Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Romanization of Chinese Tea Names: Wade-Giles vs. Pinyin

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:

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 Romanization:

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?


  1. I've been an elementary level Mandarin student for ~8 years now and can read and pronounce words correctly using both Pinyin and Wade-Giles. Like yourself I favor Pinyin when given the choice.

    I really appreciate it when a blog post, book or magazine article adds the actual Chinese Characters in addition to the Romanization.

  2. This is an article I've been waiting for! I've often seen people either ask nicely: "What is the correct English spelling for a certain Chinese tea?" or resolutely tell others off for "incorrect spelling!" However, the spelling was not wrong, it just subscribed to a different system of Romanization, just as you said. Those who fall into the latter category would benefit very much from reading your post here. Well, we all benefit.
    I'm surprised how often there is confusion over "correct" English spellings of non Roman alphabets. There are many languages which struggle to find a good letter/character match. There is usually not just one good answer.
    You mentioned: "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 Western languages use the letter "j"
    That's interesting, but does not apply to the Western language German, where the letter "j" is pronounced quite differently from our "j". More like "y" actually.
    Anyway, all very interesting - I did not know that Pouchong is Bao Zhong. As to Zhengshan xiaozhong, I shall now drop the mundane Lapsang Souchong and astound everyone with my choice of tea. It just sounds so much more "impressive." Yes, it's a tongue in cheek comment. I shall have to write a blog post about that.

  3. Ach, ja! Ich habe diesen Fehler korrigiert. Vielen dank! Wie konnte ich das vergessen?

    Another thing that I wish more books would do is to add tones, when spelling out Chinese names, because just spelling the name is not always enough to be able to communicate it to a native Chinese speaker. I have clumsy Mandarin pronunciation skills, but I'm usually able to communicate words if I know the Pinyin and the tones. Without the tones, however, I'm often unable to communicate it. It would be like telling an English speaker: "Well, the name rhymes with this word."

  4. I don't know anything about Wade-Guile. I remember in my earlier years talking with westerners about tea, I would use English pronunciation for tea names. But after I knew more and more westerner tea geeks, I've found that many people even prefer the hard-to-pronounce pinyin. So I slowly converted all tea names to pinyin in my communication. However, I feel names like "yong xi huo qing" wouldn't make much sense but merely serve as a code.

  5. I find it interesting that you (and others) seem to express that the q's and x's look unnatural. My dad remarked this. I actually think this is one of the reasons I like Pinyin. These sounds do not really correspond directly to anything in English, so having them be a bit "weird" makes me realize that I really need to start hearing them as a unique sound on their own, instead of trying to force them into my mold of the "ch", "j", and "sh" sounds.

    Really, the only thing that strikes me as bizarre is Pinyin's use of "c", but even that, I can understand, because "c" in many languages is redundant with "k" or "s" or both, so it's a bit of a "free letter".

    1. Good analysis. I think the same. Q, X and even C in pinyin are good uses of these letters for sounds that we really don't use in English.

    2. I realise this post is ages old, but the 'c' in pinyin, is almost exactly how the letter 'c' is pronounced in Czech, Slovak, Serbo-Croatian and maybe other Slavic languages.

  6. Thanks for putting this information out. So many people get confused by conflicting romanization systems!

    I’m afraid two of your examples of Wade-Giles are wrong though. What we westerners call “oolong” would be “wulung” in Wade-Giles. I suspect that “oolong” may have been romanized before the Wade-Giles system was codified, but I don’t know this for a fact.

    As for “Lapsang Souchong”, it’s neither Wade-Giles nor Hanyu Pinyin, because both of those systems romanize the northern dialect usually called “Mandarin” that is the increasingly-enforced standard in most of the Chinese-speaking world today. “Lapsang Souchong” is taken from a Fujian dialect (not sure how accurately!)

  7. Thanks, I updated this accordingly! =) I really appreciate the corrections!

  8. I’ve been doing research on Romanization systems an the main argument against some old systems is that they failed because they used an apostrophe to differentiate sounds like P’ei as Bei or K’o as Geo this is not a realistic characterization of the failures of the systems.

    How can a people which uses 40.000 of the most intricate characters in the entire World of which several are Stone age cave paintings in use for as long as time goes back have difficulty using an apostrophe or the most simple diacritical marks. Chinese script uses rules so difficult that western scholars can’t even imagine the most basic forms or our languages, yet the argument against both Wade-Giles (which I admit was the worst Romanization of its time) and McCune-Reischauer is that the apostrophe and the accent-circumflex (ê) creates a Romanization that stresses its users on an ‘’impossible set of characters’’ just because English speaking people never use diacritical marks like é è ĕ ế, doesn’t mean that other people can’t use them, if the apostrophe is the worst character on earth, why do so many people use it in words like ‘’can’t, won’t and doesn’t’’.

    The next time a scholar (whose native language is probably English or Korean) says
    that any Romanization system that uses an apostrophe is an inevitable failed system is an inevitable failed scholar!

    The real reason why Wade-Giles failed was because its makes suffered from Dyscravia (using deliberate incorrect spelling for any sound), Peiking and KwangTung do not sound like BeiJing and GuangDong, Chungking or Nanjing do not sound like ChongQing or Nanking.

    Korean on the other hand has a less accurate Romanization in the South.
    This Romanization is known as Revised-Romanization, it existence is based solely on the fact that South-Korean people are somehow just to lazy to use apostrophes or the accent-circumflex when writing their language in Latin. For example Kim Jong-Il is now spelled Gim Jeong-Il and P’yongYang is now spelled PyeongYang. This Romanization is solely based on the English language not only making Korean a more difficult language for native English speakers who barely understand their own rules both also makes it harder for other Europeans who want to learn the language.

  9. I haven't heard these arguments against other Romanizations, but what you say sounds somewhat plausible.

    I do think, however, that, for an audience of people who are used to using script without diacritical marks or apostrophes that have sound, adding these could be a barrier. However, these things can also be an advantage: one problem with simple systems like Pinyin is that certain sounds (like "c", "r", even "j", "zh", etc.) are typically interpreted in certain ways in other languages, and yet the pronunciation in Chinese can be radically different. So, "cao" really sounds more like "tsao".

    It's pretty complex though, I think your comment gets at the fact that there are different purposes going on here, ones that are sometimes conflicting--there is the purpose of helping non-native speakers speak the language, and the purpose of giving native speakers a simple way to write the language in Roman characters.