Book Review: For All the Tea in China

For All the Tea in China cover

There are some pretty big gaps in my knowledge of History, and China is definitely one of them.  I know a bit, but not a lot. Over the last decade or so, my interests have branched out, away from just Ancient History, and into more varied eras and locations.  I’ve been trying to get more of a sense of the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Centuries, which have also tended to be big blank spots in my knowledge. That’s part of how I came to read For All the Tea in China.  I missed the author give a talk, but picked up a signed copy of her book, just as I was reading Cthulhu By Gaslight, from Chaosium.  I figured it was a fitting companion.

The book tells the story of Robert Fortune (great name!), a botanist recruited by the British East India Company to steal the secret of good tea from xenophobic and insular China.  Set against a backdrop of massive conflicts, social, religious, and political upheaval, racism, colonialism, and war, Fortune’s tale is fascinating and frustrating. England wanted control of not just the opium trade, but the tea trade as well.  China, having turned inward after embracing Confucianism, wants the status quo. India is caught in the middle.

Sarah Rose writes a ripping yarn, full of pluck and crushing inevitability.  England at its height sews the seeds of its downfall. China, unable to break the shackles of history and religion sets itself up for a fall.  India, long suffering the boot of England on its neck is ready to fight back. Global trade, the first megacorporation, scientific advancements, horrible mistakes and marvelous discoveries.  It’s all here.

As I’ve written about in previous reviews, I enjoy reading these History books that take a look at one thing (an item, and idea, etc.), and explore it in an interesting way, connecting it to other elements of History, Geography, Science, and the like.  With this book, Rose does just that. She makes me hungry to read more. I have a book about the Taiping Rebellion, and one of the Boxer Rebellion. Now, I’ve got even more reason to read them. I may have to track down a good book on Britain in India, too.  And one of these days, I’m going to have to read a good general history of China. I know about the Mongols’ part in things, a bit about how Confucianism changed everything, and a bit about the horrors of the early 20th Century. But overall, my knowledge is sketchy at best.

For those interested in the time or the place, I recommend this highly.  Or, if you’re just looking for a good story, check it out.


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