June 17th, 2014

pearly whites.

Review: For All the Tea in China by Sarah Rose

For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History
by Sarah Rose

In a bid to break China’s monopoly of tea production, the East India Company sent botanist/adventurer Robert Fortune deep into the interior of China to smuggle tea seeds and plants out of the country. Disguised as a Chinese mandarin, Fortune’s journey was fraught with peril, for the Scottish man couldn’t speak the language and if he was exposed as a foreigner, death would be the sure result. Against incredible odds, Fortune managed to acquire the knowledge and plants necessary to start tea production in British India, raising Great Britain to one of the greatest economic forces in the nineteenth century.

As adventures go, For All the Tea in China is pretty darn compelling. It seems so inconceivable that Fortune’s espionage worked. How on earth did a Scottish man pass for Chinese when he could neither read nor speak Chinese fluently? As author Sarah Rose points out, China is a huge country, and in a time when the average Chinese rarely traveled beyond the edges of his home village, it was conceivable to them that someone from a different part of the country wouldn’t look like them. The fact that there were so many Chinese dialects spoken also made it seem plausible that a mandarin from far away would not know the local tongue, thus requiring an interpreter. Still, though. I can’t believe it worked.

Rose also spends a quite a few pages describing tea production. I found this fascinating, since I drink tea on a near daily basis but never really thought about how the little leaves got into my teapot. It was – and still is - a very labor intensive process, and after reading this book I am amazed that we are able to sell it so cheaply today.

But the book is less about tea and more about the adventures of Robert Fortune. If you’ve enjoyed other travelogues or accounts of 19th century explorers, you’ll definitely want to add this book to your collection. It’s a great book for learning more about the history of the tea trade, and how such a common household item had such an impact on the fates of China and Great Britain.

4 out of 5 stars

To read more about For All the Tea in China, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: The Mermaid of Brooklyn by Amy Shearn
2012: Sea Enchantress by Gwen Benwell and Arthur Waugh
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while
2010: Tea Party Bookshop gets new identity
2009: A Lion Among Men (Wicked #3) by Gregory Maguire