguang was a Chinese linguist who figured prominently in the development of Pinyin, although many people were involved in its development. Pinyin was created in the 1950's and initially published in 1958, but the system has been revised since then. Pinyin was created with the official support of the government of the People's Republic of China, and the system retains official backing to this day. There are several variants of Pinyin, including Tongyong Pinyin, adopted briefly by the Republic of China (Taiwan), but the differences are slight.
There are compelling advantages to Pinyin over Wade-Giles and other earlier systems, although there are ways in which it is less intuitive as well. Although Chinese pronunciation does not come close to corresponding cleanly in a one-to-one way with any Western Languages, and is hard to map into Roman characters by any means, Pinyin offers several improvements. Some of the sounds beginning with "chi" in Wade-Giles did not correspond well to the Western "ch" sound, and are represented by "ji" in Pinyin, which is a closer match to how English uses the letter "j". Similarly, Wade-Giles' use of the letter "j" could be particularly unintuitive, and has been replaced with "r" in some cases where it is a much better match. One consonant in Pinyin, however, which I find unintuitive is "c", which makes a "ts" sound that was written as "ts" in the old Wade-Giles system. Pinyin also switches the "d" and "t" relative to Wade-Giles, which leads to much confusion, and Pinyin uses separate "b" and "p", using "p" for the aspirated syllable rather than Wade-Giles which used an apostrophe to mark aspiration.
In the tea world, some of the results of these changes are Tung Ting -> Dong Ding or Pai Mu Tan --> Bai Mu Dan, and returning to the three examples above, Pouchong --> Bao Zhong, Lapsang souchong -> Zhengshan xiaozhong, and Oolong --> Wu long.
Barriers to Adopting Pinyin for Tea Names:
In spite of the fact that Pinyin has been widely adopted as the primary means for romanizing the Chinese language in the West (as well as in China), there remain a number of barriers keeping these names from being adopted in the tea world. One of these is the alien-looking spelling of some tea names. Zhengshan xiaozhong is a good example...even some people such as myself who are at least somewhat familiar with the difference between Pinyin and Wade-giles are unlikely to recognize this name as being the name as "Lapsang Souchong" at a brief glance.
Another barrier, in a very specific case, is that the term "Wulong" or "Wu long" has become associated with the fad (and scam) of weight loss teas. Legitimate tea companies thus are forced into making the choice of using the old Wade-giles spelling Oolong, which is widely used in the tea industry and among tea enthusiasts, or using the Pinyin "Wulong", which strongly evokes (and is associated on the internet with) the weight loss fad.
How do I handle romanization?
I've adopted a fairly complex take on how to handle romanization, both in general and on RateTea, where I've taken some effort to standardize how Chinese tea names are handled. I settled on using the most widely accepted spellings, rather than universally preferring one romanization over the other. But because Pinyin has been replacing Wade-giles on a global level, when the two names are used with roughly similar frequencies, I have given a preference to Pinyin. I also make a prominent reference to the Pinyin spelling at the introduction of each RateTea article on specific styles of Chinese tea, even for teas typically referred to in older Romanizations, and I use Pinyin spellings for all provinces and counties of China.
What do you think?
Do you have any opinions or preferences on the romanizations of Chinese tea names? Can you think of any advantages or disadvantages of either system, or any barriers to the adoption of Pinyin in the tea world, beyond those which I have mentioned here? How do you personally handle these differing spellings and romanizations when you talk about Chinese teas?