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(non)Fiction Friday: For All the Tea in China

I’m a coffee person.  Just thought I’d let you know.  And while I diligently limit my intake of coffee in order to stay below the addiction threshold, I really look forward to coffee days.  (More about my thoughts on Caffeine Bondage if you care to look.) 

Most of the time, on my non-coffee days, I go for a cup o’ tea.  And after reading Sarah Rose’s terrific For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History, I’m even more interested in adding some quality tea time to my schedule.

This one came to me off the Washington County Libraries New Materials RSS Feed.  It’s another case of The Title Grabbed Me.  And I’m glad it did.  Unfortunately, I was in the middle of several other books, so I had to return it to the Library and then patiently wait for it to come back in so I could finish it.

As with most popular histories, this one follows the exploits of Robert Fortune, the man primarily responsible for the huge bunch of industrial espionage pulled off by the British, in stealing Chinese trade secrets and materials and starting up the Indian tea industry.

Not only is the narrative entertaining, but it’s also extremely informative.  I love learning something new.  For instance, did you know that black and green teas come from the same plant?  (Seriously, check Wikipedia, under camellia sinesnis.)

Or did you know that the popular green tea in England in the time of Robert Fortune was dyed green (with iron ferrocyanide and calcium sulfate dehydrate – Prussian blue and gypsum)?  The customers wanted a greener tea, and the Chinese gave it to them.  Served the foreign devils right for not having discerning palates. 

The prologue of the book sets the stage nicely, noting that the British worried that in the aftermath of the First Opium War, the Chinese might decide to get into the opium trade themselves, cutting British profits hugely.  England would then not be able to afford tea, and that just could not happen.  The solution?  Bring the tea to India and cut the Chinese out of that trade altogether.

But it wasn’t as simple as transplanting tea shrubs.  That had been tried.  The plants weren’t the good stuff, and there were nuances to the cultivation of them that the British simply didn’t know.  They needed the good raw material and the expertise to grow it properly.

The book follows Fortune into China, disguised as a wealthy and important Mandarin, complete with hair extensions and a queue.  He had to travel deeper into China than any westerner in two hundred years, find the goods, and bring them back safely.  And keep in mind, he had to keep the plants and seeds viable in transit from China to India, which in the days before steamships and the Suez Canal took months.

Fortunately, technology was on Fortune’s side when it came to keeping the plants alive.  The recent development of the Wardian Case, a forerunner of both the terrarium and greenhouse, made it possible to keep plants alive even aboard ship, which was no small matter considering the jostling and sea spray they usually took while at sea.

Fortune’s mission took three years, and his results were quite mixed, but you know the end of the story.  Think of a nice cup of amber-colored tea, and what do you think of?  Darjeeling?  Earl Grey?  Not exactly Chinese-sounding names.

The great thing about this book, apart from being of a nice length (a bit past 200 pages), is that Sarah Rose delves into a couple of brief vignettes about tangential issues like the Chinese stance on emigration and the Coolie Trade and the ultimate downfall of the British East India Company after the First Indian War (spurred, by all things, by the kind of grease used on ammunition packets for the Enfield Rifle).

As a popular history, you’re not getting a bunch of boring narrative, bloated with footnotes and endnotes.  Instead, you get to follow Mr. Fortune through his very perilous journey.

The end of the book discusses the impact of tea on British Society.  It’s interesting that something the British stole for themselves became such an integral part of their lives.

Makes me want to go brew a cup.  And as I have a nice packet of loose leaves and a steeping wand, I might just do that.

Next up, we’re back to fiction with The Castle of Llyr.  And then I might take a week or two off from book reviews, since both of the other books I’ve got from the Library are tomes.

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  1. Two observations. First the British were fortunate that the cyanide ions in the ferrocyanide ion (what is called a complex ion (I could go into a lot of detail about the structure and electron distribution but I won’t)) are bound so tightly to the ferrous (Fe2+) ion that it is safe to use. Otherwise the Chinese might have had the pleasure of killing off a large percentage of the British population. Just about any other source of cyanide would have killed them quickly.

    Second, the grease used on those bullets was just fat from cows, which the Indians objected to since they were vegetarians and also considered the cows sacred, picky, picky, picky!

    • The grease, from what I read, was actually both beef tallow and pork fat, offending both Hindus and Muslims. So pretty much anyone who might be using those rifles in the Indian Army. You’d think someone would’ve been smarter about that.

  2. You’re probably correct about that grease. I don’t think it was a question of being smart, but of arrogance that the British Raj was in command and would and could do what it wanted regardless of what the wogs wanted.

  3. I think I would like to read this book too. I did already know about black and green(and white) tea all come from the same plant. I always read my Republic of Tea catalogs thoroughly! I think I will enjoy learning about how tea became a Britishism as well.
    I enjoy tea and drink it almost daily. I’m trying to drink two cups of green tea a day to reduce my risk of certain cancers by 50%!!
    I am still a coffee drinker and don’t believe that it is an addiction!! I like the aroma and the bitterness of coffee.
    Thanks for sharing this review.

  4. Sounds interesting. I might have to check this one out. I am not too much of a popular histories reader (so far), but I am a tea drinker.

    • I really is fascinating to see how difficult it was to get access to the tea technology and how little Europeans knew about their favorite drink. And if you’re a tea drinker, that’d enhance your enjoyment, I think.

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