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Reading the tea story: "For All the Tea in China"

October 17, 2011 |  7:03 am

Tea in china1 (1 of 1) I don’t think a cup of tea has ever passed my mother’s lips. She just didn’t grow up drinking it and knows virtually nothing about it. And I don’t think she’s alone. 

For her, or for anyone with the slightest curiosity about tea, I can recommend “For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History” by Sarah Rose. 

Now out in paperback, “For All the Tea in China” is a delightful read — intrigue, suspense, eccentric characters, dastardly deeds, treachery, exotic locales. The story of how Robert Fortune under the aegis of the East India Company outright stole the highly secretive tea trade from China. Disguised as a mandarin, he visited remote, hauntingly beautiful tea regions to spy out how tea was made and processed. He was the first Westerner to discover that black and green tea come from the same plant: they're just processed differently.

In the course of his Victorian-era travels, he secretly collected seeds and shipped thousands of seedlings to India where they languished in port—and died. Heartbreak and drama. But the guy never let up. Eventually, he pulled off the 19th century’s biggest feat of industrial espionage, Photo breaking the Chinese monopoly on tea production for the British market. And that’s why we have Darjeeling and other teas from India today. 

The fact that the long-nosed Brit passed as a Chinese high official seems improbable, but then again, China is vast and the locals probably assumed long-nosed was the norm in some faraway region. Much of the story is indebted to Fortune’s own account, written in 1852. I was surprised to find his book "A Journey to the Tea Countries of China"  available on my iPad via the British Library app and its Historical Collection (45,000 19th century works), scanned from the original. The 452-page book is also available for free from the Open Library as a PDF or Kindle text and many other formats. 

"For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History” by Sarah Rose (Penguin, 272 pages, paperback, 2011, $15). Also available in hardcover, sometimes at bargain prices. British Library app, free in iTunes store. An additional $2.99 per month gives you access to the full collection of 60,000 titles and helps support the library.


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Images: Cover of "For All the Tea in China," and  "A Journey to the Tea Countries of China."