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For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula for the World's Favourite Drink

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Robert Fortune was a Scottish gardener, botanist, plant hunter - and industrial spy. In 1848, the East India Company engaged him to make a clandestine trip into the interior of China - territory forbidden to foreigners - to steal the closely guarded secrets of tea. For centuries, China had been the world's sole tea manufacturer. Britain purchased this fuel for its Empire by trading opium to the Chinese - a poisonous relationship Britain fought two destructive wars to sustain. The East India Company had profited lavishly as the middleman, but now it was sinking, having lost its monopoly to trade tea. Its salvation, it thought, was to establish its own plantations in the Himalayas of British India. There were just two problems: India had no tea plants worth growing, and the company wouldn't have known what to do with them if it had. Hence Robert Fortune's daring trip. The Chinese interior was off-limits and virtually unknown to the West, but that's where the finest tea was grown - the richest oolongs, soochongs and pekoes. And the Emperor aimed to keep it that way.

288 pages, Hardcover

First published March 1, 2009

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About the author

Sarah Rose

12 books205 followers
There is more than one author with this name.

Sarah Rose is a journalist and author of D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis and Helped Win World War II, and the critically acclaimed For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History.

She was a news columnist at the Wall Street Journal, and her features have appeared in Outside, Departures, The New York Post, Travel + Leisure, Bon Appetit, The Saturday Evening Post, and Men’s Journal.

Sarah is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Chicago.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 616 reviews
411 reviews3 followers
July 12, 2010
Sarah Rose focuses on an important, but somewhat obscure subplot of the history of the British imperialism in Asia -- Scottish botanist Robert Fortune's employment by the East India Company to steal tea plants, as well as the relevant technologies and expertise, from the Chinese. His work will allow India to start producing well-regarded tea of its own, taking some of the power away from the Chinese and helping tea to grow in popularity by opening up the market and reducing prices. It's an important, interesting story, but it's apparent that Rose is limited by a relative lack of primary sources. As she discloses at the end of the book, Fortune's wife burned many of his papers, so she bases the book on Fortune's published memoirs and correspondence saved by some of his contemporaries. As a result, the book is frustratingly thin in some places and begins to skip around as it progresses. Rose tries to cover for this by presenting interesting facts and perspectives on related topics -- the firearms development that brought down the East India company, how the porcelain trade was helped by the tea trade, why the cholera epidemics might have been worse were it not for tea. If you can get past this disjointedness, there's a lot of great information here, the kind that you'll catch yourself thinking about as you sit down to drink your next cup of tea. Still, most people will finish the book wanting to know more.
Profile Image for Kathy.
178 reviews5 followers
August 12, 2010
This book should be riveting, but I found it less than interesting. I think this is so because I listened to it on audio and was unengaged by the reader. The book is read by the author, who is a fine writer, but a terrible reader: to the point of being outright distracting. Her voice is little-girlish, and she lacks flow when reading. I think I will go back and actually read this, because there is a good story in here. Perhaps it won't seem as choppy when I read the text. I strongly caution anyone who might listen via Audible or CD's to reconsider the audio format for "For All the Tea in China."
Profile Image for Rachel.
291 reviews
October 25, 2011
Simplistic, disjointed, poorly edited (hello, typos, I didn't expect to see so many of you here today), and NO FOOTNOTES. How the hell do you write a nonfiction history book and have no information about where you got your information? Also, things that were clearly from one (ahem, RACIST) man's memoirs were stated as fact. What. The. Hell.

Example: One tale about Robert Fortune (the botanist/adventurer/world-traveler/spy that is essentially the main character of this story) has him on his boat with a Chinese crew when they are attacked by pirates. According to this "nonfiction" book, while the entire crew flees below as cannonballs are whizzing overhead (including one that juuuuuuuust misses Fortune, not that he even bats an eye), Fortune takes aim at the pirate ship with a shotgun in one hand and a pistol in the other, two-fisted shooting his way to victory and causing the pirate ship (that is stocked with cannons, remember) to turn tail and flee. At which point the Chinese crew emerges from below deck to prostrate themselves in front of Fortune, honoring him for his bravery. (Think, "WE'RE NOT WORTHY!" from Wayne's World.)

Now, a good historian retelling this from what I assume is Fortune's memoirs, because they appear to be the only primary source Rose has used here (although we'll never know because, again, no citations, no footnotes, no information....), would say that while this is the only firsthand account of this incident, we must take it with a HUGE grain of salt. After all, travel memoirs were mega-bestsellers in Victorian England and the spicier ones sold best. Also, readers should always be suspicious of tales in which the writer of the only known record comes off as the big hero--there might be a bit of embellishment. Also, there's the whole racist tone of the whole thing that makes it doubtful that any of the Chinese crew got interviewed about the incident.

All in all, although Sarah Rose can tell a good story, no doubt about it, this book is NOT worth reading. I'm kind of shocked that it has such good reviews.
Profile Image for Fraser Simons.
Author 9 books243 followers
July 22, 2022
I found this riveting and interesting, but I also have very little knowledge to pull from regarding every aspect of the story, so I think this is specifically for a reader like me. I wasn’t particularly annoyed by fast-and-loose time jumps, presumably because of the access to the information available where there isn’t much inference made.

I thought it goes without saying that the story about this man is just a matter of fact and not the author “siding” with what took place. Several instances of his overt ignorance and racist attitudes are made to draw attention to what he was like and show him for who he was. And how each country operated, ie. flooding China with opium, financing their entire economy off the reciprocal relationship that destroyed many lives. It is simply how, based on information found, the proliferation of tea in the UK happened, as well as plenty of other flora and fauna that is taken for granted in the locale today.

If you’re a laymen like me to the subject, I imagine you’d find just as much enjoyment from it as I did. The author does a great job putting together an enticing story primarily from the life of one man, peripherally adding other components for context. If you want the character to be a good person and likeable I would stay clear. Every indication, such as pretending to be a foreign Chinese man himself, ignoring customs and integral aspects of the culture, to get what he wants, extrapolates how the west interacted with the east generally. As it’s a matter of fact chronicled in his own stories and he was a representative, the embodiment of the kinds of business practices trade companies forged.

Where it did get cringe worthy, for me, was the author narrating the audiobook (presumably also on the page, but I didn’t follow along, I alternated) and she spoke in dialect and broken English, which I think was quotes directly from sources. But it was… yeah, not great. Paraphrasing stuff like that would have been a leg up, over replicating the caricature broken English Fortune wrote down. Otherwise, I think it tries to stay balanced and allows for him to show himself and the culture as what it was. As swashbuckling and ingenious as he was at stealing tea, he’s also an encapsulation of the East India company on several fronts, botanists, and “adventurers”. A good choice for the framing of the story, I think.
Profile Image for Hannah.
797 reviews
August 30, 2013
Rating Clarification: 4.5 Stars

Engaging, highly readable and very informative. The perfect reading balance of entertainment and education. Provided just what I love about well-written non-fiction. 1/2 star deducted due to a very lackluster, tacked-on conclusion.

Profile Image for Jodi.
1,840 reviews26 followers
June 13, 2010
In preparation for my trip to China a year and a half ago I read everything about China I could get my hands on. I still love to read books about China because it is such an interesting culture......this book didn't disappoint. I struggled with 3 or 4 stars though because sometimes I had to go back and reread because it seemed to jump from one idea to the next with little transition. However, the story of Robert Fortune infiltrating a country that was pretty much closed to the outside world and managing to steal hundreds of thousands of tea plants and seeds fascinating. Fortune's espionage was good for England because they were able to drink quality tea for a lower price but bad for China because they lost their greatest national treasure that the outside world clamored for in great numbers! Today there are foreign policies to protect countries from being taken advantage of in this way!!!

I enjoyed reading more about the proper rituals involved in serving tea - In China I was shown how the first cup of tea is always dumped out in order to wash out all the tannins and impurities. The lady teaching me said the first cup is only for nosy neighbors or people you don't like. In the book, it was stated that the first cup is for your enemies because tea business is so dirty with tea leaves drying in the sun among insects, and dirt. The book mentioned that tea was produce in need of washing - never thought of it that way before! I also enjoyed learning how tea was picked (only the top-most tender leaves), dried in the sun, pressed, then baked until it is five times smaller than when it started. Also, I always wondered what the difference was between green tea and black tea - now I know. They are from the same plant, but black tea is allowed to ferment longer. Interesting!!! I also found it interesting that at one point the Chinese were putting dyes in the tea for the Western market because they though it would look better to the Western eye. Sadly, the dye they used was poison - iron ferrocyanide (cyanide) for a blue color and yellow powder that was gypsum/calcium sulfate! Yikes! When I bought tea out in San Francisco the man showed me blue tea and mentioned that it was from the region not for the blue hands people had when making it. I didn't understand but now I do - he wanted to make sure I knew the blue tea I bought was not colored with cyanide! Eeek!

I will drink my next cup of tea with so much more respect......but should I enjoy a nice cup of British Earl Gray, Darjeeling, or some of my Chinese blends......hmmmmmmmm........what a dilemma!
Profile Image for Raghu.
393 reviews77 followers
July 1, 2017

Whenever one thinks of the East India company, one thinks of its gradual evolution from a small trading post in a corner of India to eventually occupying the country and ruling it in the interests of Britain. But, little does one reflect on what the Company did in China, which had far-reaching consequences for itself and the world. Prior to the 19th century, China held the secrets of how to cultivate Tea, harvest and manufacture it on mass scale for the markets around the world. The British were hooked on this drink. They were importing ever increasing amounts of tea from China by the beginning of the 19th century. This cost the empire ever more silver and bullion by way of payments. Financially, it became imperative for Britain to manufacture tea themselves in their colonies. In fact, tea was also made in Assam in India but the quality was poor and could not compete with what China offered.

The solution England found was in Botany. In the opening years of the industrial era, botanic research was a counterpart to today's industrial research Laboratories. Britain employed Botanical imperialism as a way of making colonies pay their way. Plant hunters became the R&D men of the empire. The East India company decided that they must send one of their botanists to venture deep into China, in the forbidden tea-growing areas and steal not only the plants but also the know-how of cultivating and manufacturing it. British botanists had already done similar errands in China before. In fact, China is the source of many of the plants that adorn the British landscapes today, like the yellow forsythias, the rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias and many others. This book is the intriguing tale of how England accomplished this espionage operation in China where Green tea and Black tea were grown. It is the tale of how they stole the know-how and the seeds to make the Himalayas in India the center of tea production and capture the markets from China.

Robert Fortune, a botanist from Scotland, was chosen by the East India Company for this job. He was a good choice because Fortune had already spent three years in China, collecting many of its botanical treasures like the winter jasmine, the Fortunella and the white wisteria and shipping them to Britain. Stealing tea from China was a dangerous and criminal endeavour but Fortune was excited by the idea and agreed to do it. He set out to venture into the tea-growing regions in the interior of China, to the provinces of Zhejiang and Ahui where Green Tea was grown and then on to the remote mountains of Wuyi Shan in search of Black tea. He disguised himself as a Mandarin, with a pigtail and shaven head. He employed an entourage of Chinese workers, guides and coolies, some of whom were loyal and some others somewhat disloyal. The journey was nothing if not adventurous, as Fortune had to constantly make sure that he was not found out as a foreigner in these forbidden areas. Pirates and dacoits harassed them on their way but Fortune ended up successful. Not only did he evade detection, he also successfully managed to steal seeds, plants and the knowledge and bring them to his masters in India. All this was done not without a little help from the Chinese themselves in return for some silver. Colonialism was always aided by compradors in selling their own nation’s wealth and subjugating their own people. This is what happened in India as well. The Chinese rulers eventually found out that their tea secrets have been stolen but they realized it too late to do anything about it. Britain captured the tea markets with their premium quality teas grown in Darjeeling in India. The author declares: “Robert Fortune's theft helped spread tea to a wider world at lower prices. He democratized a luxury, and the world has been enjoying it ever since."

The book is more than just about Tea alone. Partly, it details Chinese culture and tradition as well. There are interesting paragraphs on the concepts of Mianxi and Guanxi, two inescapable facts of life in China. Guanxi is about the individual existing in a network of influence, a matrix of duties and social connections. Mianxi is about Face, the loss and gain of it. It is a Confucian concept, where one gains face and an increase in social status when social obligations were met. In reverse, one loses face if he fails those whom he is socially connected or obligated to. The Confucian tradition also believed in a kind of caste hierarchy. Occupations were seen in a hierarchy, with the highest belonging to scholars and poets, who preserved beauty and celebrated order; peasants came next, the cogs in the national machine. Merchants were ranked at the bottom of the collective heap, earning a living off the hard labor of others.

Reading the book, I could not but think about all the talk of industrial espionage by China today. There is the allegation that the Chinese steal intellectual property and do not play by the rules of the game. This book is a timely reminder on the predatory practices of the world’s first multi-national, the British East India company. The East India company’s depredations in India are well-documented. But, the story of how the Company stole the secrets of cultivating and manufacturing tea from a secretive China shows how the British botanist used every ruse in the book in this effort. Their conduct was no different from what the Chinese are accused of today. Capitalism has its own insatiable impetus to seek more resources, more labor and more markets in order that it can expand. This is what propelled British capitalism to subjugate India and go after its wealth. It is this same urge that wanted to steal tea plants and its manufacturing secrets from China so that they can capture the world market for British made Indian tea. Now, in the 21st century, it is this same expansionist urge that makes China aggressively seek industrial secrets from the West by any means.

Though this is a well-written book which sustains interest all the way, there are a couple of glaring inaccuracies in the book. The Prologue claims that opium financed the management of India and that England believed that India would eventually become self-sustaining. Many recent books have shown that India was not only self-sustaining but actually financed Britain’s rise from the 18th to the 20th centuries. India not only funded the East India company’s disastrous war in Afghanistan in 1839 -1842 but later on, both the World wars as well in terms of men and material. In the first page of the book, the author refers to India, as a subcontinent of princely states united under the banner of Great Britain in 1757. The Union of India was actually accomplished by independent India nearly two hundred years later. Elsewhere in the book, Buddhism is described as expounding a philosophy that all beings pass through a series of lives, paying for the sins of one life with a good deed in the next. Religions originating from the Indian soil do not believe in sin or original sin in the Judeo-Christian sense. The idea of Karma follows rather from the cycle of cause and effect.

Finally, the author posits a grandiose theory that ‘there was a time when maps of the world were redrawn in the name of plants, when two empires, Britain and China, went to war over two flowers: the poppy and the camellia’. Even if one thinks it may be a bit of a hyperbole, the idea is well argued in the narrative. Anyone interested in Tea or the East India Company or history in general, would enjoy reading this book.

Profile Image for Jennifer.
176 reviews61 followers
February 19, 2014
Some authors should not read their own books. Imagine an excitable fourth grader reading her own screenplay aloud, doing all the voices. We made it through one disk.
Profile Image for Camelia Rose.
672 reviews92 followers
June 1, 2021
Robert Fortune, a colonist, a spy, a keen gardener and botanist, disguised himself as a Mandarin, a member of the ruling class of Qing Empire, managed to steal and smuggle tea seeds and tea plants out of China with the help from his Chinese servants and translator. Fortune played a vital role in bringing China's 2000 years' tea monopoly to an end.

The book paints a vivid picture of the dealing between a British colonist and his Chinese compradors. Both sides considered the other side cunning and untrustworthy yet somewhat relied on each other and developed certain intimacy. At the end of his tea hunting, Fortune, on behalf of the notorious East Indian Company, recruited some tea experts and accompanied them to India. The botanist's true love for tea plants must have allowed him to develop a relationship with these Chinese tea experts more than just master and servants.

After ten years' adventure in China, Fortune still could not grasp the essence of "face" in Chinese culture. However, he was not entirely incapable of understanding. Born into a farmer's family in Scotland but considered himself educated and civilized, he knew to appreciate the "literate peasants" of Wang's clan. He had a sense of shame when a well-respected and physically ill monk bowed to him because of his fake facade of a "nobleman" of the ruling class. I want to believe this was one of the qualities made him successful in his mission.

Tunxi, the village near Yellow Mountain in Anhui province where Fortune went on his first tea hunting, is still one of the best tea growing regions in China. Green Tun is still a sought-after tea brand today. The second tea hunting trip took Fortune to Wuyi Mountain, where the famous ancient tea trees, Da Hong Pao, are still located. Today's tea plants in the world, no matter it's from Indian, Sri Lanka, Malaysian, Kenya or Turkey, are all offspring of these holy tea trees in China.

Unlike the Guardian book review claimed, For All Tea In China did mention other British tea hunters before Robert Fortune. The book did not cover much of Fortune's personal life because of the lack of materials. Upon his death, the botanist's wife burnt all his letters and journals. The writer supplemented Robert Fortune's story with history of tea and opium trade and how East Indian Company met its end.

How unfortunate that the label of opium smoker permanently attached to the old China, and how fortunate tea drinking became fashionable all over the world!

Overall, For All Tea In China makes an interesting and informative read.
Profile Image for Abigail Bok.
Author 4 books207 followers
March 31, 2015
For All the Tea in China is an adventure story in the guise of a history book, and is a delight to read. It follows the work of botanist Robert Fortune, who in the 1840s was tasked by the British East India Company to travel illegally into the Chinese hinterland and steal high-quality tea plants and seeds, as well as the secrets to processing both green and black tea. The Company wished to undercut the Chinese tea trade and establish tea plantations in India, where they would be under the Company’s control. At this time, China closely guarded the secrets of tea cultivation and processing, and did not allow foreigners to set foot on Chinese soil except for a few licensed trading ports. The Company saw Indian production of tea as a way to control every stage of the trade and avoid the limitations and inconveniences of trading with China.

Our dauntless hero disguises himself as a mandarin from a province nobody has ever visited and boldly goes where no Westerner had ever gone. He encounters pirates, opium addicts, banditti and Buddhist monks. The rip-roaring fun of his adventures and humor of clashing cultural assumptions is tempered with awareness of the damage done and tragedies caused by Western invader/explorers in their encounters with the other cultures of the world. Fortune is a classic of the European explorer type, bold, wily, adaptable, and locked in his own cultural assumptions; I kept hearing the Randy Newman song “The Great Nations of Europe (in the Fifteenth Century)” when reading about him.

Beyond the picaresque story line, the book is full of interesting information and offers a broader perspective on the effect of the nineteenth-century tea trade on a global scale, and I savored every page. The ending felt a bit rushed—or perhaps I simply didn’t want it to end. The last chapter rushes us through a summary of what came after Fortune’s travels that was so packed with interesting factoids that I was left a little dizzied; but it made sense that those sequelae should be only summarized, as they weren’t the core of the story. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in history of the British Empire, trade, botanical exploration, nineteenth-century China or India, or travel adventure.
Profile Image for Clare O'Beara.
Author 21 books345 followers
October 28, 2017
I've really enjoyed reading this book every evening. Robert Fortune, head of the Physic Garden in Chelsea, London, was sent out to China to search for and steal the secrets and seeds of tea.

The Scot led a charmed life for at this time, 1840s, China was largely closed to foreign travellers and resented having lost a war to better military technology and being forced to trade on British terms. The author makes no bones about explaining what the East India Tea Company - the world's first global company - was up to. Opium poppies were brought from Afghanistan to India, grown there, the opium from them sold to China, in order to gain silver from China, as the only thing the Chinese would accept in trade for tea was silver.
As Fortune travelled he saw the huge nation ravaged by one in six people being addicted to opium. Farmers lived in poverty and worked hard daily with little hope of advancement except through scholarly studies in the coastal cities. No wonder everyone he hired wanted to scrape off a percentage for themselves. Once he obtained tea plants, cuttings and seeds, he had to ship them, hoping the glass Ward cases would work. Ward cases were also used to steal rubber and chinchona bark from South America. Then Fortune had to find out the trade secrets of making black tea and green tea.
The central theme of the book is the wonderful and finicky tea plants and their cultivation, harvesting and the preparation of tea.
We also learn about the tea clippers bringing crops of tea to Britain faster, so as to keep it on sale when fresh, until their replacement by steamships which could travel through Suez; and the porcelain packaging and ballasting the cargoes. The Indian Mutiny and weaponry are extra detail.

Enjoy with a cup of your favourite brew. I would love to see this book filmed, for the fantastic scenery as much as anything.

I borrowed the book from the RDS Library. This is an unbiased review.

Profile Image for Peter.
486 reviews43 followers
August 10, 2016
This is a book of many parts. Part history, it recounts the Imperialistic reach of the British quest for tea; part biography, it tells the story of Robert Fortune, the man who brought the tea of China to the cups of the British household and in the process perhaps perpetrated the greatest theft of property in history. The book is also a lush travelogue of the Far East with stories of beautiful mountains, pirates, Fortune assuming disguises to fool the Chinese, and the habits of Chinese households and places he visits.

While not a serious academic analysis of any one area, and the author admits such, it is a wonderful book to reveal and recount how the tea you are drinking came to be.

A book and a cup of tea. A perfect combination.
Profile Image for TG Lin.
269 reviews38 followers
July 29, 2021
記得先前讀過《紅茶瘋:從中國、英國到全世界》,但現在對裡頭的內容幾乎都沒留下什麼印象了。而這本《植物獵人的茶盜之旅:改變中英帝國財富版圖的茶葉貿易史》,是以一位英國東印度公司聘來的植物學家「羅伯.福鈞(Robert Fortune)」為主角,描述他在十九世紀中葉(鴉片戰爭前後)多次到中國「偷茶」的故事,以當時英國統治印度開闢喜馬拉雅茶園為背景,描寫了一段十分引人入勝的故事。
Profile Image for Kay.
1,009 reviews178 followers
January 3, 2023
First read December 2010. Re-read January 2023.

Since first reading this book, I subsequently travelled to China in 2014, visiting a tea farm outside Hangzhou. It was probably that visit a decade ago that rekindled my interest in this topic. But there was also a visit to a museum in Nanjing dedicated to the Taiping Rebellion, not to mention more reading about China, India, plant hunters, the East India Company, the Opium Wars, and assorted other topics that this pithy 214-page book covers.

So I'd like to add now that this book was even more interesting and enjoyable to me on the second reading than the first. I highly recommend it to those who appreciate a well-written nonfiction book with a seemingly narrow focus but which, in fact, explains much about the 19th century world and resonates on into the 21st.

Well done, Sarah Rose!

(Original review from 2010 below):

"The Thrill to Conquer, but Politely"

The exotic histories of everyday items never fails to astonish me. Coffee, tea, salt, chocolate, tobacco, rubber, oil, opium, cotton, cod, spices, sugar: these stand out as some of the major commodities upon which empires have been built. Reading the exploits of intrepid botanists, who scaled mountain peaks and slashed through rain forests undertaking searches for new and useful plants, has long been a favorite adventure genre. Sarah Rose's "For All the Tea in China" stands out as one of the more entertaining entries into what might be called 'commodity histories.'

At the center of the tale is a trade balance: English (Indian) opium for Chinese tea. China had a complete monopoly on tea, a luxury that had become a necessity in British households. The cultivation and curing of tea was a closely-guarded secret, one which the British hoped to wrest from the Chinese, particularly as there was little to prevent the Chinese from growing their own opium, leaving the British with a potentially ruinous trade imbalance.

And so the East India Company, which marketed the Indian opium which was traded to China for its tea, decided to get the jump on the Chinese by stealing tea plants, seeds, and cultivation practices. They already knew that tea could be cultivated in India, but the native Indian varieties were far inferior to the Chinese product. When the Company first set out to purloin tea, in fact, it didn't even know if green and black teas came from the same plants (they did).

To carry out this project, the Company sent one man, Robert Fortune, giving him a formidable task: steal thousands of plants and seeds and ensure that they reach India safely; find out how tea is grown and cured; and last but not least, procure a number of tea specialists to be sent to Indian tea plantations to oversee production.

The felicitously named Fortune was the perfect man for the job: brave, resourceful, bold, knowledgeable, and unsentimental, bordering on thick skinned. His adventures in the interior of China, where he posed as a foreign mandarin and faced countless dangers, is the heart of the tale. Sarah Rose does a fine job of recreating the thrill of his discoveries, taking the reader along high mountain passes, into the lurching bowels of cargo holds, and through lush mist-laden valleys.

But she does an equally creditable job of explaining how vital this feat of espionage was in the shifting world order. It was, according to Rose, "the greatest theft of protected trade secrets that the world has ever known." Wryly, she notes, the effect of a cup of tea, which produces a mild lift in comparison to other stimulants, was in keeping with "Britain's reigning temper: the thrill to conquer, but politely."

And conquer they did.
Profile Image for Melinda.
683 reviews
March 9, 2013

I had heard this story from a friend of mine (somewhat embellished) for many years, and when I found this book I bought it immediately.
By the mid 1800s, England was importing vast amounts of tea from China. (In fact, it was the British East India Company which had been granted a monopoly on the importation of tea into Britain.). In order to create a comparable trade, England imported opium into China. This was an extremely lucrative business for both China and Britain, but China did not want to pay the price. Britain however wanted not only the tea, but the huge taxes which were charged on the tea (remember the Boston Tea party of 1773?). The government of China however did not want vast amounts of their people being opium addicts and and tried to close off the trade in opium and trade in general. This led to the Opium Wars, which Britain won and the concessions which China had to grant to England, such as Hong Kong, and the ability to enter and trade in selected areas, such as Shanghai. India was right next door to China and had similar growing conditions, but the native Indian tea was far inferior. Problem was, Chinese tea was a secret business, grown far into the mountains of China and only grown, picked, and prepared by Chinese. So- how to get the Chinese tea plants and learn the tricks of the trade? The British East India Company, which at that time owned all of India, hired a Scottish horticulturist to go to China, infiltrate both the green and black tea plantations (at that time the Brits thought they were two totally different plants), steal tea plants and seeds, learn the techniques of preparation and then hire experienced Chinese to come to India and teach the Indians and British what to do. This was no small feat, and it took Robert Fortune years to do this. The first plants and seeds he managed to ferret out of China died on the year+ trek to coastal China, across the ocean to India and up the trek to the Himalayas. Only 8 of hundreds of plants survived and none of the seeds. He didn't even learn of the failure for almost two years because he was well on his way to the southern black tea fields.
Obviously, eventually he succeeded and the story of how he did so and how and what he discovered along the way is a fascinating read.
Profile Image for Potato McB.
164 reviews5 followers
March 12, 2021
I lost track of how many cups of tea I drank while reading this book. The descriptions of the tea harvesting, prep, and brewing process made me crave all sorts of tea.

I thought For All the Tea In China was a decent introduction to British-Chinese-Indian relations in the 1800s and how tea played a big part in all of it. If you know absolutely nothing about this part of the world during that time period, you might enjoy it a lot. It's told almost as an adventure story, so it's certainly never boring.

To me, it felt incomplete, though. Could have used an extra 100 or so pages (but then I might have ended up complaining that it was too long instead. Hmm...). Some of the chapters ended in abrupt ways, and then those threads were never quite picked up again. The sections from Robert Fortune's POV suffered from a lack of commentary on the historian's part. Fortune was interesting, no question about it. But he was also a product of his time and often viewed things through a colonialist lens. I don't think Rose did a thorough enough job covering the subjects on the other end of that lens.

So I wanted to love this book, but I ended up just thinking it was okay.
Profile Image for Valerie.
2,022 reviews165 followers
November 11, 2015
This story of industrial espionage, is not as riveting as it could have been. I was fascinated by the technology that allowed plant cuttings to be nurtured on long sea voyages.
Profile Image for Jim.
2,098 reviews699 followers
May 12, 2020
Sarah Rose's For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula for the World's Favourite Drink is a highly informative book, especially for someone like me, who drinks an average of one whole pot of tea per day -- both hot and iced.

Before 1850 or so, the export of tea was controlled by China, which did not allow the plant to be grown elsewhere. The tea that was sold to Britain had small amounts of cyanide and other substances to make the product more "attractive" to buyers. And there was little consistency between one batch of tea and another.

Sarah Rose tells the story of one Robert Fortune, who was enlisted by the East India Company to steal tea plants and seeds from China and have them shipped to India, where they would be planted in the foothills of the Himalayas. After many false starts, the tea plants sent by Fortune became the start of what is today a multi-billion-dollar industry in India.

And the tea I drink? It is almost exclusively Darjeeling, Ceylon, or Assam, which were from plants originally sent by Fortune or cross-breeded with the Chinese plants.
Profile Image for Julie.
690 reviews16 followers
October 24, 2019
This is the story of the lengths that England and the British East India Company went about to monopolize the tea industry away from China. Robert Fortune, gardener, botanist and plant hunter was sent by England to secretly gather plants from China to send to India (where England had British Rule). Aiding him in the transplantation of the plants (besides some Chinese citizens) was the newly invented Wardian case, a predecessor of the terrarium. This was definitely a hard to put down book. So interesting!
Profile Image for Simon Eskildsen.
215 reviews969 followers
May 12, 2019
An enjoyable account of likely the largest IP-theft in history. We may think of 'intellectual property' in terms of patents, but horticulture is a legit application of the term: seeds, growing, and processing. In the mid-1900s Britain wanted tea, and they traded it with China for, primarily, opium. Wanting to ease their dependence on China, continue their mercantilistic pursuits, as well as utilizing their Indian colony further, they decided to send in Mr. Fortune to visit the tea gardens of China to steal seeds. A journey into mainland China, described in vivid detail--further than any Westerner had gone since Marco Polo. This was a massive success from a British viewpoint, and by 1900 only 10% of tea was from China--down from 100% just a few decades earlier.

I've always wondered about the British affinity for black versus, say green, tea. It turns out that green tea was the preferred tea in the 1850s, however, through Fortune's travels he found that the Chinese coloured the tea green with various toxic, cyanide-derived chemicals (though open to conspiracy, nothing suggests this was malicious), thinking the British wanted their green tea, well, very green! This caused an uproar in London, and promptly the preference for Black tea arose. The author speculates that one of the contributing factors for Britain outpacing all other European nations so much during the Industrial revolutions of the 19the century may have been due to tea. The cheapest source of calories in Germany and France was beer with the side-effects of drowsiness and loss of focus (as we all know), but in Britain, the preferred source of calories for the hoi polloi quickly became black tea with milk and sugar, with side-effects of focus and energy. An interesting hypothesis...

If you like tea, have some fascination for China, like lively history lessons, and have a mild obsession with the age of the industrial revolutions, this is a fun read. Nothing spectacular, but an enjoyable audio-book!
Profile Image for Ram Kaushik.
359 reviews29 followers
April 2, 2020
An excellent dramatization of how the East India Company hired a botanist adventurer to steal tea from one colony (China) to start tea plantations in another (India). Ms. Rose has clearly done a lot of research into the period and manages to thread a fairly coherent narrative through the lens of economics and colonial history. Her writing has the attention-grabbing immediacy of fiction so this book is definitely a compelling read. I would have rated it four stars except for some flaws in scholarship.

1. She seems to overstate the importance of one adventurer, Robert Fortune (aptly named), who clearly exaggerated his own importance when writing his memoirs. Consider say Cortez who by his own account conquered Mexico by himself - never mind the diseases that ravaged the Aztecs and all the help he had from conniving tribes jostling for power. Fortune seems to do exactly that by using Chinese guides who were probably out to line their pockets in a weakened Chinese empire. I would expect a serious scholar to examine Fortune's claims more critically.

2. She downplays the savagery of British empire in both India and China. The East India Company was probably the most merciless corporation of all time and Ms. Rose barely registers their tactics except for one chapter where she details the bloody 1857 Indian revolt.

3. No footnotes for quotations and sources? Really? I get that this is "popular history" but seriously?

4. The dramatization of the travels of Fortune jars after a bit. Every conversation doesn't have to be TV-show-grade. The facts were dramatic enough.

I did however learn a lot about the interplay between the Company's machinations in China and India so I must thank Ms. Rose for the education, and a compelling read. My rating reflects more of my expectation of a serious work of non-fiction. Otherwise, its a great read.
Profile Image for Liz.
54 reviews1 follower
July 15, 2013
I loved this book.
On Amazon a few people have pointed out inaccuracies such as monetary conversions and mixing up 'English' and 'British'. Honestly, I didn't notice any of these and as I haven't got a memory for facts and figures it doesn't bother me much. What I did notice was a great story.

I've read a lot of factual books and they seem to fall into two categories:
Those which present just the facts - there will be very little dialogue or embellishment
Those which craft a story from the facts - they read mostly like fiction but with occasional divergences into facts and figures where appropriate.
This is definitely the latter. This is a hugely informative, rollicking adventure about an incredible man, with lovely little excerpts from his published works on his travels, extra detail about other characters involved in the wider historical background, and mind-boggling explanations of the effect tea has had on the world. Rose really makes you care for Fortune, and almost even more so, for the fates of his delicate tea seedlings, she exposes the incredible technology of the day and the vast influence of the East India Company in great detail and never for one moment becomes a boring slog.
Profile Image for Shahine Ardeshir.
171 reviews
November 26, 2017
What interested me in picking this book up, and what kept me reading all the way through was the story: How the British stole tea-making from China, and started growing it in India. The biggest heist in the history of the world! As an Indian, I took the fact that we grow copious amounts of world class tea here for granted. I didn't realize that this was all a function of our colonial past, and so I wanted to know more. It formed part of my ever-growing interest in the true impact of colonisation on the world.

Granted, this is not the most serious of history books I've read - but that's partly why I enjoyed it so much. It was a light, colourful story of a Scottish botanist, who literally goes on an adventure to delve into China, and come away with everything needed to grow tea in India, from physical seeds and saplings, to detailed notes on how to harvest the crop.

(Also, if you're Indian, don't expect to hear much about us, beyond the obvious fact that we were a British colony at the time. The book's lens is clearly and squarely on China, with minor episodes in the UK.)

A fun, entertaining read, that moved at a quick clip, I'd highly recommend this for an afternoon or two at home, curled up in bed with (dare I say it?) a cup of tea!
240 reviews
October 20, 2017
This book has it all - well written, great history, botany, linking historical periods with nutrition, travel, shipping of plants... I knew of Fortune’s Double Yellow rose, but had no idea of Robert Fortune’s other botanical exploits in China. If you like plants, history and tea, this is the book for you. I can’t wait for Sarah Rose’s next book.
I listened to the audio book. It was read by the author. Took a bit to get used to the voice, but totally fine once I adjusted.
Profile Image for Michael Pryor.
Author 140 books191 followers
May 10, 2011
Great story about the espionage behind the British acquisition of tea and its transplanting to India, but the writing plodded a little - perhaps imitating the meandering journeys? Worth a read, though.
Profile Image for Syafiqa.
138 reviews9 followers
March 26, 2016
I love this book! I learned so much about tea, horticulture, and East India Company. Ms Rose does a great job to describe the history in easy manner. The book does seem bias I guess, written by westerner, it kept on giving the impression that Chinamen are all opportunist
Profile Image for Jennifer.
1,464 reviews1 follower
August 7, 2023
I read this in the fall of 2012. I was fascinated by the history of tea production in the mid-1800s. A must read for any tea lover.
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