What is Romanization?

Romanization refers to the transliteration of any writing system to the Roman alphabet.

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.

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

Most non-English origin words used in the tea industry today were romanized in one of three ways:

  1. They were properly romanized via a standard romanization system
  2. They were romanized using older, non-standard romanization systems
  3. They were haphazardly transliterated by traders before romanization systems were in place, often from local dialects

Chinese, Japanese and Korean are languages made up of characters that represent a mix of ideas and spoken syllables, and we romanize these languages by expressing the spoken syllables with the Roman alphabet (our ABCs). Let’s take 茶 as an example, the Chinese and Japanese character that translates to tea in English: that translation is not an accurate transliteration! The vast majority of Asian cultures do not pronounce the word that way; the Mandarin pronunciation of 茶 in the Roman alphabet is actually cha.

Where then did the word tea come from? 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. That is because there are many dialects of Chinese; te is the pronunciation of 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 while trading in that region, giving us tea. So 茶 translates to tea in English due to bad romanization of a particular dialect in the past, even though the generally accepted transliteration is cha.

Romanization Systems

Most variant spellings you see on tea packages are a result of inconsistent romanization. Even well-known tea brands fail at accurate romanization, and their mistakes make it harder for the average consumer to correctly identify teas. Each country and region has their own challenges regarding romanization, though
it can be most difficult with Chinese names.


The Chinese standard for romanization is Hanyu Pinyin. 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 schoolchildren today, the Modified-Hepburn system is still the recognized standard.

South Korea

Revised Romanization, 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 system and the older Wade-Giles system for Chinese. Here are some of the common words where we still see a lot of Wade-Giles usage:

Hanyu Pinyin


dong ding tung ting
tie guan yin tieh kuan yin
long jing lung ching
gong fu kung fu
Puer Puerh
bi luo chun pi lo chun

Haphazard Transliterations

Even more confusion arises with the prevalence of haphazard transliterations. One of the most common examples of this is the word “oolong,” which in Hanyu Pinyin is “wulong.” Common but incorrect transliterations such as this are unlikely to go away. Here are some other common haphazardly transliterated words that are still prevalent today:


Hanyu Pinyin

souchong xiao zhong
lapsang souchong zheng shan xiao zhong
keemun qimen
oolong wulong
bohea wuyi
pouchong bao zhong
hyson xi chun
tea cha

Helpful Romanization Tools

There are many tools online that can help you with your romanizations, here are some that have helped me in the past:

http://www.chinesetools.eu/tools/zhuyin/ (Simplified Chinese -> Hanyu Pinyin or Wade-Giles)

http://www.mandarintools.com/pyconverter.html (Hanyu Pinyin -> Wade-Giles)

http://babelcarp.org (Chinese Tea Term Lexicon)

http://www.lexilogos.com/keyboard/korean_conversion.htm (Korean -> RR)

http://nihongo.j-talk.com/ (Japanese -> Modernized Hepburn)