Book Review: For All the Tea in China

This book brings together the best of both worlds, tea and reading. Sarah Rose’s For All the Tea in China is an engrossing account of how the swashbuckling botanist Scotsman Robert Fortune sneaked into China and stole tea plants, tea workers and the knowledge of how to prepare tea, for the British Empire. The book jacket claims it as “one of the greatest corporate thefts of all time.” And Fortune’s exploits are exceedingly badass: near the beginning, Rose recounts how Fortune, while ill, managed to send two Chinese pirate junks fleeing—with only a pistol and bravado! Fortune never lacks for courage in his adventure, and the resulting story is riveting and sometimes incredulous. Fortune manages his smuggling act while travelling deep into China disguised as a mandarin. Hijinks ensue.

But Rose explains the political and economical environment clearly and when it’s needed, so the reader can clearly see why tea was so important, and what the impact of botanists at the time was.

For the most part I found the book quite readable. It’s short, only around 250 pages, and moves along at a good pace. Nothing about it is dense or off-putting. Rose writes from a British-centric point of view, but she doesn’t hesitate to point out that Fortune was often quite paternalistic to the Chinese he interacted with, explaining the cultural difficulties that led to tensions between Fortune and his Chinese assistants.

This is not the most heavy or philosophical of works. Its simplistic overview of the political events probably leaves much relevant information out. Its delivery is, however, choppy. I understood the logic behind the section’s organization and it proceeded in a roughly linear fashion. I can’t vouch for the historical facts, I’m not a student of history as such, and at any rate I don’t know much about Victorian colonialism, except what I’ve picked up piecemeal, so I found myself somewhat confused by the timeline. I wasn’t sure when Fortune’s activities were in relation to the First Opium War. Fortune makes two separate trips, to collect ‘green tea plants’ and ‘black tea plants,’ even though they are the same and Fortune believes they are the same. We’re never told why Fortune goes on two trips even though he knows the plant is the same, good old Camellia sinensis. What is his rationale? Why does the book progress as if it’s still hiding the fact that the tea plants are the same, waiting for the big reveal? The book’s treatment is shallow and sensationalist. Don’t mistake this for anything other than light reading. I’m not sure if some sort of moral discussion should be present, given the fact that… well, it was a theft. Fortune is celebrated as a hero (albeit with flaws), but was that…right?

Still, all in all, For All the Tea in China is a good way to spend an afternoon or two. A little gem for anyone looking for light reading. Just be prepared to find yourself wanting to know more details—which might not be a bad aftereffect!

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