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.
Posted by Gary D. Robson
A friend of mine stopped by the tea bar the other day. Unlike most tea bar visits from friends, Wanda brought tea in with her. It was a bag of tea from China that a friend had given her. She didn’t know what it was, and she’d had it for five years, so she asked if I’d like to have it.
I cut the bag open and poured out a bit of the tea. It was full rolled leaves; not rolled tightly into balls like Dragon Tears or gunpowder tea, but pretty dense nonetheless. The leaves were hard; dropping them into bowl made a pinging sound. The color was a bit darker than a typical green tea, and the smell reminded me of the Huang Jin Gui oolong we carry at the tea bar.
I brewed a cup — using a bit more tea than I usually would because of the age — and decided it was definitely a oolong, but I couldn’t quite identify it. Good packaging, by the way. Five years old, and it still tasted good.
Here’s where Facebook comes in handy. I took a picture of the large print on the top of the bag (the photo that’s now on this page), posted it on Facebook, and asked if anyone could identify it. Within about 20 minutes, I had my answer: Iron Goddess of Mercy, a lightly oxidized oolong with a unique aroma. After enjoying it for a few days, I started hunting for a good one to carry at the tea bar, and I’m excited to have a fresh batch coming in next week. Given how good the five-year-old stuff at home is, I have a feeling I’m really going to love the fresh tea.
Iron Goddess of Mercy (called “Tae Guan Yin” in Chinese) originated in Anxi, in the Fujian province of China. Today, it is produced in quite a few other areas of China and Taiway. The one we sell at our tea bar is a medium-roasted variety from Nantou, Taiwan. I’ve used the leaves for three infusions without loss of flavor, and I’ve been told they’re good for as many as seven.
The processing of Tae Guan Yin is complex. Traditionally, it follows these steps:
- Picking – usually done early in the day when it is sunny
- Sun drying (“withering”) – Done before sunset the same day as the picking
- Cooling (“cool green”) – Done overnight, along with the tossing
- Tossing (“shake green”)
- Withering/partial oxidation – Done the day after picking
There are several conflicting legends regarding the origin of Iron Goddess of Mercy, all recounted on the Chinese Tea Culture site. Personally, I much prefer the Wei Yin legend. I don’t know that it has any more veracity, but it’s a better story.