Wednesday, September 14, 2011

For All the Tea in China, Rose

For All the Tea in China:
How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History
Sarah Rose

“[Sugar, coffee, tobacco, opium, and tea] rearranged the axes of power all along their supply chain, each step of the way from mountain farms to British homesteads.”

I like tea, and I liked the title of this book. So in a California-sun and independent bookstore induced haze, I picked it up on a shopping spree in which I spent a whopping $60 on books in one hour. (If that doesn’t sound like a lot to you, perhaps I should mention that this happened last month, when I was not “working,” at least not at a job that paid.) I also chose the book because I’ve been thinking I should write more non-fiction, and hoped this would guide me in how to write informatively for a popular audience. Did it accomplish that goal? Yes and no.

The subject of this history is Robert Fortune, a botanist hired by the East India Company in the mid 1800’s to travel to China and steal tea plants and botanical knowledge in order to transport them to British-controlled India. It was fun to read about a subject as seemingly commonplace as tea. I would flip the pages with a steaming cup beside me, sipping milk-cooled Earl Grey while I learned that before Fortune’s expeditions, Britons believed that green and black teas came from two different plants, when in fact that are of the same botanical origin but are prepared differently. The text is chock full of fascinating information along these lines, but it’s also told in a narrative style that’s engaging and quickly paced, and Rose’s investigations into the psychologies motivating the actors in this drama give the book something of the flavor of a novel. Using Fortune’s memoirs, letters, and historical documents from the East India Company, Rose portrays a China newly opening to the West. The pictures she paints of misty hillsides lush with tea plants, gun battles at sea, and Fortune’s misguided interactions with his Chinese servants transport one to an ancient civilization, and offer a glimpse into the history and relationships which have shaped the way we live today.

I respect the fact that Rose doesn’t waste time with general condemnations of the morality of Britain’s quest for tea/economic power. Instead, she focuses on the details of the personalities at play. What we get is a picture of individual actions resulting in huge societal changes. We’re not told whether it’s “good” or “bad,” “moral” or “immoral.” And that makes for pleasant reading, because certainly one could easily get mired in such considerations. It’s because of this lack of analysis however that, though I enjoyed the book for the imagery and history, I’m not sure about how much I can take away from it in regard to my own writing. Rose offers objective history, and I can’t help but feel pulled toward a deeper analysis, especially when she seems to introduce such questions in the very last paragraph of the book. The absolute last sentence is: “Entire islands have been overrun as the result of the kind of botanical frontiersmanship that Fortune and his contemporaries routinely practiced.” Does the author suppose that such a fact hasn’t been on my mind throughout the entire reading? Why bring it up now? Why as the last sentence? Wouldn’t it be better to tie things together somehow? To offer a defense of Fortune, to whom the writer is clearly sympathetic? This ending bothers me because it seems to unnecessarily beg these questions. It’s a question of objectivity over making an argument. Perhaps a student of history would feel comfortable with this. I, whether fortunately or not, am a student of rhetoric.

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