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

For All the Tea in China by Sarah Rose
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's review
Dec 14, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: british-history-civ, espionage, exploration, garden-botany, india, commodity_history, nonfiction, china
Read in December, 2010

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 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.

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