Book Review: For All the Tea in China, by Sarah Rose

cover._for_all_the_tea_in_china[1]For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History is a fascinating nonfiction book.  In writing about the pursuit of one man to steal tea seeds, plants, and methods of making tea from China, the author reveals the astonishing impact that tea had on the economies of China and Britain.  This is part science, part history, part adventure story.  My only problem with the book was that I would have liked more detail, and I felt that I did not know much about the personalities of the people I was reading about, which was both unsatisfying and, in the case of the Chinese characters, uncomfortable.

All the Tea focuses on the efforts of Robert Fortune (that’s his real name, y’all!) to steal tea and the secrets to making tea from China.  The East India Company was the worst company ever.  It made the Weyland-Yutani Corporation from Aliens look benign.  At the start of the book, in 1845, the East India Company was involved in a highly lucrative triangular trade in which they grew opium in India, sold it in China, used the proceeds to buy Chinese tea, and sold the tea to England.  As Britain expanded its territory in India, The East India Company realized that the Indian Himalayas might be a prime tea-growing location – if only they had the plants as well as the methods for processing tea.  If they could grow tea in India, they could break the Chinese monopoly.

The weakest part of this book is that while it focuses the story on Robert Fortune and his assistant Wang, neither person left many personal documents behind.  I have a good sense of Fortune’s accomplishments, but very little of his personality.  Meanwhile Wang is described in stereotypical, comical terms.  The normal practice in China is for people in Wang’s position to take a cut when negotiating deals – this cultural norm causes Wang to be described by the author as “crafty” instead of “astute”.  In describing Fortune’s frustrations with his servants, including Wang, the author fails to adequately explain the motivations behind the servant’s actions.  A more balanced approach would have been a great improvement.

Although Rose fails to convey respect or understanding for Wang, she does point out at length that Fortune never bothered to learn Chinese etiquette, and that he depended entirely on Wang for his survival and success.  Elsewhere, Rose takes pains to describe the unfair treatment of Chinese workers in India.  I was unaware that when slavery was abolished, Chinese workers were forced into a kind of covert slavery to fill the labor gap.  Rose also points out how damaging the opium trade was, although she does not talk much about the Opium Wars.

This book is more fascinating when it talks about tea and about history than when it talks about people.  In particular, a chapter at the end lists a number of way in which the availability of cheap tea transformed Britain.  I drove my husband crazy with this book, because every few minutes I would say, “Did you know…” and then launch into some kind of trivia while he was trying to do something else.  The historical framework is incredibly interesting and not at all well-known.  Plus, as a tea-drinker, I was endlessly fascinated by the information about tea.

This isn’t a perfect book and it left me hungering for a Chinese perspective on events.  But it is a good book for history buffs and nerdy tea drinkers.