Tea names transliterated from the Chinese can be confusing, and lead to many different ideas on pronunciation.

David Duckler, founder of Verdant Tea, is also a translator of Chinese fiction and poetry, and names teas according to the principles of translation.  First and foremost, the goal is to communicate the same feeling and and information that a Chinese speaker would understand when hearing the name of a tea.  Sometimes, a tea’s name is clearly tied to a literal meaning that must be explained.  For example, if a sheng pu’er’s name indicated that it was stone pressed, or wild arbor, that is important information to convey in English.

However, some tea names are related to a place or company, like Yongming, that can not be easily translated, or is not perceived in its literal meaning.  In Chinese, if somebody says Yongming, you hear it as a sound, not as the literal meaning of “Eternal Brightness.”  Just like, in English, you could visit Verdant Tea headquarters in Minneapolis and simply hear Minneapolis without thinking “Lake City.”  In these cases, we try not to translate the name, but to simply use the transliteration.  We take it on a case by case basis, with the goal of conveying the most meaning without falling into the orientalist trappings of naming teas “Buddha’s supreme delight seven dragons of brightness” and the like.  It simply gets ridiculous.

This is where Pinyin comes in.  Our collection has a lot of teas with very difficult to pronounce names.  We spell them all using Pinyin, which is the system of transliteration accepted in China today.  In the past, people used Wades Giles, which is rather outdated today.  If you see Pouchong, that is an outdated transliteration of Baozhong.  Tung Ting would be Dong Ding, Lung Ching would be Longjing.  Many Westerners complain that Pinyin is more difficult to pronounce than Wades-Giles.  We think that Pinyin is more respectful and faithful to the Chinese tradition, and have chosen to adopt it exclusively.

We thought a short guide on how to pronounce tea terminology using Pinyin would be helpful.

First, the vowels- In Chinese, basically every vowel has only one pronunciation, making it much easier to learn:

a: “ah,” as in draw.
o: “oh” as in low.
i: “ee” as in she.
u: “ooh” as in two.
v: similar to the french umlaut.  Imagine a Minnesota exclaiming “Oooh!”  Something between ooh and ee.
ai: “eye”
e: “uh,” as in look.
ei: “‘ey” as in “hey”
ao: “ow”
ou: similar to “low”
ua: close to “wa” if you take out about half the “w”
uo: close to “woah” if you take out about half the “w”
uai: close to “why” if you take out about half the “w”
ia: “yah”
ie: “yeh”
iao: “yow”
iu: “you”

There are a few exceptions to these vowels, like “i” in “zi” and “ri,” but it is a great general guide.

Now to the consonants.  We aren’t covering the ones that are the same in Chinese and English, like B, P, K, and other hard sounds.  We are only describing the ones that are difficult.

z: close to our “z” sound but a bit softer.  Try making the sound while holding a piece of paper up to your mouth.  The air you let out shouldn’t move the paper.


c: This is one of the hard ones.  It is somewhere between “t” and “s,” moving softly from the harder t sound straight into the s.  It isn’t quite the “it’s” sound, but it is really close if you soften that a bit.

zh: very close to our “j,” as in job.

ch: very close to our “ch” as in chalk.

r:  Another hard one.  Start with a j sound and move towards r.  It is a combination of the two consonants.

j: Start with a “ch” and move towards “j.”  The right sound is in the middle of that transition.

q: Start with a “k” and move toawrds “ch.” the q is a softer sound in the middle of that transition.

x: Start with an s and move towards an “sh.”

Note: some of the hardest consonants like r, and q are really best learned listening to a recording and trying to mimic it.  This guide is no substitute for practice and repetition with a native speaker, but rather meant as a quick reference for the purposes of tea.

Tea example pronunciation:

Huang Zhi Xiang: (hwahng jer s’shyahng)

Laoshan (laow shahn)

Xingyang: (s’shing yahng)

Tieguanyin: (tee-eh gwahn yihn)

Dancong: (dahn tsohng)

sheng: (sh’uhng)