How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History
by Sarah Rose
In 1839, the local Chinese government in Guangzhou (Canton) seized opium and destroyed it. The consequences - Opium Wars, foreign treaty ports, the eventual fall of a dynasty - are in some ways still being played out, for example how China handles international criticism.
Though the life and times of one astonishingly resourceful Scottish botanist, Sarah Rose has written a delightful short, "popular history" which chronicles just one of those many consequences: the international trade in tea. By disguising himself as a Chinese official - or Mandarin - and traveling to areas well off limits to foreigners, Robert Fortune, a quite man with little formal education or opportunity in Britain, came to learn more about Chinese methods of tea cultivation and preparation - not to mention China's flora and geography - then had been known in the West before.
In the process of relaying his story, Rose teaches a bit about travel in rural China, English gardens, the notions of face and guanxi, British trade as well as crucial Chinese history just after the First Opium War (1841) leading up to the Taiping Rebellion But what keeps us turning page is a an adventure story based on her subject's own writings and the extensive records kept by the East India Company, which we can recognize today as multi-national corporation. Rose keeps us in suspense through wise jumps in time, though once or twice this can also confuse, and she adds conversation to the bones of the story, though surely no one can be certain exactly what was said on the top of mist-filled mountain. Of course, that is not the point. Nonetheless, a rough map of Fortune's travels, trade routes and a diagram of tea plant would make things easier.
Why did the British develop a taste for black tea when Chinese drink green tea? The answer is as telling about then as it is about today.
[The reviewer lived in Fuzhou in 2003 where WuYi Mountain is revered. He was also told if he wanted to learn about modern China, the place to start was Taiping Rebellion that began during Fortune's stay: "The Chinese seldom stand up, but when they do there is real trouble."]