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Thursday, January 17, 2013

All the Tea In China by Sarah Rose

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From  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.

I read this as an Audiobook. 

We meet Robert Fortune, a botanist with the Royal Horticultural Society in Victorian England, who was tasked with buying, stealing, and smuggling tea plants and seeds out of China to India, where they could be cultivated and processed outside of Chinese influence and politics.  In the course of procuring the plants and seeds, he also exported from China a tremendous number of common garden and greenhouse plants that we find in our gardens and flower arrangements today: Clematis, Rhododendrons, Chrysanthemums, roses, and many, many more.

We learn a few tidbits on the manufacture of tea in the early days, such as how poisonous dyes were used to color the tea as the British wanted their tea to look "green" and that the first brewed cup is traditionally thrown out because tea is dirty and was a way to appease the "demons".

We learn just how intertwined and integral  the opium, silk and tea trade was to the British - and ultimately - world economy.  And the author touches on the early uprisings in India.

This was a fascinating book.  A potentially dry subject made interesting through the accounts of Robert Fortune.  Through his eyes, we get a glimpse of a Chinese society untouched by the west.  Unfortunately, we see it through the disparaging and often arrogant view of a British spy, but we also see it from the view point of a botanist who dearly loves plants and the environment in which they grow. 

Just the right length for a history book in my opinion.  My only complaint is I did not care for the author as narrator for the audiobook.  Otherwise, recommended.

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