These Rose-tinted racy fortunes of China tea are a bit difficult to swallow


BOOK OF THE DAY: PATRICK SKENE CATLINGreviews For All The Tea in China by Sarah Rose Hutchinson 278pp, £18.00

THIS PAEAN to the panacea called Camellia sinensis– tea – may inspire you to reach for kettle and teapot. Only water itself is a more popular drink worldwide, and water that has not been boiled can be dangerous.

“Tea is good for what ails you, good even if nothing ails you”, according to Robert Fortune (1812-1880). the hero of Sarah Rose’s comprehensive study of this surprisingly complex subject.

Fortune was the Scottish botanist who did more than any other individual to make tea internationally available at reasonable prices. He did so by penetrating the forbidden hinterland of monopolist China in the middle of the 19th century and stealing enough tea plants and seeds to establish rival plantations in India and beyond. Rose praises him as “the ultimate arbiter of tea”.

“When you drink tea, you get high,” according to Rose, who spent three years putting this book together, with research in China, India and elsewhere. “Tea promotes mental alertness, happiness, sharper perception. It is a stimulant, albeit a mild one.”

“Drink it,” Fortune wrote, “and the animal spirits will be lively and clear . . .Drinking it tends to clear away all impurities, drives off drowsiness, removes or prevents headache, and it is universally in high esteem.”

Tea contains theanine, phenolics and caffeine, which is “the most widely consumed behaviour-modifying drug in the world,” Rose points out. “It stimulates the nervous and cardiovascular systems . . . It raises mood levels and decreases feelings of fatigue, increasing attention and quickening reactions.

“Today in the West it seems there is a new study every day examining the health benefits of drinking tea – from its anti-oxidant and anti-carcinogenic properties, to its role in stabilising diabetes, raising metabolic rates and lowering the risk of obesity, or boosting the immune system . . . Experts are examining tea from every direction as a magic elixir for respite, recreation, and a better, longer life.” No advertising copywriter could compose a more persuasive eulogy to tea. One wishes that Rose had divulged the brand name of the tea which inspired the incandescent enthusiasm of her prose.

As well as providing an encouraging pharmacopoeia of tea, Rose presents tea as the focus of an exotic adventure story. Britain’s East India Company traded Indian opium for China tea, and when China began growing its own poppies the company and later the government of British India sent Robert Fortune on two long, covert expeditions to purloin China tea. At sea, he encountered Chinese pirates, when “life in a pirate gang was a frenzy of sodomy, gang rape, torture and cannibalism.” On land, although he was disguised by Mandarin robes and a pigtail and escorted by two native servants, there was a possibility of arrest and execution. However, it is difficult for Rose to maintain suspense, as Fortune’s eventual success is known from the outset.

In the course of what Rose describes as Fortune’s “industrial espionage,” there were valuable incidental benefits. With his “collector’s eye for the rare and wonderful,” he discovered the winter-blooming jasmine, the white wisteria, the corsage gardenia and the kumquat, which, in his honour, is known as Citrus fortunei.

Rose makes some bold statements. “The economies of European nations in the 19th century were built on the sale of stimulants and addictive drugs. Without drugs, the British Empire would not have been possible.”

But she also gives Fortune’s instructions on how to make a cup of tea. On that level, her book is uncontroversially easy to swallow.

Patrick Skene Catling has published 12 novels and nine books for children