Oolong? Wulong? Wu Long? Wu-Long? 烏龍?

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Ti Kuanyin Wulong

Having never formally studied any Chinese languages I surmised that the word “oolong” was the proper English transliteration of the Mandarin Chinese name for a family of teas and that “wulong” was a word that had come into vogue for use in preposterous and unfounded weight-loss claims in order to promote Chinese oolong teas. While “wulong” is the more common choice in deceptive marketing materials and by sensationalist talk show hosts, ironically it is the correct word in Pinyin (the official Romanization system for Mandarin Chinese). The source of “oolong” is the Wade Giles system, which has largely been supplanted by the Pinyin in recent years. The Mandarin characters for wulong tea are: 烏龍茶, the first two characters representing the syllables “wu” or “oo” and “long” respectively. The third character represents “cha” the Mandarin word for tea. Getting a consistent answer as to the one true Pinyin word is even a challenge. It appears frequently as “wulong,” wu-long,” and “wu long” and in more precise usage includes diacritical markings, making it “wūlóng.”

If you see Chinese words that are spelled differently from the Pinyin standard, they were probably imported into the English speaking world via Taiwan, or else they have been in use since before Pinyin was common. It is also possible that they came from another another language, such as Cantonese or Japanese.

– from this article on the topic on the
Tea From Taiwan site

Of course we get into a little bit of a tangle about which word to choose when it is commonly understood that the word in English is “oolong.” So then you have to decide if the English word “oolong” or the Pinyin Chinese word “wulong” better suits your purpose. There is a very fine line between using the antiquated form of Wade Giles “oolong” and the English word “oolong.” This whole discussion may be dismissed as self-indulgent sophistry, but regardless of which words you choose yourself to refer to those fabulous semi-oxidized teas, the history behind the jumble of choices is pretty interesting.

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6 Comments

  1. As with any language, it all comes down to context. It’s best to use the dialect, term, pronunciation or spelling that most easily and accurately conveys your meaning to your audience.

    In my private records and personal tea database I use 烏龍, wūlóng and wu1 long2 in part because I’m a stickler for accuracy and because I’m trying to learn enough chinese to read the labels on my tea.

    In mixed company and non-tea aficionado groups I have no problem using oolong. That way the majority know exactly what I’m referring to since it’s the american colloquial usage.

    Language etymology is a facinating subject. 🙂

  2. I think that my conventions for which word to use are very similar to yours. If I were writing to a more knowledgeable audience I would be more likely to use “wulong” while I would probably use “oolong” in most cases where the audience is primarily non-tea-obsessed English speakers. Since implications and associations of words are also important, and “oolong” is still the word prevalent in serious references to tea in English I would probably not use “wulong” if it would smack of trendiness or someone who obtains data about tea from Oprah Winfrey.

    I could spend days and days researching etymology.

  3. I’ve heard the literal translation of “oolong” as black dragon, with the “wu” or “oo” meaning black. Pronunciation is just too complicated for me – I’ll stick to written language since it’s safer.

    Now I have that darned song stuck in my head too!

    I’ve never seen the reply pages misbehave like that on any platform or different browsers, but I’ll investigate. I don’t want the site annoying anyone.

  4. P.S. I just talked with a college friend and English/Chinese translator. She said the “bird” definition confusion has to do with a single stroke difference:

    烏 (wū) is “black”

    鳥 (niǎo) is “bird”

    And it’s further confused by the fact that the first word, when combined with another character (烏鴉) means “crow” or “raven”–literally “black bird”.

    • I’d seen the two-character Chinese for crow before, so I was surprised to see 烏 indicating more than just “black” on MDBG. I’m just going to blame that on crows being a source of dissembling and confusion.

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