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.

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