Why Tea is called “Tea”, “Cha” and “Chai”

Cha Chai Tea History Tea vs Cha

Tea (Camellia sinensis) is an evergreen shrub that originated in southwestern China and northern Myanmar. Tea in Chinese is 茶 (cha), in Thai ชา (chaa), in Arabic شاي‎ (shay), in Greek τσάι (tsai), in Dutch thee, in German tee, in Italian tè... Why was “tea” called by people from all over the world in a similar way, either “te” or “cha”? Let’s dig into the history and find out.

different pronunciation of tea

Origins of the character 茶 (cha)

The earliest literature about the Chinese character 茶 (cha) is The Classic of Tea (《茶经》), written by Lu Yu in the Tang dynasty (8th century AD). He mentioned that tea was named differently depending on the harvest time in ancient times. The first batch of the harvest was named 茶 (cha), the second 槚 (jia), the third 蔎 (she), the fourth 茗 (ming), and the last old-age leaves named 荈 (chuan).

The Classic of Tea by Lu Yu

According to this information, tea was mentioned in literature even earlier. An ancient Chinese dictionary Erh-ya (《尔雅》) documented 槚 (jia) in the 3rd-4th century BC. Till today, only 茶 (cha) and 茗 (ming) are still in everyday use.

Evolution of the Chinese character representing tea

Before The Classic of Tea, the character of tea was actually 荼 (tu), which means both tea and herbal medicine. 荼 (tu) was used to refer to a variety of plants in ancient China and acquired the additional meaning of "tea" by the Han dynasty (202 BC-220 AD). It was Lu Yu who promoted the idea of distinguishing tea from medicine by removing a horizontal stroke at the bottom part of 荼 (tu) in The Classic of Tea.

Evolution of the Chinese character representing tea

How different names of tea spread around the world

Some people believed that 茶 (cha) in some Chinese dialects have derived from the pronunciation of “tu”, such as “te” in Min (south of Fujian province). Most of the other dialects in Chinese pronounce 茶 (cha), for example in Cantonese and Mandarin. These two pronunciations have made their separate ways into other languages around the world. 

The different words for tea nearly all around the world fall into two main groups: “te-derived” (Min/Fujianese) and “cha-derived”(Cantonese and Mandarin). 

Origins of Cha and Tea

Origins of the pronunciation of "cha"

“cha” was spread from southwestern China to central and northern China, central Asia, Persia, and Slavic regions since the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) along the Silk Road. For example, цай (tsai) in Mongolian, चाय (cāe) in Hindi, چای (chāy)‎ in Persian, and чай (chai) in Russian, etc.

In the 16th century, the Portuguese arrived in Macau and adopted cha from the local Cantonese pronunciation hence tea in Portuguese is chá.

Origins of the pronunciation of "te"

“te” – pronounced in most global maritime regions with a history of sea trade with Fujian regions of China, such as central and western Europe (except Portugal, as Portuguese traded in Macau in the first place).

Since the mid of 16th century, the Dutch imported tea from Fujian and Taiwan and they followed the pronunciation of the Min dialects in this region “te”, therefore it is thee” in Dutch. It spread to central and western European countries through trade and cultural influence, hence, tea in English, tee” in German, and tè” in Italian, etc.

Tea pronunciations in Japan

Tea in Japan has different pronunciations depending on different times the pronunciations were borrowed into the language: “sa” is the Tō-on reading (唐音) from the post-Tang dynasty; “ta” is the Kan-on (漢音) from the Middle Chinese spoken at the Tang dynasty court at Chang'an; “cha” is the pronunciation borrowed between Tō-on and Kan-on. Current everyday pronunciations of tea in Japan are ちゃ/茶 (cha) and さ/茶 (sa), for example, red tea is 紅茶(kocha),  whilst tea ceremony is 茶道(sado).

There are a few exceptions of words for tea that do not fall into the broad groups of cha” and te”, for example, la” from the Wa people of northeast Burma and southwest Yunnan, as they are the local languages from the botanical homeland of the tea plant.

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