What Tea Am I Drinking? Naming Conventions For Traditional Chinese Teas

What Tea Am I Drinking? Naming Conventions For Traditional Chinese Teas

A list of Chinese tea names can feel pretty overwhelming for those unfamiliar with tea or Chinese pronunciations. This article is a guide to understanding some of the general naming conventions specific to tea to help you know what you're drinking at all times. Most categories follow some rules, so hopefully, you'll learn to identify a tea by its name and type quickly with a bit of context. 

We need to point out that tea makers will not "make up" a name in traditional Chinese teas. It is probably not an authentic tea from its historic terroir if you ever come across a tea with a name like a goddess, palace, garden, or the like.  

Green Tea

Green tea is the most varied category for naming conventions. As the oldest style of tea, it is typical for these teas to take on their historical name. Most of China's Famous Teas are still green teas today, and each has a unique origin story. There's no cookie-cutter convention, but what they share is their fame. Historical green teas have influenced even names of shaping across other categories. For example, Long Jing's name has become synonymous with its signature flat shape. This practice is the biggest epidemic of "fake tea." The reason many green tea drinkers feel that green teas are so common and there are “Long Jing” everywhere is because people can take an "in style tea" of a historical shape and name it the same thing when it is not actually that tea. Many tea lovers, unfortunately, can think they have been drinking a real Long Jing for life, but in fact have never had a real Long Jing. As you can probably assume, this can easily confuse! 

A trick to recognizing quality quickly in the name of a green or yellow tea is that the very best will always have their terroir attached. Keeping Long Jing as our example, the best comes from Xi Hu, so you will see Long Jing from this terroir called Xi Hu Long Jing. Similarly, Lu An is the top terroir for Gua Pian, which will be called Lu An Gua Pian. Because these teas have so much popularity and fame, this practice differentiates the true historical origin teas from those just using a historical shape. We see this in wine with Champagne and sparkling wine. The name Champagne has become synonymous with any sparkling wine, but not all come from the true origin of Champagne, France. 

Examples of Historically Famous Green Teas:  

  • Gua Pian: Sunflower Seed (piece shape)
  • Long Jing: Dragon Well (flat shape)
  • Huo Qing: Fire Green (pearl shape)
  • Yun Wu: Cloud and Fog (string shape)
  • Mao Jian: Hairy Point Tip (string shape)
  • Mao Feng: Hairy Peak (free shape)
  • Bi Luo Chun: Green Snail Spring (spiral shape)

Yellow Tea

Yellow tea's significance and history are very comparable to green tea. However, yellow teas are made with consistent picking grades pertaining to type, and usually, the name incorporates a reference to the picking of the tea. With this rule, the picking grade should not be mistaken for the name of the tea. An example of this is that Huang Ya Cha is a picking grade of bud only yellow tea, but it is also the name of a historical yellow tea, Huang Ya, that has the picking grade of both buds and small leaves. 

The picking grades: 

  • Huang Ya Cha: yellow bud teas 
  • Huang Xiao Cha: yellow small teas with a fat bud and one to two leaves
  • Huang Da Cha: yellow large teas with skinny bud and three or more leaves

The three most well-known yellow teas are: 

White Tea

White teas are named after their picking grade. Since this category has such a straightforward naming convention, it is vital not to mistake picking grade alone for being the dominating factor of quality. To understand the quality of white tea, we need to inquire more about location and processing. Picking grade does not always create a superior tea; it is only one puzzle piece. 

  • Bai Hao Yin Zhen (Silver Needle): The highest picking grade of white tea with just a single bud. ⁠
  • ⁠Bai Mu Dan (White Peony): The second picking grade with a bud and one to two leaves.⁠
  • ⁠Gong Mei: The third picking grade with skinny buds and two to three leaves. Gong Mei leaves are often green, typically harvested in autumn.⁠
  • Shou Mei: The fourth picking grade with mostly leaves and skinny or no buds. Shou Mei is usually harvested in late spring, leading into summer. Because of the high temperature and humility, Shou Mei is often brown in color.⁠

Wu Long

Wu longs (oolongs) are typically made of a single cultivar and named after the cultivar. Similar to calling a Cabernet a Cabernet, a Shiraz a Shiraz, or a Pinot Noir a Pinot Noir. This convention applies to all three sub-categories of Wu Long: Yan Cha, Dan Cong, and Tie Guan Yin. However, there are exceptions with Wu Longs made from heirloom cultivars or blending of multiple cultivars. You can read more in-depth at our Tea Fundamentals

There have also been recent attempts to name some Wu Long after its most prominent note, such as the 10 Fragrances of Dan Cong

  • Some Well-Known Yan Cha Cultivars: Rou Gui, Shui Xian, Qi Lan
  • Some Well-Known Dan Cong Cultivars: Ba Xian, Bai Ye, Ya Shi Xiang (aka Duck Sh*t Fragrance)
  • Some Well-Known Tie Guan Yin Cultivars: Tie Guan Yin, Ben Shan, Huang Dan 

Pu Er Sheng Cha

Sheng Pu is relatively easy regarding names; they are classically named after the location in which they are harvested. The significance of this practice is that location is the most important aspect of the value of tea. Having the origin in the name of a Pu er gives you an immediate sense of the value of the tea. For Pu Er lovers, this is essential information to identify quality more efficiently. This is similar to how a wine connoisseur immediately has an estimated baseline for the value of the wine if they hear names like Margaux vs. Beaujolais

Additionally, getting as specific a location as possible is important. A lot is more valuable than a village, a village is more valuable than a mountain, a mountain is more valuable than a township, etc. You Le Long Pa is a Pu Er from the village of Long Pa on the mountain of You Le. Le De is a lot in the village of Long Pa. A tea just called You Le would come from the mountain of You Le, but not specifically a known village or famous location. This is comparable to the different prices a Grand Cru Burgundy would demand from a village wine vs. a regional wine. You can read more about this location-based naming structure in this article here

Red Tea

The traditional method of naming red tea is to name it after the general region where it is harvested. Qi Men Hong Cha, translates to Red Tea from Qi Men -  casual and straightforward. This naming was the standard for many traditional red teas largely due to its long history of being the exportation teas of China and the lack of appreciation from domestic connoisseurs.

But, as red tea processing and quality continue to become more distinguished in recent years, their naming convention also gets more specific. For example, red tea that comes from Tong Mu gets named Xiao Chi Gan (one bud and one to two leaves) or Da Chi Gan (one bud and two to three leaves) etc. Because of Qi Men's proximity to green tea regions, while it's still okay to call the red tea from here Qi Men Hong Cha, people will also call it by the signature green tea shape it adopts. So, for example, a tea with a free shape it's called Hong Mao Feng, and a spiral tea is called Hong Xiang Luo. 

Black Tea

Black tea remains the most mass-produced category of tea. While it has a long history, it has never reached the sophistication of the other categories. So it is still mainly named after its region and shape. 

Some shape examples: 

  • Fu Zhuan: Brick
  • Lu An Lan Cha: Basket
  • Qian Liang: 1000 Liang in a pillar (an imperial Chinese measurement that is now 50g)

We hope this guide is a resource for you to deepen your understanding of traditional Chinese teas! If you loved the guide and want to continue your tea education, check out our Tea Fundamentals Course!

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