By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
FOR ALL THE TEA IN CHINA: HOW ENGLAND STOLE THE WORLD'S FAVORITE DRINK AND CHANGED HISTORY
By Sarah Rose
Viking, 252 pages, $25.95
CHA DAO: THE WAY OF TEA, TEA AS A WAY OF LIFE
By Solala Towler
Singing Dragon, 176 pages, $16.95
By all means, do what comes naturally: Pour yourself a cup of tea as you curl up with a favorite book (and your favorite Books section, ahem). Watch the steam rise from your cup and smell the invigorating, earthy fragrance. Then pause to reflect that the tea you are enjoying is totally hot — as in, stolen! Nabbed! Ripped off! Nothing more than the subject of international corporate espionage!
This is the tale told throughout For All the Tea in China, the story of Robert Fortune, an ambitious Scottish botanist who was sent in 1848 to the interior of China to, no bones about it, steal tea. At the time, China had all the world's tea — and was tightly sealed off from foreigners. The British East India Company had just lost its monopoly on trading the carefully controlled output of Chinese tea and stood to lose a fortune, unless they could grab some tea plants and grow their own.
This was the basis for Fortune's daunting assignment. Not only was he charged with the mission of sneaking into a large, poverty-stricken country, in disguise, to steal several hundred young tea plants, he had to deliver them safely back to India in conditions and vessels not exactly hospitable to delicate shrubbery. He also had to convince some Chinese tea specialists to defect and come back with him, because he also had to steal the knowledge of tea. As author Sarah Rose explains, "Although the concept of tea is simple — dry leaf infused in hot water — the manufacture of it is not intuitive at all. Tea is a highly processed product."
Given this setup, we might expect For All the Tea in China to be a much more swashbuckling or at least daring narrative than it is. The Indiana Jones potential of this story never quite plays out, which likely owes more to the lack of detail in the historical record than anything else. What Rose provides, however, is a mostly engaging tale connecting the dots from the world's first cultivation of tea in China to its mass production and distribution by the British, once they "acquired" it via Fortune's clandestine journeys. Rose ably sets up the empire's great thirst for the tea bush, both economically ("Tea taxes funded railways roads and civil service salaries") and psychologically ("tea rapidly became a favorite way among the upper classes to signify civility and taste in the chilly, wet climate of Britain"), which fueled the quest for China's prized possession.
The whole story winds up framed in a way that makes it easy to understand in modern times; Rose explains that "the global imperial project of plant transfer ... was essentially the transfer of technology." Stealing tea and the blueprints for its production was akin to, in today's world, another government infiltrating the Apple campus and then producing their own iPads.
A considerably more peaceful story of tea is found in Solala Towler's Cha Dao: The Way of Tea, Tea as a Way of Life. Long before modern Britons developed their criminal thirst for tea, ancient Chinese not only enjoyed the beverage, they infused the experience of drinking it into their Taoist philosophy. (Oddly, in this book, Tao and Taoism are written phonetically as Dao and Daoism.) It's a valuable but slippery concept, this "tea mind," which Towler describes as "a way of being in the world, a way of living a life of grace and gratitude, of being able to see the sacred in the seemingly mundane." This is the heart of Taoism, and also — if everyone is in the right frame of mind — the experience produced by a cup of tea.
Towler see-saws between basic histories and anecdotes of tea and the Tao, comparing and contrasting, fortunately stopping short of turning the simple cup of tea into some kind of religious experience even while acknowledging that the Chinese tea ceremony developed into a ritual that "took the simple art of drinking tea to a sacred level."
Cha Dao is essentially a cozy primer for Taoism, using tea as a familiar experience through which the reader can begin extrapolating the philosophy. The connections are clearly drawn and easily understood, even the challenging idea of wu wei — the concept of "doing nothing" (which is not the same as apathy, nor is it the opposite of ambition). Towler writes, in describing a tea ceremony: "'Daoists follow nature,' said the [tea] master, 'and so Daoists like tea because it comes from nature. Tea is the flavor of the Dao.'"
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.