Book review of "For All the Tea in China" by Sarah Rose

By Adrian Higgins
Sunday, April 11, 2010


How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History

By Sarah Rose

Viking. 261 pp. $25.95

The subtitle of this commendable book reads thus: "How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History." Not to nitpick, but England didn't steal the drink in question: tea. That feat was accomplished by a Scotsman named Robert Fortune, and tea is the second-most-guzzled liquid on the planet, water being the first. One thing is incontrovertible, however. Robert Fortune did change the course of history.

Gardeners know him as the explorer who brought to the West such lovely ornamental plants as winter jasmine, tree peonies and the Japanese anemone. But it was his single-minded and sometimes perilous pursuit of another plant, Camellia sinensis, that in his day brought him a measure of fame and celebrity, if not the enduring gratitude of all the tea drinkers to follow. Fortune regaled Victorians with published accounts of his adventures, but these were dispassionate. With her probing inquiry and engaging prose, Sarah Rose paints a fresh and vivid account of life in rural 19th-century China and Fortune's fateful journey into it.

Inferior teas were already cultivated in British-controlled India. But the East India Company, the de facto colonial power, guessed correctly that if it could establish vast new plantations in the Himalayas, using the finest Chinese teas, it would reverse its corporate decline while placing the ascendant British empire at the center of the global tea trade.

This lofty scheme rested on the shoulders of Fortune, still in his 30s but a seasoned plant explorer who had collected for the Royal Horticultural Society, had a knowledge of China and Chinese, and had run the Chelsea Physic Garden in the heart of London (still going strong). In a fateful 12-month period that began in the fall of 1848, Fortune made two tea-collecting trips in eastern China while disguised as a mandarin. The subterfuge was necessary to get around the ban on foreigners traveling to the interior.

The first expedition was to the Zhejiang and Anhui provinces, where green tea was cultivated and processed. The second was to the even more distant -- and coveted -- black tea districts in the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian province. Among Fortune's achievements was confirming that black tea was derived from the same plant as green tea, but processed differently. "It was grown high among the fingerlike mountain karsts," writes Rose, "where the thin air and chilly nights produced the richest oolongs, pekoes, and souchongs, the finest black teas in the world." China had been fiercely protective of its tea, and Fortune's espionage proved one of the boldest acts of industrial piracy on the books. This will strike many as rich, given China's present-day reputation in this area.

In preparation for his mission, Fortune shaved much of his head and had a braid of hair woven into what remained before donning a silken coat. "He hoped the fact that his facial features were not Chinese or that he was nearly a foot taller than every man around him would not be considered too suspicious in a nation already ruled by foreigners," she writes. His sojourns were long and laced with danger, disease, hardship, maddening betrayal by his Chinese servants and his own subterfuge. Through it all he maintained the cold temperament of a spy on a mission.

In spite of this, the treachery brought Fortune a moment of regret, if not shame, when an elderly, arthritic monk entered Fortune's monastic digs to kowtow, thinking him an elite if strange and far-off countryman. "It was Robert Fortune's only occasion for self-reproach in nearly two years of stealing secrets from China," Rose writes. Square-jawed and phlegmatic, Fortune was also a plantsman and naturalist who was touched, indeed surely changed, by the beauty of mist-shrouded mountains and winding river valleys largely unseen by Western eyes, and which he found even more beautiful than the landscape of his own country. "Fortune was overcome," Rose says, "as he ascended ever higher into the clouds and the bamboo forests."

Fortune's discovery of the tea plant's cultural needs and the techniques for producing green and black types proved as vital to the enterprise as the actual collection of the plant material. The British love of black tea, its flavor tempered by milk and sugar, was cemented when Fortune reported that the Chinese green tea exported to the United Kingdom had been colored and adulterated with poisonous dyes.

Most of the plants and seeds from his green tea expedition perished after they arrived in India because of delays in shipping the cargo and poor cultivation practices. But he carried on with his work in the Wuyi Mountains while determining that his new specimens would survive the sea voyage to India better as seedlings in terrariums than as seeds.

With Fortune's treasure, the East India Company and its successors established vast plantations in Ceylon, East Africa, Burma and, most important, the mountain regions of India. They fueled an industrial revolution at home, funded a global empire abroad and helped to intertwine the "cuppa tea" with British life and culture forever.

"For All the Tea in China" cries out (well, the reader does) for maps of Fortune's journeys by sea, river and road. It also suffers from an absence of illustrations and early photographs to set the scene. But if ever there was a book to read in the company of a nice cuppa, this is it.

Adrian Higgins is a garden columnist for The Washington Post.

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