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Excerpt: 'For All The Tea In China'

For All The Tea In China

Chapter Four

Shanghai to Hangzhou, September 1848

Fortune was patient as the coolie attended to his new coif. A small blue and white tea bowl sat nearby on a dusty crate, and swirling its sediment of leaves, Fortune spilled the cooling liquid out onto the dirty deck. Floors were the place to toss garbage in China, it seemed, and he was consciously trying to behave in the Chinese manner to make his disguise credible. And so, in the Chinese way, he had warmed the porcelain bowl by rinsing it with the hot water. Green tea was not Fortune's preference, absent the civilized comforts of milk and sugar, but he was coming to appreciate the custom of drinking it plain and unadulterated.

Fortune was a constant curiosity when traveling as a Westerner. To the Chinese, the Scotsman looked grotesque. He was tall, his nose was much longer than a nose need be, and his eyes were too round; although round eyes were generally considered a sign of intelligence, Fortune, with his halting Chinese, would have sounded like a child to them. Even the simple act of eating brought him unwanted attention. 'He eats and drinks like ourselves,' observed one member of a crowd, watching him on his first trip, Fortune recalled. "Look,' said two or three behind me who had been examining the back part of my head rather attentively, 'look here, the stranger has no tail'; then the whole crowd, women and children included, had to come round to me to see if it was really a fact that I had no tail.'

Not surprisingly, his servants insisted that they would join him only if he took steps to disguise himself upon leaving Shanghai. 'They were quite willing to accompany me, only stipulating that I should discard my English costume and adopt the dress of the country. I knew this was indispensable if I wished to accomplish the object in view and readily acceded to the terms.'

The style of the day required that all ethnic Chinese men shave the front of their heads as an act of fealty to the emperor. The tonsure of nearly 200 million people was a potent symbol of the invading Manchurian court's power over the individual. The Qing emperors used the edict as a way of controlling the population, of transforming a multiethnic, heterodox society into a conforming one. Refusing to be shaven was considered an act of sedition.

Having finished attaching the queue, the coolie now took his rusty razor to the front of Fortune's head and began to create a new, higher hairline for him. 'He did not shave, he actually scraped my poor head until the tears came running down my cheeks and I cried out with pain,' Fortune wrote. 'I suppose I must be the first person upon whom he had ever operated, and I am charitable enough to wish most sincerely I may be the last.'

On that first day of his journey, Fortune reviewed the itinerary and the rationale for his offensive. The job would require several years in China to complete. To jump-start production in the East India Company's tea gardens, it was critical that he bring back several thousand tea plants, many thousand more seeds, plus the highly specialized techniques of Chinese tea growing and manufacturing. He would somehow have to persuade workers from the finest factories to leave their homes and accompany him to India.

Before Fortune could identify the perfect tea recipe, however, he needed to obtain the basic ingredients themselves: the finest classes of tea that China had to offer, both green and black. To this end he decided to make at least two separate tea-hunting trips — one each for green tea and black tea, for the two were never grown together in the same region. Green tea and black tea required different growing conditions, Fortune believed. The best green tea was in the north, whereas the best black came from mountains in southern China.

From For All The Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose. Copyright 2010 by Sarah Rose. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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Sarah Rose