Book Review: For All the Tea in China

Sarah Rose. For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History. New York: Viking, 2010. 252 pages.

Fears about the deleterious impact of globalism are nothing new, as For All the Tea in China reminds us. From 1848 to 1851, Scottish botanist Robert Fortune pulled off a gutsy act of industrial espionage, sneaking far into inland China at a time when the country was still closed to foreigners to steal tea plants and seeds and learn the secrets of the Chinese tea industry.

This was not just a matter of finding a more convenient way to get a hot cup of Earl Gray. Tea formed a major part of the British East India Company’s 18th and 19th century trade, which essentially saw the company sell opium to China and buy tea for British consumption in return. Tea taxes funded much of the infrastructure Britain needed as it retooled into an industrial nation, and became a political hotpoint, as well; in 1773, Boston patriots destroyed British tea because of what they viewed as unconstitutional taxes. For China, tea represented a lucrative export market.

When it feared that China’s emperor might legalized the production of opium within China and leave the company with nothing to trade for tea, the British East India company determined to secure its future by producing its own tea. To that end, the company hired Fortune to smuggle out both biological and intellectual capital to create high quality tea production in India.

Rose does a great job of recreating the social and economic setting of Fortune’s journey into China and, using his own autobiographical writings and other sources, is able to creditably recreate his travels. At times, Fortune’s travels were quite dangerous, as pirates and robbers infested the trade routes of the region. If you’re a tea drinker, it will give you a whole new perspective on how your favorite beverage came to be.

One interesting aside: Fortune discovered that Chinese tea producers had been mixing Prussian Blue and gypsum, two poisonous additives, into tea produced for Britons, not out of any malicious desire, but because it gave the tea the green coloring that the producers thought the British customers wanted. The recent concerns over lead paint in children’s toys and melamine in animal feed have some historical precedent.

All in all, this is an exciting bit of historical adventure that’s an informative read, reminding us that concerns over globalism and intellectual property are nothing new.

Author: Dave

Director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and author of several books, including Roll the Bones: The History of Gaming. Also Gaming and Hospitality editor for Vegas Seven magazine.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: For All the Tea in China”

  1. This looks like a good book for me to try to get. I like finding out the stories behind products and how they got to the marketplace, or almost any book about how industries got started.

    [I seriously need to drink and learn more about tea. I’ve only had basic Lipton, camomile, black english, and maybe 4 others in my whole life. It’s time I learn how to be a proper and knowledgeable tea drinker.]
    There are so many good, new books out lately. I wish someone would invent some way to just inject the info directly into a person’s head or let me swallow a book-pill.

    I’m semi-serious. There are so many books and not enough time. I wish there was a ‘summation pamphlet’ system or a publisher who just published a book of condensed new books (and yes, I already realize Reader’s Digest already has condensed fiction books). But I wish their was a computerized way for a person to compile their own condensed books of new NON-fiction. (hard to explain, but I think the point is understandable).
    The Clark County Library has some new books waiting for me that I requested. Again. Too many books and not enough time (even with no TV, there’s not enough time).

    * Mystic Healers & Medicine Shows: Blazing Trails To Wellness in the Old West.

    * When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead : Useful Stories from a Persuasive Man
    (The new autobiography of United Artist’s CEO who once was a music producer and also managed Frank Sinatra and the Moody Blues, produced the 1980s movie ‘Diner’, ‘Karate Kid’ and ‘Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13’.

    * Publisher
    (new biography on Henry Luce, founder of Life magazine, Time and Fortune).

    * North by Northwestern: a Seafaring Family on Deadly Alaskan Waters Sig Hansen
    (new book about the A&E Channel’s ‘Deadliest Catch TV show’).

    * Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do
    (a physicist talks about humans and their need to create patterns. He says there are even patterns to the way we use the Internet).

  2. >patriots destroyed British tea because of what they viewed as unconstitutional taxes
    Nope. Those hooligan terrorists who violated the law by appearing in public disguised as Indians and who combined to make a mutiny aboard a British ship and committed the crime of barratry by dumping the tea into the harbor did so in order to prevent the cheap British tea from reaching the market and financially ruining the smuggler whose warehouses were full of the much more expensive and better quality Dutch tea.
    Opposition to the taxes on printing, cards, tea, etc. was not based on any sense that they were illegal.
    Unconstitutional? What constitution are you referring to?

  3. Actually, yep. The “British Constitution” which was unwritten but nonetheless a very real thing to Englishmen at the time. They believed that their “taxation without representation” violated their rights as Englishmen under the British constitution, so they did believe that it was an unconstitutional tax.

    Whether the economic causes that you allude to were more or less than the political ones, of course, is a question that historians still argue about.

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