湯 (tāng) is the Chinese character for soup. It can also mean hot/boiling water.
Soup plays many roles in Chinese cuisines — some sources claim that it's "best drunk on an empty stomach" and "often served just before dinner", others insist that it's "usually served in place of water or tea as an accompanying drink that is supped during the meal", while a book I was reading in the library yesterday afternoon states that "at banquets it is always served last, perhaps in light of the belief that taking too much liquid while eating is not conducive to proper digestion."
Regardless of the point at which it's served, Chinese soup often comes like other Chinese dishes — as a large serving to be divided between all diners, rather than in individual bowls. You'll also see individual soup portions offered on a menu, though; the price is generally a good guide as to whether it's an individual portion or not, or you can look out for the characters 小 (xiǎo/small) and 大 (dà/large).
湯 isn't the only character used to mean soup — there's also 羹 (gēng), which generally refers to a thicker type of soup than 湯. However, I've only ever seen 羹 on one menu so far, as 西湖牛肉羹 (xī xiāng niú ròu gēng), or "West Lake beef soup" (which is both the literal translation and a commonly-used name on English-language menus). 西湘牛肉羹 is a beef soup that's thickened with cornflour and drizzled egg; it also includes fresh coriander and cubed tofu.
Drizzled egg is in fact a common ingredient in Chinese soups. The egg is first beaten, and then added in a thin stream to the simmering soup at the very end of cooking. Either whole eggs or just the whites may be used. These soups are known as 蛋花湯 (dàn huā tāng) in Chinese (literally "egg flower soup") and as "egg drop soup" in American English. I'm not actually aware of a corresponding term in British English! I think we just say "[thing] and egg soup", e.g. "tomato and egg soup" (蕃茄蛋花湯/fán qié dàn huā tāng).
Here are some other soups you may see on a menu:
|榨菜肉絲湯||zhà cài ròu sī tāng||shredded pork and preserved vegetable soup|
|酸辣湯||suān là tāng||hot and sour soup (note that the Chinese reads "sour and spicy soup", the other way around to the English name)|
|牛肉麵湯||niú ròu miàn tāng||beef noodle soup (interestingly, in Taiwanese cuisine the 湯 is left implicit, so 牛肉麵 means "beef noodle soup" even though there's no "soup" in the name)|
|豬血豆腐湯||zhū xuè dòu fu tāng||pig's blood and beancurd soup|
You might also see 湯 used in the name of a soft drink — 酸梅湯 (suān méi tāng), or sour plum drink (some info here). This is more of a drink than a soup, really. There's also 上湯 (shàng tāng/consommé/"superior soup"), which I mentioned on Monday and will be posting more about on Friday. Note that 上湯 is an ingredient rather than a dish per se.
Update, March 2011: For further reading, here's an interesting Usenet post on soup in Chinese cuisines.
|湯:||tāng||radical 85 (水/氵/氺)||Cantodict||MandarinTools||YellowBridge||Zhongwen|