Posted by Gary D. Robson
In my first day at the 2013 World Tea Expo, I believe I have seen “Tieguanyin” (a wonderful oolong often called “Iron Goddess of Mercy” in English) spelled at least six different ways. In fact, a quick scan of this blog shows that I have spelled it at least three different ways. Tieguanyin, Tie Guanyin, Tae Guan Yin, Ti Kuan Yin, Tie Gwan Yin, Tie Kwun Yin… which one is right?
In reality, none of them are “right.” The name of the tea is Chinese, which is written in Chinese characters. Even in Chinese, there are two different ways to write it (鐵觀音 in traditional Chinese and 铁观音 in simplified Chinese). Some of the sounds in Chinese don’t translate clearly and unambiguously into English, and translations vary over time as well.
How important is it to have a consistent standardized spelling? I think a quick Google experiment will solve that. Let’s try Googling some different spellings and see how many hits we get:
- tieguanyin: 483,000 results
- tie guanyin: 776,000
- tie guan yin: 488,000
- ti kuan yin: 379,000
- tie kwun yin: 1,200,000
- tae guan yin: 39,000
And when I Googled “Iron Goddess of Mercy,” I got 341,000 results.
I’m not sure how much this reflects how common any given spelling is, and how much it reflects how good Google is at guessing what you mean. The Wikipedia entry for Tieguanyin came up as the top result for almost all of those searches, even though the article doesn’t use most of those spellings. How can we expect to reach agreement on the spelling of the name when producers can’t reach agreement on how much to oxidize the tea?
As with most ambiguous names, the best way to handle it is to pick a spelling and stick with it — something I’m still struggling with myself. You’ll never change the rest of the world, but at least you’ll be consistent.