Literary names for Chinese provinces.

Chinese tea names can be difficult for English-speaking tea drinkers.  Mandarin characters are too thorny for our brains to grab hold of.  But the most common alternative, unaccented pinyin, can be worse.  If I write 茶, there is no question I am talking about “tea.”  But imagine I write “cha.”  Tea drinkers will probably guess what I’m referring to, and others will feel like they have something that can be looked up in a dictionary.  Instead, they will still be lost: did I mean “to be surprised,” “inferior,” or “a fork”?  Chinese is a tonal language, so accents or numbers must be used to convey tone information; otherwise, there can be too many possible translations for any romanized word.

I doubt the universe of Chinese tea manufacturers, sellers, and enthusiasts will be persuaded by this blog post to add tonal information to their pinyin.  Tea drinkers will continue to grapple with unaccented, non-standardized romanizations for the foreseeable future.  So the alternative–as preface to learning the entire Chinese language, of course–is to build a vocabulary of tea-related words.  These can serve as possible points-of-entry into pinyin whose meaning is otherwise impenetrable.

Take the tea known as “dian hong.”  To reiterate, this phrase does not convey enough meaning to be reliably interpreted by a Chinese speaker.  (Does it mean “flood of electricity”? “Cushion horseplay”?)  The savvy tea-drinker knows that 红, or hóng, means “red,” so we could be talking about an oxidized tea.  (What Westerners call “black tea,” Chinese call “red tea.”  What Chinese call “black tea” puts Western “black tea” to shame.)

That leaves us with “dian,” which brings me to the point of this post.  In this case it’s 滇, or diān, which is a literary name for Yunnan province.  It comes from the Dian Kingdom, which occupied what is now northern Yunnan from the 5th to the 2nd centuries BCE.  I thought there was a list of these evocative nicknames for Chinese provinces–which are sometimes used in tea names–at the excellent blog Cha Dao.  But the post, about high-quality black tea, was much less complete in its treatment of these province names than I remembered.  So I am forced to create my own table below.  (As a starting point, I found “The Chinese Reader’s Manual: A Handbook of Biographical, Historical, Mythological, and General Literary Reference,” by William Frederick Mayers, 1874.  Musty goodness!) You can see that many of the alternate names are simple abbreviations, but a good number refer to peoples and kingdoms that occupied the same area long ago.  If you click on the link for each nickname, it will take you to a page that explains the name’s origins.  I decided it would be easier–and more interesting–to include all of China’s provinces, provincial-level municipalities, and special regions; so it’s up to you to select those that are relevant for your (tea) purposes.  If you see “Ji” on a packet of tea, and you assume it is from chilly Jilin, I will not be responsible.


Of course, for those of you with the internet at your fingertips, the best way to decipher a pinyin tea phrase is consulting the redoubtable  But that would be too easy.

安徽 Ānhuī (Province)

皖 Wǎn

北京 Běijīng (Municipality)

京 Jīng

重庆 Chóngqìng (Municipality)

渝 Yú

福建 Fújiàn (Province)

闽 Mǐn

甘肃 Gānsù (Province)

甘 Gān

广东 Guǎngdōng (Province)

粤 Yuè

广西 Guǎngxī (Autonomous Region)

桂 Guì

贵州 Gùizhōu (Province)

黔 Qián

海南 Hǎinán (Province)

琼 Qióng

河北 Héběi (Province)

冀 Jì

黑龙江 Hēilóngjiāng (Province)

黑 Hēi

河南 Hénán (Province)

豫 Yù

香港 Xiānggǎng (Administrative Region)

aka Hong Kong

港 Gǎng

湖北 Húběi (Province)

鄂 È

湖南 Húnán (Province)

湘 Xiāng

內蒙古 Nèi Měnggǔ (Autonomous Region)

aka Inner Mongolia

蒙 Měng

江苏 Jiāngsū (Province)

苏 Sū or
吳 Wú

江西 Jiāngxī (Province)

赣 Gàn

吉林 Jílín (Province)

吉 Jí

辽宁 Liáoníng (Province)

辽 Liáo

澳门 Àomén (Administrative Region)

aka Macau

澳 Ào

宁夏 Níngxià (Autonomous Region)

宁 Níng

青海 Qīnghǎi (Province)

青 Qīng

陕西 Shǎnxī (Province) aka Shaanxi

陕 Shǎn

山东 Shāndōng (Province)

鲁 Lǔ

上海 Shànghǎi (Municipality)

沪 Hù

山西 Shānxī (Province)

晋 Jìn

四川 Sìchuān (Province)

川 Chuān

台湾 Táiwān (Province, they wish)

台 Tái

天津 Tiānjīn (Municipality)

津 Jīn

西藏 Xīzàng (Autonomous Region)

aka Tibet

藏 Zàng

新疆 Xīnjiāng (Autonomous Region)

新 Xīn

云南 Yúnnán

滇 Diān

浙江 Zhèjiāng

浙 Zhè


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