Chinese Names: Style and Pronunciation
Here at Spiritwood we have specific rules for how to spell the many names, places, and tea words that we borrow from Chinese. This document is a reference for our spelling system as well as a basic pronunciation guide.
Did you know that the English word Tea comes from the Min language of Southern China? Dutch traders borrowed "Thee" after arriving in Taiwan in 1624. The Mandarin word for tea is cha, and it is Mandarin that most Chinese tea words come to us from.
茶 = chá
Let's look at this word, chá. All Mandarin Chinese words can be phonetically represented in a writing system called Hanyu Pinyin (“hahn oo peen een”). Pinyin is great. Most of the spellings are intuitive for English speakers, its rules are consistent, and it’s already the standard for writing Mandarin Chinese words in English. For example: puer cha, Alishan, huigan, cha qi, and Yixing are all from pinyin.
We use pinyin for spelling, but there is also style to consider.
阿里山 = ā lǐ shān
Should it be written Alishan, A Li Shan, Ali Shan, A li shan, or ALiShan? Also note that 山 shān means mountain. So Mt. Ali, A Li Mountain, etc. are also possible.
Here’s what we decided on for our system:
• Drop accents
ā lǐ shān -> a li shan
• Group “words” by removing spaces. (In the case of names of mountains, include the -shan in the “word”.)
a li shan -> alishan*
• Capitalize the first letter
alishan -> Alishan
*In rare cases, removing the spaces creates ambiguity about the pronunciation. For example
老曼峨 lǎo màn é -> Laomane
This could be lao man e, but it could also be lao ma ne which is pronounced differently. To fix this, we use an apostrophe to delineate man and e: Laoman’e.
Why does pinyin have accents, anyway? It’s because Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language. The accents correspond to the 4 tones (fluctuations in pitch) needed to properly pronounce Mandarin Chinese words. Tones are beyond the scope of this guide, but there is a wealth of resources out there for Chinese learners.
Also note that 烏龍 is wū lóng according to pinyin. In this case, we will go with the established spelling "oolong" instead.
So what should all these words sound like? I want to recite the names of all the famous tea mountains to my cats in my Beijing Opera voice! Of course you do, and without further delay we present the...
Mandarin Pronunciation Guide:
Every sound in Mandarin can be grouped as a beginning sound or ending sound. The beginning sounds are consonants. The ending sounds are basically vowel sounds. Some ending sounds also end with an “n” or “ng”. Let’s take a look:
茶 = chá
The beginning sound is ch, the ending sound is a.
So all we need to know is how each of these sounds should be pronounced, and we’ll be reciting mountains in no time! We’ll see that Chinese has a pretty compact set of phonemes to master. Not all of the sounds exist in English, but those that don’t can be approximated well enough.
•b, p, m, f, d, t, n, l, g, k, and h are pronounced as in English
•j = “j”, q = “ch”, x = “sh”
these three sounds can only be followed by i (“ee”) or ü (“oo”).
•z = “z”, c = “ts”, s = “s”, zh* = “j”, ch = “ch”, sh = “sh”, and r = “r”
these sounds can be followed by many ending sounds, but if the ending sound is i, it’s the “no sound” i, not “ee”
zi = “z”, ci = “ts”, etc.
*The real pronunciations of zh, ch, sh and r are slightly stranger than the approximations I offer above. Standard Mandarin requires the tongue to point up and back when pronouncing these “retroflex” consonants. Try to say “z” with the tip of your tongue back in the middle of the roof of your mouth. That’s zh. Try to say “r” with the tongue there and that’s r. The good news is the Taiwanese accent is to have a lazy tongue and not curl it up at all for those consonants, so saying zh like z makes you sound southern 😎
Ending sounds can attach to a beginning sound, like the a attaching to the ch in our chá example. But an ending sound can also be used to form a syllable independently.
武夷山 = wǔ yí shān
wu is an ending sound pronounced “oo”, and yi is an ending sound pronounced “ee”. So this word is “oo ee shahn”. The only beginning sound in those three syllables is sh
The reason for listing each sound twice below is that they have two spellings for different contexts. Consider uang/wang. The first spelling uang is used if it is attached to a beginning sound. The second spelling wang is used when it appears independently.
黃 huáng (“hwahng”) = h + uang
王 wáng (“wahng”) = wang
uang and wang have the same pronunciation.
•a/a = “ah” like in “law”. 阿里山 ā lǐ shān = “ah lee shahn”
•o/o = “oh” with rounded lips. 抹茶 mǒ chá = “moh chah”
•e/e = “uh” as in “huh”. 合歡山 hé huān shān = “huh hwahn shahn”
•ai/ai = “eye” as in “hi”. 勐海 měng hǎi = “mung hi”
•ei/ei = “ey” like in “hey”. 貴妃烏龍 guì fēi wū lóng = “gway fey oo long”
•ao/ao = “ao” like in “cow”. 老茶 lǎo chá = "lao chah"
•ou/ou = “oh” like in “yo”. 福壽山 fú shòu shān = “foo sho shahn”
•an/an = “ahn” like in “Sean” (an makes a different sound after i or y, see ian). 半岩 bàn yán = “bahn yen”
•en/en = “un” like in “fun”. 文山 wén shān = “one shahn”
•ang/ang = “ahng” like in “song”. 布朗山 bù lǎng shān = “boo lahng shahn”
•eng/eng = “ung” like in “sung”. 翠峰 cuì fēng = “tsway fung”
•i = “no sound” i makes no vowel sound when it follows certain consonants. 紫砂壺 zǐ shā hú = “zz shah hoo”. i makes “nothing” after the following sounds: z, c, s, zh, ch, sh, and r
•i/yi= “ee” like in “we”. 梨山 lí shān = “lee shahn”. i makes “ee” after the following sounds: b, p, m, f, d, t, n, l, j, q, and x
•ia/ya= “yah” like in “yadda yadda”. 下关 xià guān = “shyah gwahn”
•ie/ye= “yay”. 鐵觀音 tiě guān yīn = “tyay gwahn een”
•iao/yao= “yao” like in “yowza”. 正山小種 zhèng shān xiǎo zhǒng = “jung shahn shyao jong”
•iu/you= “yoh” like in “yo”. 秋茶 qiū chá = “chyoh chah”
•ian/yan= “yen” like in “Bunyan”. 岩茶 yán chá = “yen chah”
•in/yin= “een” like in “seen”. 森林 sēn lín = “sun leen”
•iang/yang= “yahng” like “song” changed to “yong”. 密香 mì xiāng = “me shyahng”
•ing/ying= “ing” like in “sing”. 茶餅 chá bǐng = “chah bing”
•u/wu= “oo” like in “Sue”. 茶壺 chá hú = “chah hoo”
•ua/wa= “wah” like in “watch”. 瓜壺 guā hú = “gwah hoo”
•uo/wo = “woh” like in “woe”. 退火 tuì huǒ = “tway hwoh”
•uai/wai= “why”. 場外 chǎng wài = “chahng why”
•ui/wei = “way” like in “sway”. 肉桂 ròu guì= “roh gway”
•uan/wan= “wahn” like in “Obi Won”. 茶碗 chá wǎn = “chah wahn”
•un= “oon” like in “spoon”. 春茶 chūn chá = “choon chah”
•uang/wang= “wahng” like in “Mr. Wong”. 黃觀音 huáng guān yīn = “hwahng gwahn een”
•ong= “ong” as in “song” (but with rounded lips). 東方美人 dōng fāng měi rén = “dong fahng may run”
•ü/yu= *purse your lips and say ee*. This sound is not found in English. Furthermore, as we are dropping accents, ü will become the symbol for the “oo” sound, u. So we’re fudging this one. Just say “oo” for u / yu. 綠茶 lǜchá = “loo chah”
•üe/yue= “way” like in “sway”. 雀舌 què shé = “chway shuh”
•üan/yuan= “when” like in “went”. 來源地 lái yuán dì = “lie when dee”
•ün/yun= “oon” like in “soon”. 岩韻 yán yùn = “yen oon”
•iong/yong= “yong” (with rounded lips). 黑熊 hēi xióng = “hay shyong”
Below is a handy pinyin table. Look up syllable combinations by the beginning/ending sound. The blank tiles are combinations that aren’t used.
(click for big)