Book Review: For All The Tea In China

For All The Tea In China: How England Stole The World’s Favorite Drink And Changed History, by Sarah Rose

This book is written by someone who is probably not an imperialist, but the author points out rather sensibly that the Opium Wars should also be considered as the Tea Wars, since the British efforts to encourage opium consumption from poppy grown in the Indian subcontinent was done in order to pay for the tea consumption that was coming from China, and it makes sense as well that there were competing responses to the tea-opium dynamic as well, in that just as Britain was “stealing” Chinese tea to grow in India, where it ended up growing quite well, eventually, once the British there figured out what they were doing with the samples received by them, so too the Chinese were “stealing” opium to grow for their own supply to suit their addicts. The author also has a lot of classist kind of things to say, looking at class snobbery in China as well as Britain. As someone who enjoys tea, and does not feel as if the movement of plants around the world where they can be brown is something to bemoan, I think this book would have been better if it was written by someone who did not feel it necessary to apologize for empire, but it is not a bad book nonetheless.

This book is about 250 pages long or so and it is divided into nineteen chapters that are mostly organized around particular scenes where the story of the “industrial espionage” conducted by Fortune took place. We begin in the Min River area in 1845. After that there is a look at the East India House and London’s interest in tea matters (2). Chelsea physic Garden shows where Fortune was working when he was called once again to China (3). Then there are a series of chapters that look at the initial efforts by Fortune to investigate where black tea (4) and green tea (5, 6, 7) are grown and raised in China, using some of his connections to gain information about what the China did, and in the process delivering some major benefits to certain areas of China whose tea would end up doing particularly well in the international markets even after tea started being grown elsewhere. The author then examines what happened when the initial batch of samples arrived in Calcutta and was sent up to the mountains to be grown by someone who was not particularly competent at it. This required a second year of efforts where Fortune was able to better ensure the survival of the tea and also to solve a problem of how to send plant samples in a safe way in general that revolutionized the way that plants were transported from one region to another. After an examination of Fortune’s later plant-hunting expeditions, the book ends with a look at the importance of the Enfield rifle in the fate of the East India Company (17) as well as a look at the Victorian love of tea (18) and the story of Fortune’s later life (19), after which the book ends with acknowledgements, notes, and an index.

How was it that China’s tea was stolen? It was not as if it was accomplished in extreme secrecy. Robert Fortune passed himself off as a Chinese mandarin, with a passable accent, and went around collecting samples and seeds, packaged them, and sent them along. Interestingly enough, Fortune had some misfortune in his early efforts, because as important as tea was to England, getting the right conditions to grow tea did not appear to be the highest priority for the English establishment in India, which did not manage things very well at first at all, and it was not until Fortune sent repeated samples. Also of interest is the way that Fortune’s investigation of tea processing demonstrated that green tea and black tea were not different kids of tea plants but rather different ways for the same tea leaves to be processed, and that the green tea processing used for English audiences was toxic, which led to a preference for black tea that remains in British and American tea drinkers (like myself). This book shows that the consequences of actions in the mid-1800’s still linger as an effect of the behavior of individuals, and that is itself worth the price of reading, if you care about the tea in China and anywhere else.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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