For All the Tea in China, by Sarah Rose. Publisher: Penguin (February 22, 2011). Non-fiction. Paperback, 272 pages.
Drugs such as opium and tea were the first mass-produced, mass-marketed global commodities; everything and everyone these “stimulants” touched, from the producers to the distributors to consumers, were altered in their wake. The global drug trade, in which England and China were deeply enmeshed, produced new leaders, new governments, new companies, new farming practices, as well as new colonies, new modes of capital accumulation, and new modes of transport and communication.
In the 1800s, China had it all: opium, silks and tea. As the popularity and consumption of tea increased across England and trade with China grew more complicated, the British East India Company looked toward other solutions to procure and grow high-quality tea in British-owned territories in the Indian Himalayas. In this wonderfully written historical narrative, author Sarah Rose takes readers on a journey through imperial China through the eyes of botanist Robert Fortune.
Fortune needed to be as precise as he could about what he had collected and shipped to India. Because he was a scientist, his work was only as good as his data, so he knew he had to verify firsthand his samples’ location, ecology and cultivation.
The main issue: how would anyone be able to travel into the depths of China for green and black tea seedlings? Spending years in China, Fortune gathered samples to send back to Britain and learned how to properly grow and process [dry, fire, roll, ferment] tea leaves in the Chinese method. China kept its techniques well-guarded to outsiders.
In the hierarchy of Chinese life, tea was ranked as one of the seven necessities, along with firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar.
Tea commerce garnered the Chinese nearly $26 million a year in revenues [equivalent to approximately $650 million today]. His goal was ship enough seeds to India to successfully manufacture the product from there. Fortune reported: “Tea is of a cooling [yin] nature. . . Drinking it tends to clear away all impurities, drives off drowsiness, removes or prevents headaches, and it is universally in high esteem.”
The Indian Himalaya mountain range resembled China’s best tea-growing regions. The Himalayas were high in altitude, richly soiled, and clouded in mists that would both water tea plants and shade them from the scorching sun. Frequent frosts would help sweeten and flavor their liquor, making it more complicated, intense, delicious.
A particularly dangerous undertaking for a Westerner, Fortune traveled incognito, dressed as a Mandarin, as he carried out this corporate espionage. His own guides double-crossed him and he remained on constant watch for pirates and others who did not want him to succeed. Black tea was more popular in Britain and more difficult to gather. It was a three-month trek to the black tea region from Shanghai. Green and black teas grow from the same plant. Black tea is fermented; green tea is not. Black tea is not literally fermented to the point of breaking down sugars into alcohol and gas. Instead it is cured or ripened. While watching green tea processing, Fortune discovered that dye was being added to make the tea greener for Westerners who didn’t know better. The coloring in effect poisoned the tea. During his travels, Fortune also discovered and collected the following hundreds of types of flora including: the bleeding heart, 12 species of rhododendron, winter jasmine, the white wisteria and the chrysanthemum. For All the Tea in China reads like a novel yet is packed with a plethora of information. It’s an old-fashioned adventure that combines exquisite landscape with botany, history, secret plans and the future of the British Empire.