For All The Tea in China by Sarah Rose

Last Thursday the nonfiction Book Club met to discuss For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose.

A lively discussion ensued on several topics that were introduced in the book: China’s views on foreigners and emigration, industrial espionage, invasive species, Enright rifles, botany, Wardian cases, and most importantly, Robert Fortune. None of us had ever heard of Fortune and were surprised that such an important figure in the importing of tea was not more familiar. Fortune had evidently been invited to the United States to ascertain the possibility of growing tea in the South. However the project was soon abandoned.

A few patrons commented on some of the drawbacks of the book: Most would have preferred to see some period maps of China, there are no illustrations or early photographs, and perhaps a timeline would have been nice.

The author admitted in her notes it was not a scholarly work, but several reviewers criticized the misinformation:

A reviewer for the Scotsman newspaper commented that Rose “occasionally indulges in needless speculation about how Fortune might have felt on seeing particular views or while pondering the ethics of his behavior.” These were issues that bothered me while reading the book. Fortune did write several books about his travels in China but the flowery language Rose attributed to him felt disingenuous.

London’s Guardian reviewer Huw Bowen cited “ numerous errors, misunderstandings, and misconceptions in the text stating that this level of inaccuracy is unacceptable even in a book of popular rather than scholarly history.”

The Washington Post reviewer wrote “not to nitpick but England didn’t steal the drink in question: tea. That feat was accomplished by a Scotsman named Robert Fortune.”

Somewhat difficult to stay with, several attendees said they wouldn’t have finished the book if it weren’t for the book club meeting. They found it not well written but interesting nonetheless.

One person commented that a good editor would have helped. As a group we felt that many recently released books could use a red- penciled editor!

Although we did not have a chance to imbibe the rare and costly Da Hong Pao tea, everyone at the convivial meeting enjoyed several varieties of tea (some of the dusty type in tea bags!) and pastries.

A patron did ask about the origin of the title phrase “For all the Tea in China.” The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins 3rd ed. by Robert Hendrickson noted: “all the Tea in China” would be nearly 600,000 tons according to the 1985 estimates of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. It may be an Americanism, but this expression denoting a great sum is probably of British origin and over a century old; the trouble is that no one has been able to authoritatively pin it down. “

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