Friday, February 26, 2010

Sarah Rose's "For All the Tea in China": Book Review

Subtitled "How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History," so part of a genre of how one product changed our lives. Perhaps Britain more than America was so altered by the export of cheap, tasty black tea in Victorian times. Yet, Rose shows how globalization, the drug trade, rapid transport, and botanical espionage and corporate deceit managed to boost Robert Fortune into his modest role as the East India Company's operative who'd pluck Chinese tea seeds and smuggle them out in glass boxes to India, where they would become the hybrids mingled with Himalayan plants to make the black tea we enjoy today.

This would earn billions for a British empire tangled in the opium trade with a restive China, and replace that nation's supply of tea with that grown by its more reliable subjects in India. This shift kept English domination, expanded globalization, set off quicker tea clippers to bring tea to an invigorated porcelain and clay manufacturing region, and would increase health standards as less beer and more water was boiled and then brewed.

Tea picking, she explains, is as if the topmost boughs and last couple of leaves of a Christmas tree were selected. Extremely laborious to gather, 32,000 shoots make ten pounds, nearly what a picker could gather in a day. Five pounds of fresh leaves produce one dry pound.

I found such details intriguing. As Vine offers a proof to read, I do not know if maps and pictures will be included, but no such evidence is in my copy. These features would have enriched the text, for while Rose tells the journeys of Fortune carefully, Western readers unfamiliar with China might have benefited from charts here. Also, the Sepoy Mutiny episode, however crucial to the hold of the East India Company and the British empire over India, appears tangential to merit its own chapter, however skillfully summarized.

Rose tells Fortune's own dramatic story well. As he wrote his own account, there is necessary paraphrase and citation, but largely we hear it retold by Rose rather than recounted by Fortune. Along the way we learn about gardens as incorporating the dimension of time into space, of Chinese "face," the sordid coolie trade, opium dens, Enfield rifles, pirates, and how Fortune gave his name to the edible fruit he found, Citrus fortunei, or the kumquat. His 13,000 original seedlings in terraria failed to survive, but another batch did, and from these, the Assam tea business and Darjeeling blends thrive today. He also learned what confounded earlier botanists: while green and black tea plants are harvested separately in different regions, the tea is from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, but only black is cured or "harvested." Cheap sugar boosted the British preference for a tea able to take milk and sugar, the black kind. But, the Indian Assam variety originally was too harsh for European palates, and a hybrid from the protected Chinese varietals was demanded.

Fortune's journey along the "Bohea" Great Tea Road is the highlight of this narrative. At the Wuyi Shan monastery, Buddhists cultivated the craft. Today, the Da Hong Pao type is still guarded by armed men, worth far more than its weight in gold. Here, Fortune found the seeds he'd sneak out that would become today's tea stock. It was a business even around 1850 bringing in $650 million annually in today's money, and out of such a lucrative commerce, Rose demonstrates, globalized networks began to extend that we rely on today with Asia and beyond. (Posted to Amazon US 2-24-10; if you can, dear reader of this blog, kindly post a positive rating for my review there-- the day I put it up, already four people rated it, but only two positively, which depressed me as I thought as with all my reviews this one's scrupulously fair and I rarely rank five stars anyhow, contrary to most Amazonians, it seems.)

1 comment:

Steven R. McEvoy said...

Look's fantastic.