Saturday, February 25, 2012

Beatrice Hohenegger's "Liquid Jade": Book Review

This historian meant to write about opium, but tea as a less narcotic but even more popular drug is certainly more affordable and more ubiquitous over much of the globe. Its impacts on the East, rooted in prehistoric China and then Taoism and Buddhism, led to ceremonial and medicinal uses for this cheap stimulant, calming yet revivifying. Beatrice Hohenegger begins with the spread of the drink called "cha" in Mandarin or Cantonese or "" in the Amoy dialect across Asia and then into the West. Part two offers many intriguing episodes, such as a war of the sexes in England in the late 1600s and early 1700s after its popularity led to female pamphleteering charging males with lessened desire and men countering how their affections were lessened not by the newly imported beverage so much as constant nagging.

Porcelain, opium, adulterated teas (this led to the decline overseas in green and the rise of black), gossip, subversion, smuggling, taxes, and slavery (the need for sugar to replace the dissolved monasteries' honey supply enticed first Queen Elizabeth with her rotting teeth and then the British middle and lower classes as China trade was "pried open" for Victorians) all play prominent roles. Here, Hohenegger engagingly tells the story of why tea was exported and its effects on the world vividly. Appointing a principled, incorruptible commissioner to stop the British invasion on behalf of its drug imports "was like setting up a matchstick barrier against a tsunami."

Her chapters favor small episodes or anecdotes, and rather than a conventional narrative, she covers the centuries more topically and esoterically. Themes such as tea as bricked currency, Robert Fortune's spying to steal Chinese tea seeds to send to India, professional tea tasters, 19c clippers, the competition between gin and teetotalers, "milk in first," and willow patterns on chinaware represent the range of this accessible book.

She appends a wide-ranging bibliography, and endnotes. Her tone can be wry and pungent, suiting its theme. While a more scholarly reader may prefer a tome such as Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss' "The Story of Tea" for a cultural history-meets-culinary presentation (lacking here--its one drawback) mingled with an historical one, or her source, John Blofeld's burnished and reflective old-style "The Chinese Art of Tea" (see my reviews) for much more on its spiritual and practical affinities within Asian culture, Hohenegger provides a strong emphasis, as the book concludes in part 3, on current ethical and environmental impacts.

She looks at how "green" tea of any color truly can be, organically, scientifically, and morally. It's hard to gainsay her reminder that for a fraction of a cent per cup (a third for orthodox, a fifth for CTC), fair trade may assist those in places such as among the Singpho people in Assam-- long devastated by colonial depredations in the name of cheap tea as an imperial alternative to proud China, opium, and the wars fought as the British sought to import one stronger drug in order to supply their empire's subjects over the world with millions of pounds of tea. Despite picturesque visions of rows of Sri Lanka's terraced bushes and colorfully clad female pickers, tea becomes "the unwitting vector of boundless human misery on an intercontinental scale." She does not diminish the joy in a "cuppa," but she balances this with the price paid.

Hohenegger reminds us how sixty thousand "two leaves and a bud" must be plucked for a tea worker to fulfill her average take in a shift. 4 kg. of green leaf produce 1 kg. of dry leaf tea from two thousand young shoots. A day's quota may total as much as 30 kg.; this earns her 60 cents-$1.50.

I quote the author's penultimate paragraph, as it sums up well the scope and style of this study. "Just as the practice of Zen is deceivingly simple, a single sweeping act the expression of centuries of wisdom and infinite depth, so tea. In its many permutations from medicinal remedy to social beverage to fashion statement to object of religious ritual and then on to strategic tool, global commodity, and cause for labor strife, spanning five thousand years of myth, legend, history, and politics, tea, the heavenly brew, embodies the quintessential contradictions of human nature, profound spirituality and limitless greed, supreme artistic beauty and treacherous abuse and violence, exquisite kindness and hospitality, and ruthless dealings in the name of material profit." (274) Amazon US 2-10-12.

Author's website

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