Iron Buddha, Iron Goddess of Mercy, Iron Bodhisattva, Tik Goon Yam, Tieguanyin, Tie Guan Yin, Tit Kwon Yin. These are different spellings of the same tea. Of course this same tea can have a huge spectrum in terms of grade, taste and quality but that is a story for another post. This post is all about names. More precisely, it is about translated names of Chinese teas and why there is so much disparity.
This is a common problem for translators of all languages: multiple meanings for the same word. Take for example Dinggu Dafang which would probably be machine translated into something like “Peak Valley Generous”. The “Dafang” in question is actually the name of the inventor which we will look at later. but for now we will focus on the oxymoron “Peak Valley”.
The word “Gu” can mean valley, but in this context, it actually means “Gu Yu” or the harvest rain. Hence it is used to denote the highest grades of Laozhu (name of the mountain) Dafang which are grown near the peak and picked before harvest rain, (20th April), each year.
The Chinese language is character based and hence numerous compound words or phrases are used, which may be different from their individual meanings. Take for example Shuixian- a beloved Minbei oolong cultivar, especially when produced in Wuyishan. Individually the words “Shui” (水) means water and “xian” (仙) means fairy, immortal, or some being to that effect. Hence many tea shops run by non-Chinese speakers would probably translate Shuixian as “Water Immortal”, “Water Sprite” and so forth. However as a compound word, Shuixian refers to the flower known as Narcissus Tazetta, which can also be represented by Sacred Lily, Daffodil or Narcissus.
Color is probably an issue only for half of the readers, namely the gents. You may see “cardinal, crimson, maroon, rose, brick, burgundy, cherry, chestnut, magenta, ad infinitum”, but guys usually see red, literally. Maybe dark red and bright red, but that’s it. In tea names used in green tea, offhand I can think of 绿，碧,翠 and青which if you ask me in isolation would be “green, green, green and green” respectively. As a side note, 青茶, which is another name for oolong tea is often translated as “blue tea” but it looks like dark green to me. For example, 青 is often used to represent the color of grass and no one thinks of grass as “blue” except when it relates to a genre of music.
Geographical or Individual Names
I mentioned this before that I think generally it makes no sense to translate geographical or individual names. While “Northern Capital” makes sense for Beijing, “Broad East” sounds weird for Guangdong or “Repeated Celebration” for Chongqing. For instance, “Biluochun” is commonly translated as “green spires spring,” a “mistake” I too have committed before. However in a couple of texts, it is written that Biluochun was actually so named after Biluo Peak in Dongting Mountain where the tea was first grown. Hence a ‘proper’ translation would be Biluochun or Biluo Spring.
Cultural differences can also affect the elegance of the translation, both ways. Take for example Tie Luo Han, a famous Wuyi Yancha. The most accurate translation for Luo Han is Arhat which is Sankrit for a certain level of enlightenment in Buddhism. Many ethnic Chinese are familiar with this word not because of religion but due to the frequent appearance of the “18 arhats” in various gongfu movies. Of course if you type “arhat” in Microsoft word (English US) which I am doing at this moment, a red squiggly line appears in non-recognition.
I have seen a few translations but I will single out one- “Iron Man”- which depending on the reader would invoke visions of either Ozzy Osbourne or Robert Downey Jr. Not the worst translation around, but one of the (inadvertently) funniest.
If we translate based on sound alone, there is some measure of confusion as well. First reason for this is different dialects. There are numerous local dialects in China, two of the most common among ethnic Chinese immigrants all over the world are Cantonese (including Hong Kong) and Minnan (including Taiwan). Take for example Shuixian, again. In Cantonese it would sound closer to Sui Xin while in Minnan it sounds something like Zui Xian. Even if we based on Mandarin aka Putonghua, the official language, it doesn’t get easier.
The two most common systems are the Wades-Giles systems and Hanyu Pinyin which is used by native Chinese speakers.
Fortunately- at least fortunate, in interest of standardization- Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, and Taiwan adopted Pinyin as the standard for Romanization in 2009. Whereas in Singapore, Pinyin has been in use since the ’80s, so this covers the Chinese majority nations. At least going forward, there is hope for some standardization, at least if all of us Chinese tea vendors can agree on using Pinyin based transliteration.