Monday, May 12, 2014

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

For All the Tea in China(1) by Sarah Rose is an account of Scottish botanist Robert Fortune's expeditions into China to steal tea bushes and seeds as well as tea experts so that the British could start growing tea in India and stop paying China's high prices. It's largely a biographical book, focusing on Fortune's views and travels rather than looking at the wider stage, but there is Rose sets his work in the wider political and social setting, discussing how Fortune's rank affected how he was initially perceived and funded and, later, how his theft affected both India and China as well as how the East India Company's actions led to revolt in India.

For All the Tea in China is interesting reading, giving a focused view of Fortune's travels, his opinions of the Chinese, and his errors and successes in dealing with the people. There are also some wonderful descriptions of scenery, and an account of the almost unbelievable difficulties in transporting plants and specimens, even with the new Wardian cases that kept plants alive and essentially self-watering in airtight casing—provided, that is, they were not broken in transit or weren't opened by curious officials, both of which happened to Fortune when he tried to ship green tea back.

It's hard to believe Fortune managed to sneak so many bulky cases full of tea and tea plants out, much less contact and contract the tea experts, yet somehow, he did—and this despite never really understanding Chinese culture.

Recommended to people who like tales of travel, enjoy tea and stories about tea, or who are interested in Victorian England and its empire.

Side note: I've now heard two versions of the native India tea story: The one in here says that it was not nearly as good as the China tea and Fortune's smuggled plants made the industry possible and the India-China tea hybrids improved the strain to no end. The other version in The Tea Lover's Treasury (2) by James Norwood says that the native Indian tea was much superior and the hybrids are nearly worthless. I have no way of knowing which tale is true.

Publication Information
Published March 18th 2010 by Viking Adult
Original Title: For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula of the World's Favourite Drink
ISBN 0670021520 (ISBN13: 9780670021529)

(1) The book has two subtitles and two covers. It's either For all the Tea in China: How England Stole the Worlds' Favorite Drink and Changed History for a later printing or For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula for the World's Favourite Drink. I guess it's a matter of choosing the cover you like best.

(2) An excellent book, by the by.


  1. Eek, who will settle the Indian vs. Chinese tea debate? I am so curious now! As to the titles, I'm not in love with either subtitle, although I like the main title quite a bit; I suppose if I had to pick a cover, I'd go with the top one. I like the colors in that version.

    1. I knooww! I'm trying to figure out where I can look to find the definitive answer on tea! Should we grumble about the unfortunate mix or rejoice?

      I can't pick a cover myself, though the top one is soothing, I like the clipper on the second because I remember the first time I read about the great clipper races to bring tea back to England: The first clipper to unload tea got a huge bonus, and people bet on the outcome. It sounds wild!