Sunday, March 14, 2010

Book report: 'For All the Tea in China'

I'm a criminal. So are you. Everyone reading this blog because they enjoy tea — we're all accomplices, in a roundabout way, to international corporate espionage. Tea, and the knowledge to process it, was outright stolen from China by Robert Fortune, the subject of For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History, by Sarah Rose.

In the mid-1800s, China was in complete control of tea. They had the plants, they made the tea, they set the price. And for a long time, the British East India Company had a monopoly on buying that tea from China and selling it to the rest of the world. Add to that, Britain had become dependent on tea, not only because, as Rose writes, "tea rapidly became a favorite way among the upper classes to signify civility and taste in the chilly, wet climate of Britain," but because "tea taxes funded railways, roads and civil service salaries, among the many other necessities of an emergent industrial nation." But the company lost that monopoly by 1834 and stood to lose a fortune when others got in on the tea trade. They would stand to gain, however, if they weren't relying on China for the tea — if they could grow their own. They already controlled most of India, where (it was later discovered) the tea plant originated. All they need was some tea plants and someone to tell them how to process the results.

The catch: China was completely closed to foreigners. Britain had just whupped them in the first opium war, so they weren't exactly friendly to Europeans. But in 1848, the British East India Company charged Fortune, an ambitious botanist from Scotland, with the task of sneaking into China and stealing tea plants. And we're not just talking about throwing a few seedlings into a gunny sack and jumping back aboard a clipper; Fortune made two journeys into the interior of China — in disguise — to dig up, package and haul out several hundred tea plants, plus convincing some Chinese tea makers to join him and bring their knowledge to the West. And he was largely successful.

Sounds like a setup for a swashbuckling, Indiana Jones adventure, and it might have been. Rose's account of the trip doesn't exactly get the heart racing, which is likely due more to the sparse historical record. Rose is better about discussing the journey's context, significance and impact. Twice she frames the discussion in modern terms, discussing this as what it was: a transfer of technology and intellectual property theft. She also gets to the nitty gritty of making tea, pointing out that Fortune's work in learning about tea at one particular Buddhist monastery "would also affect how every pot of tea would be prepared in the future."

It's a well-researched book with plenty to offer tea enthusiasts from several angles, from history to travelogue. "By the time the Chinese realized that Fortune had stolen an inestimable treasure from them," she concludes, "it was many years too late to remediate their loss. His theft helped spread tea to a wider world at lower prices. He democratized a luxury, and the world has been enjoying it ever since."

Now I want to read Fortune's actual journals, which Rose quotes on occasion, including observations like this as he stumbled through the Chinese countryside:

We find tea one of the necessities of life in the strictest sense of the word. A Chinese never drinks cold water, which he abhors and considers unhealthy. Tea is his favourite beverage from morning until night; not what we call tea, mixed with milk and sugar, but the essence of the herb itself drawn out in pure water. One acquainted with the habits of this people can scarcely conceive the idea of the Chinese Empire existing were it deprived of the tea plant; and I am sure that the extensive use of this beverage adds much to the health and comfort of the great body of the people.

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