Nov 18

Book Review: For All the Tea in China

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

This isn’t quite a book like SALT or THE PERFECT RED that covers every possible aspect of a world-changing commodity. It’s kind of pick and choose about what aspects of the tea trade it covers closely and which ones it doesn’t.
This is meant to be a book about how one man with the unlikley name of Fortune, snuck into China and stole cuttings and seeds and eventually Chinese nationals in order to start a secondary tea-producing center in the British-controlled Himalayas. Along the way the author touches on things such as the Taipeng rebellion, the Delhi massacre, what sort of rifles were used in the early nineteenth century, the opium trade, and how terrariums work.

So the cool thing is that I learned a lot about China in the 19th century that I didn’t already know. The descriptions were vivid enough that I felt like I was really there. But this book was slightly marred by two things. One was its density. I’m not sure how I feel about the book being so short. I generally prefer that a book is just as long as it needs to be, and it’s far more likely that authors will pad a book to pretend their article’s worth of information can fill 250 pages. In the case of this book, I feel the author had an issue of a different nature.

I feel like Rose either needed a lot more information about Fortune, and made this more of a gripping biography, or she needed to flesh out the tantalizing tidbits she drops here and there and make it an all-around bible on the subject. Yes, I’m well aware that isn’t quite fair to criticize a book for not being a different book. If it’s a book just about Robert Fortune’s exploits in China, securing tea plant samples, there wasn’t quite enough information for more than a very long article or a very short book. And if she’s going to flesh it out with other things not related, I would have preferred to actually flesh them out and go more into depth about the ancillary industries, for example. As it is, it felt like a 40 minute movie padded to full-length with 40 minutes of trailers. It’s not that it was bad, it’s just that the first wasn’t quite feature-length and the second were annoyingly short tidbits that just tease. Worse yet, they felt like they were gleaned willy-nilly, as if the author had gone on a Wikipedia binge and grabbed a bunch of filler.

Example: Rose throws in a paragraph or two about how porcelain was used for ballast, how the porcelain industry grew alongside the tea industry. Well and good, though the history of porcelain is so fascinating that it deserves its own book (THE ARCANUM). And then Rose follows this with some facts about pottery and ceramics that are not quite right. People who have not spent over a decade involved in ceramics will probably not be quite as irritated, but then, people who don’t know as much about ceramics might not pick up on how and why the information was wrong.

Second problem with this book: some of the writing was off. There were a lot of sentences that just kind of hit me wrong, in a “academic/unnecessarily complicated” way. I had to reread them a couple times to verify that they were, in fact, grammatically correct, but so odd that they made me stop and read them out loud a couple of times. For example, she has long lists of dependent clauses, many of which use “and.” In one place she used the word axes, which is the accurate plural of axis, but coupled with the other mismatches made me assume it was a typo until I reread the sentence a few times.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad book. This is quite a good book. It informs about an interesting part of history and has some great details. It’s just not quite as fantastic a book as I was looking for. It’s a very long, very interesting article about an incident in 19th century history, filled out with a lot of shorter miscellaneous factoids.

View all my reviews

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