Lap Sangsouchong

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You probably know it as Lapsang Souchong.  It is one of the most vexed and poorly understood of all English names for teas from China, many of which are notoriously difficult to figure out because they arose over a period of several hundred years and derived from numerous different Sinitic topolects.

A couple of days ago, South Coblin sent me a short note from Ting Pang-hsin that provides what I think is the most convincing explanation of the name to date.  I shared Pang-hsin's note, which is in Chinese, with Steve Owyoung, and Steve took it upon himself to translate the note into English.

Original Chinese:

Lapsang Souchong Tea小考證

在陸谷孫的英漢大詞典(上海譯文出版社,第二版)中查到 Lapsang Souchong,拼法有點不同,soo作sou。解釋是:“正山小種(中國產上等紅茶,有明顯的煙熏香 味。)【粵語】”

“正山小種”四字顯然不對,我猜想應該是粵語的“爉生酥種”, “爉”是“火燎”,“生酥種”是“生的酥酥的茶種”,就是“煙熏的生茶”。“爉生酥種”是“爉+生酥種”,英語念成 “爉生+酥種”,當然就找不到本字了。

English Translation:

Dr. Ting Pang-hsin
"Lapsang Souchong Tea: A Minor Proof"

In The English-Chinese Dictionary by Lu Gusun 陸谷孫 (Shanghai Translation Publishers, second edition [2007]), the spelling of Lapsang Soochong is a little different: soo is spelled sou.  The explanation is as follows: “Zhengshan xiaozhong [Mount Zheng small variety] (produced in China, a superior grade of black tea with a distinct, smoked flavor.) 【Cantonese】”

The four characters “Zhengshan xiaozhong 正山小種” are clearly incorrect.  I suspect that they should be the Cantonese for “lap sangsouzung 爉生酥種.  “Lap 爉” is “huoliao 火燎, burned by fire.”  “Sangsouzung 生酥種” is “the fresh and fragile variety,” that is to say, “smoked, fresh tea.”  The terms “lap, sang, sou, and zung” should actually be read “lap+sangsouzung.”  When pronounced in English as “lapsang+souzung,” then naturally the original characters are untraceable.


Professor Ting Pang-hsin provided the explanation of the English for Lapsang Souchong in a private communication to Professor W. South Coblin, who in turn sent it to Professor Victor Mair.

Professor Victor Mair noted that current Cantonese pronounces 種 as zung.  However, Professor W. South Coblin noted that the earlier English spelling Lapsang Souchong comes from the earlier Cantonese pronunciation of 種 as zhung and therefor the term 小種 was spelled in English as souchong.

Professor Ting’s explanation was translated by Steven D. Owyoung into English, a preliminary draft of which was emended by Professors Coblin and Mair.


Dr. Ting Pang-hsin, Professor Emeritus, Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, University of California at Berkeley

Dr. Weldon South Coblin, Professor of Classical Chinese, Department of Asian and Slavic Languages and Literatures, The University of Iowa

Dr. Victor Mair, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature, Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania and co-author of The True History of Tea

Steven D. Owyoung, Independent Scholar, St. Louis


For a shorter, online version of this note, see the Babelcarp entry:

Babelcarp is a convenient and reliable source of information for those with a serious interest in Chinese tea terminology.

[Additional notes:

1. According to Bob Bauer, the Jyutping Romanization of the four characters proposed by Ting Pang-hsin is Laap6 Saang1 Sou1 Zung2.]

2. Note that Pang-hsin doesn’t think the syllable soo/sou in the expression represents 小. Instead, he thinks it is 蘇, which is a better fit.


  1. Victor Mair said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 6:56 am

    From Bob Bauer:

    Page 265 of "A Study of Lexical Borrowing from Chinese into English with Special Reference to Hong Kong" by Mimi Chan and Helen Kwok (Centre of Asian Studies, Univ. of Hong Kong, 1985) has listed the entry Souchong 小種 C. [siu dzung], M. [xiao zhong] O.E.D.: '1760. [ad. Chinese siao-chung small sort. One of the finer varieties of black tea.'

  2. Simon P said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 11:58 am

    Regarding the initial of 種, it's not that it's nowadays pronounced "zung2" whereas before it was "zhung2". The 'z' and 'zh' initials have merged in Cantonese and are a single sound (just like 'c' – 'ch' and 's' – 'sh'), which is written 'z' in jyutping, but 'zh' in yale. The actual sound is far closer to the Mandarin 'zh' than to 'z', though it varies somewhat depending on the speaker and the following vowel. in a syllable like "ziu", "zau" or "zeoi" you could get a bit closer to 'z', but in "zung", at least the common HK reading is pretty close to Mandarin 'zh', though I'm sure there are dialects where it's read closer to 'z'. The fact that name and place romanizations often make it "ts" has more to do with bad romanization practice, I suspect. 尖沙咀 is officially "Tsim Sha Tsui" in English, though the pronunciation is far closer to "Zhim* Sa Zhui".

    * Maybe the first syllable could be "zim", I guess.

  3. Simon P said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 12:44 pm

    As to the topic at hand, this makes for great besserwisser knowledge the next time I need to one-up a tea nerd! The Babelcarp website was a great site, too. Unfortunately it doesn't shed light on a tea-and-Chinese-related question I've been wondering about for some time: How come 洱 only has one reading in Mandarin "er3", but in Cantonese it's read drastically different in the word 普洱 (place in Yunnan), where it's read "ji5", like the character 耳 (ji3), and in 普洱 (tea from a place in Yunnan), where it's read "nei5*2", like the character 餌 (nei6). Is this an old distinction of readings no longer observed in Mandarin (where all three characters are read as "er3"), is it a sound change, or what?

  4. telmac said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 2:45 pm

    re: Simon P., Do you mostly speak to Cantonese speakers from rural etc. areas? Descriptions of the phonology of Cantonese – at least of speakers from Guangzhou and Hong Kong always give jyutping z/c or yale j/ch as [ts] or [tɕ] / [tsʰ] or [tɕʰ]; neither at all like mandarin zh ([ʈʂ]). This is also confirmed by person experience talking to expats from both cities, and linguists (amateur and otherwise) studying the language.

    Cantonese has undergone a recent merger of [s] and [ɕ] (iirc around the last turn of the century), both alone as fricatives and in affricates – this is probably what is being referred to above about the character historically being pronounced differently. I'm not familiar with Cantonese' historical phonology beyond that, perhaps one of those had merged from a retroflex even earlier? Does anyone know when the borrowing of Lapsang Souchong into english took place?

  5. julie lee said,

    December 5, 2014 @ 1:52 pm

    Victor Mair, Thank you so much for this post and explanation of Lapsang Souchong. It's always puzzled me, even though I read Chinese and speak Mandarin and Cantonese. I didn't realize "lap sang sou chong" was so simple, when explained. Wonderful !!

  6. michaelyus said,

    December 5, 2014 @ 1:55 pm

    From the OED: "lapsang souchong" as a phrase is attested over 100 years later than "souchong" itself, in 1883.

    In the 廣韻 Guangyun rime books, 洱 has two pronunciations: 而止切 (to which 耳 belongs) and 仍吏切 (to which 餌 belongs), but that's actually just a difference of tone from Middle Chinese (耳 being 上, 餌 being 去). Interestingly, the difference between the two is replicated across the two Min varieties I looked up (耳 = ní [literary], hīnn [colloquial], 餌 = jī/lī in Taiwanese Hokkien; and 耳 = ngê, 餌 = né in Fuzhou)

    Also, I agree that the allophone of Cantonese /s/ "s", /ts/ "z", /tsh/ "c" occurring before front vowels sounds nothing like standard Mainland 普通话 Mandarin "sh", "zh", "ch". However in usual Taiwan (and Singaporean/Malaysian) Mandarin [not necessarily the most acrolectal!] the retroflexation is much lower than in Northern Mandarin, and I would definitely see it as phonetically closer to the Cantonese allophone.

  7. julie lee said,

    December 5, 2014 @ 2:00 pm

    @ telmac:

    I thoroughly agree with you that "speakers from Guangzhou and Hong Kong always give jyutping z/c or yale j/ch as [ts] or [tɕ] / [tsʰ] or [tɕʰ]; neither at all like mandarin zh ([ʈʂ])." I was puzzled when @Simon P said that "chong種" in "lapsang souchong" was pronounced like Mandarin zh.

  8. Simon P said,

    December 5, 2014 @ 2:34 pm

    Well, I stand corrected. Maybe it's because I learned my Cantonese in Foshan, I don't know. I still think that the 'z' in "zung" is closer to Mandarin "zh" than the 'z' in "zau" or "zai" is to Mandarin 'zh'. Listen to these example sentences:

    The last one has second tone 種, whereas the others have other tone versions of "zung". Is my ear so off if I say I think they are close to Mandarin "zhong"? I do thoroughly agree that a syllable like "ze" is pretty far from 'zh', though. As in the example below:

  9. JQ said,

    December 5, 2014 @ 4:33 pm

    FWIW, I agree with Simon P, I would pronounce 種 in Cantonese with an initial consonant sound closer to Pinyin zh than z. Same goes for 中, 鐘, and 將, but not 糉, 仔, 再, 走 or 精

    I've never bothered to formally learn Cantonese romanization systems. Because Mandarin is more "foreign" to me and I learned it using Pinyin, I can't help but romanize all characters when trying to read them in MSM, yet when trying to read them in Cantonese, a sound just pops up in my head.

  10. Tony Bybell said,

    December 5, 2014 @ 4:44 pm

    You need to pick a different Cantonese romanization scheme that still shows the explicit difference. Yale and Jyutping don't show this, but they don't need to because of how the initials are distributed.

    "Unlike the other Cantonese romanization schemes, Guangdong romanization indicates a difference between the alveolar consonants z, c, s and the alveolo-palatal consonants j, q, x. Cantonese typically does not differentiate these two types of consonants because they are allophones that occur in complementary distributions. However, speech patterns of most Cantonese speakers do utilize both types of consonants and the romanization scheme attempts to reflect this.

    z, c, and s are used before finals beginning with a, e, o, u, ê, and é.
    j, q, and x are used before finals beginning with i and ü.

    Some publications may not bother with this distinction and will choose just one set or the other to represent these consonants."

    If you have access to mainland dictionaries, they often use this scheme.

  11. Tom Parmenter said,

    December 6, 2014 @ 4:17 pm

    My son is a devoted drinker. His wife — Mandarin-speaking from Taiwan — considers it 'westerner tea'.

  12. Evan said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 1:15 pm

    I don't have the Chinese chops to support this, but doesn't anyone else think 生酥種 seems too "wordy"? I can't imagine a "phrase" that uses that many characters to signify so little would have gained popular traction. All accounts I've seen (other than the 正山 ones) cite the pinewood smoking in the name's origins: any chance 松 is the character instead of 生? Dr. Mair, would you care to add a lengthier "literature review" section here?

  13. JS said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 12:33 am

    This is interesting but doesn't smell quite right to me, in part for the reason Evan raises… I suspect if the language at issue had been Mandarin rather than Cantonese, people would have been quicker to suspect "benzi" quackery. Since this tea seems to be called all of 正山小种,立山小种 and 拉普山小种,the latter two pointing to phonologically similar forms, our first guess should probably be that this is an old, opaque (non-Sinitic?) toponym; 正 could well represent a translation of the place name into Sinitic.

  14. Brian said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 2:50 am

    Re: Simon P., on romanization of 尖沙咀

    Cantonese formerly made a distinction between z and zh (also s/sh, c/ch). I'm not talking about the situation in modern Cantonese, where the same phoneme (like z) is realized slightly differently depending on the vowel after it. I'm talking about a bona fide distinction with minimal pairs. For example,
    衫 shaam
    三 saam.
    This is reflected in a Cantonese rhyme dictionary from 1782.

    By the way it looks like this is the same distinction as the z/zh in modern Mandarin (meaning the word classes are very similar).

    The same story explains the romanization of 尖沙咀 — in modern Cantonese the merged initials are Z, S, Z; but if you use the Mandarin to predict the pre-merger values you will predict Z, SH, Z. A while back I noticed on Google Maps of Hong Kong that the English spellings used there reflect this distinction and agree consistently with the Mandarin.

    So this explains "chong" in "sangsouchong," but it raises a new mystery with "sang" — I expect "shang." The rhyme dictionary I linked gives "shang" also. It looks like the initial consonants were analyzed after the fact, so there's a possibility that this one was an error. There's no contrasting "sang" in the dictionary, so the assignment of "sh" to this word seems like it could be wrong. Or it could be that "sang" was a current pronunciation despite what's in the dictionary — does Prof. Coblin happen to know the old Cantonese reading of 生?

  15. Simon P said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 3:53 am

    @Brian: Yes, that's very true. The romanization is of course because of earlier pronunciations. I knew this, yet I still complained about "bad romanization". Shame on me. This practice is really the most clear with the "sh" initials, which have completely transformed into "s" in modern Cantonese, yet exist in romanizations like "Sha Tin" or "Shek Tau". It also gives evidence that the n-l merger is very old, as in "Lamma Island" (Naam4 aa1 dou2".

  16. telmac said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 3:17 am

    re: Simon, I agree that sound closest to me as a native English speaker to the nearest affricate in English, or perhaps the retroflex in Mandarin, than the palatalized affricate in Cantonese; however we'd have to ask a natively bilingual Mandarin/Cantonese speaker at least, or preferably take x rays! According to the Wikipedia page on Cantonese phonology, it may also be [ʃ], though they cite no sources.

    re: Tony, I was unaware of the when the allophones appeared, I haven't looked at extensive descriptions of Cantonese phonology, I only remember seeing them . An anecdote: I asked my Chinese teacher (hong konger who had lived in the us for 40+ years) about the pronunciation of 多謝 (do1 ze6), and then a recent immigrant from Guangzhou, and the former gave the palatalized allophone for 謝, the latter the alveolar.

  17. locustshell said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 3:05 am

    I've seen "lapsang souchong" explained as a Fujianese pronuncation of "內山小種" on some tea-related websites (I got curious after having been told repeatedly in Maliandao that 正山 was a modern name-change, but not what from). As I don't know Minnan dialect, though, I couldn't really begin to evaluate.

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