Book review: For All the Tea in China

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FOR ALL THE TEA IN CHINA Sarah Rose Hutchinson, £18.99

THE opening to this intriguing book makes clear how high the stakes once were over something as mundane as a cup of tea: "There was a time when maps of the world were redrawn in the name of plants, when two empires, Britain and China, went to war over two flowers: the poppy and the camellia." It's grandiose, startling and not actually untrue.

This brisk little study gives a compelling sketch of the world of globalisation before the age of instant information, and transforms a modest Scottish botanist into a swashbuckling pirate capitalist, who incidentally changed the way we all have breakfast.

Robert Fortune was born in Edrom, a village in the fertile Merse of the Scottish Borders. He started work in Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden, and transferred to the Royal Horticultural Society's experimental hothouses at Chiswick, where he was headhunted to undertake a journey to China. The First Opium War had just ended with a British victory and unprecedented access to the hitherto forbidden empire.

Fortune's first trip resulted in the introduction of numerous, now familiar species: the white wisteria, the winter jasmine and the kumquat, scientifically called the Fortunella.

His second trip had a far more specific purpose. The Opium War was sparked by the Chinese Emperor's decision to forbid Britain importing opium – the profits from which allowed the British to buy tea in return. Britain had a monopoly on the poppies required to make opiates; China had a monopoly on camellia sinesis – tea. In the wake of the war, the Emperor Daoguang authorised experiments to produce their own opium. The British, likewise, sought to secure an indigenous tea crop. Fortune, as the botanist with most experience of China, was sent to secure seeds and cuttings of the finest Chinese teas, and to discover the exact processes for preparing the leaves for consumption. It was, in effect, industrial espionage on a massive scale.

Tea was surprisingly important to the British economy. For a start there was the Tea Tax, a significant source of income (and the tax that had eventually spurred the American colonies into rejecting British control). The British also drank their tea with sugar, which bolstered the market for sugar cane from the West Indies. Connoisseurs would pay exorbitant amounts for the most prestigious Chinese teas; while for the poor, tea lubricated the Industrial Revolution.

Controlling all these interests was 'The Company' – the British East India Company, which acted as trader, auctioneer, militia and economic powerhouse. It was the Company that sent Fortune back to China on his larcenous mission, and the Company that prepared secret nurseries in the Himalayas, to propagate 'Indian' tea.

Sarah Rose recounts this web of exploration deftly, although she occasionally indulges in needless speculation about how Fortune might have felt on seeing particular views or while pondering the ethics of his behaviour.

There are asides on Chinese tea culture and poetry, with eccentric details such as the tea which tastes best if picked by monkeys. Rose is especially detailed on the sheer difficulty of transporting the seedlings safely over thousands of miles, and the scientific advancements that sprung from the challenge of stealing a crop.

It may lack the overview of a book such as Tom Standage's A History Of The World In Six Glasses, or the expertise of Jonathan Spence's Return To Dragon Mountain and God's Chinese Son, but it is a genuinely curious and evocative yarn.