STEEPSTER BOOK CLUB: For All the Tea in China, Week One Discussion HERE!

Here is the place where we can start discussing For All the Tea in China, beginning through Chapter 5.

Here are a few questions to get you started thinking and discussing the book. I am hoping you all will also post more questions as we start discussing!

1. Had you heard of Robert Fortune before encountering this book? If yes, what did you know about him?

2. Victorian Society plays a large part in this book. In what ways are things similar to today? How about different? What parts of Victorian Society stand out to you?

3. What is the English viewpoint toward China? Toward India? It’s a big question, but how do these early chapters make you feel about what England is doing within both of these countries?

4. Did you learn any facts that surprised you? What were they?

5. Did you learn any new-to-you words? :)

6. What do you think of Robert Fortune so far? Do you like him? Why or why not?

7. What tea-related information have you learned?

8. What is your favorite passage in the book so far?

That should get us started :) Again, I encourage you to submit your questions and can’t wait to read your comments!

61 Replies

When do you want us to start answering these? I’m just starting chapter 5 now.

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You can start now! These are just conversation starters – if there is something that jumped out at you, by all means add it to the pot :)

I am really enjoying it so far!! I must have said, “WOW! I didn’t know that!” a hundred times already! I love the author’s engaging prose – I got sucked in right away. I’m going to take a crack at answering some of the questions by the end of the weekend :)

Rabs said

LOL – I so agree with the “WOW! I didn’t know that!”

I had a movie night with my mom last night and we watched The Young Victoria which is an absolutely lovely film. But it hit me 1/3 of the way through that this is the basic time period of our book. It’s really helping me to get a better grasp of the atmosphere during that time period.

Doulton said

I’ve ordered the book from and am waiting for it to arrive. Maybe Monday! Should be no later than Tuesday! Feeling urgent! I love to discuss Victorian society.

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Ok, here goes. Since I’m stuck home with a sick little on I have some time on my hands to kick this off. :-)

1. Yes, I’d heard of him through other tea books, that he’d disguised himself to get into the interior of China and bring out tea plants and manufacturing secrets.

2. The things that stand out to me most aren’t so much about the society per se, but about the significance of China as a trading partner with the West, which is also true today, as well as the tensions between isolationism and free trade. Followed by the connection between plants and medicine/the medical profession. I didn’t realize the connection between botany and medicine was so strong and that those with interests in botany frequently became doctors (if that option was available to them), but now we hear a lot about this very issue particularly in connection with loss of rainforest habitats.

3. Toward India it seems pretty clearly an imperialist attitude, that the colony should be a market for English goods as well as supply England with natural resources and cheap labor to enable it to compete with similarly situated companies in similar markets. Toward China it seems pretty complicated and contradictory. On the one hand, there’s a dependency, but with the dependency comes some degree of fear and resentment. There also appeared to be a near total misunderstanding on Fortune’s part of Chinese society, particularly the role of “face.” On page 27, there’s this discription: "To East India House, it had long seemed preposterous that any country, let alone one of “backwards Orientals,” could so thorougly ignore trade initiatives from a nation whose mighty navy, at the time, dominated the world." And then on p. 48, there’s something that’s almost opposite: “Unlike much of the world underoing Britain’s program of colonization, China was, to the British mind, almost civilized. The Chinese had cultivated passions and refinement, poetry, music and philosophy; above all China had a reverence for gardens.”

4. Yes! In particular, I was fascinated by the discussion on pages 44-48 about Ward’s discovery of the terrarium and its use to transport plant specimins during long ocean voyages.

5. Some Chinese words. :-)

6. So far, I like him. He seems extremely resourceful, and passionate about plants, and also has a spirit of adventure. I found the description of him as an obsessive
amusing. So far I haven’t seen a lot to illustrate that point, but will be looking for it going on. He does seem out of touch with the culture in which he finds himself in China to some extent, but I don’t think he is unique in that. He does seem open to adopting local customs, and not just because it promotes his disguise, which is a point in his favor. I’ll be interested to see how this piece of the story continues to develop.

7. Mostly historical info about the tea trade. About tea itself, so far not a lot, though there is the interesting question about whether black and green teas come from the same plant that Fortune is seeking to answer, and whether it is true that the better green teas come from the region he’s currently travelling to while the better black ones come from further in the interior. Looking forward to following this thread.

8. Favorite passage, p. 13: “viewed as a place of trade, I fear Hong Kong will be a failure,” he wrote none too prophetically.

So far I like him too. He has a resourceful streak which I find irresistible!! I love how quick thinking he was when the Pirates attacked! I also respect his deep love of plants. I got chills when I read, “Although science was very much at the core of Fortune’s work, he was at heart a gardener, and a gardener is an artist.” I couldn’t agree more. I like that he’s an innovator – he didn’t want to keep the PhysicGarden like it was in the seventeen century, and embraced the forward thinking taxonomy system of Carolus Linnaeus. I also like that he wants to advance in society to further his studies and work, and not for purely social and/or monetary reasons.

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Rabs said

1. Fortune is a completely new historical figure to me.

2. Oh my. Well, I think here in the US there’s been a long period of time where many US citizens have been…extremely prideful in that the “USA’s #1 and can do no wrong.” I can see that as being somewhat Victorian in that there’s the feeling that “our country is more civilized/better than other countries.” I mean, there’s patriotism, and then there’s being belligerent to others. Does that make sense?

I think a main difference is that in today’s society one is able to move into different classes more easily than during Victorian times. I really have enjoyed Rose adjusting the money to reflect both dollars and what it would equate to in today’s terms. I think that it’s this rigidity that has also stood out the most to me.

3. I’ll try and keep this one short and sweet: they’re both tools for the British empire and so far I’m not a fan of how these two countries are viewed/used. I was also surprised at how “civilized” China was considered to be because of the horticulture (amongst other things). It seems condescending to me.

4. I feel like so far this has been an epic “Oh, I didn’t know that” sort of book. I had no clue that the “English Rose” wouldn’t be what it was today without the introduction of Chinese roses. That the roses in England used to be pretty colorless. That blew my mind. And so many plant species that I thought of as typically English (I’m looking at you Lilac) had originated in Asia. I’m really both enjoying and appreciating all the research Sarah Rose did to give us such a deep and well-rounded picture of so many complex world and scientific issues.

5. The whole pidgin thing is also sort of blowing my mind. What I had thought of as a racist mocking of a language (which some of it is) actually had served an important purpose in bridging the communication barrier in the Victorian age. It still sort of creeps me out when Wang or others speak in pidgin.

6. I don’t know what I really think of him so far. I like that when he was approached with this huge offer that his main response was “I need to talk with my wife.” I’m a bit frustrated that he didn’t look into the Chinese social customs more before undertaking this task – but I’ll cut him some slack since he was given so little notice before going undercover. I’ve avoided looking up any information on him on the internet so that I can be surprised by both the story and with what he actually looks like (versus the quasi-Harrison Ford character that I’ve got going on in my mind). I also really respect his passion for plants.

7. There’s a ton that I’m learning – a lot of it like Morgana where most of it’s about the tea trade itself. The whole “opium/tea trade” cycle that was going on there – if I’d ever learned about that in school I sure as heck don’t remember it. There’s just a lot of things I’ve never really thought about (like Chinese versus Indian tea). I’m looking forward to getting into more specifics as well, but I feel like a really good foundation has been laid in grasping how massive Fortune’s efforts were.

8. I’ll echo __Morgana__’s – that one made me laugh. I also liked “It is said there were no deeply colored roses in England before the introduction of the China rose; the War of the Roses could have had no true red rose for a symbol, only a pale pink one” (p. 51).

Hehe, Harrison Ford! Yeah, that’s a great way to cast Fortune (only I think we’d need the .. ahem… young Harrison).

I love casting movies of group trips, of projects I worked on, etc. I kind of like Cheech and Chong for the two assistants. Lol.

Rabs said

LOL! I do that too especially with books: who’d play whom? With your mention of a young Harrison (oooh yeeeah) it just occurred to me that I have no idea how old Fortune is at this point in the story. 30’s? 40’s? Did I miss the mention of this?

Mid-30s. He was 33 in 1845 (p. 6)

Rabs said

Wow – thank you for finding that! I’m slightly horrified to know that he was the same age as I currently am. I really need to be setting/accomplishing more goals!

Rabs said

Dur, just realized that by the start of chapter 6 it’s three years later. Now I’m less horrified (but only a little bit – he’d still accomplished quite a bit by 33). I still need to get me some bigger goals! ;)

Maybe it’s because I recently saw the Sherlock Holmes film, but he is in my head as looking like Jude Law as Watson!

Rabs said

Ooh – I have yet to see the new Sherlock Holmes film, but I like the image of Jude Law even more :) I think that I’m gonna laugh when I finally look him up to see. :D

In next week’s chapters we’re introduced to another character who could be the Jude Law character, and another couple of characters that will also need casting. Also seems like we need to consider Colin Firth and Hugh Grant since they tend to be in every period piece that comes along with a Brit in it. Lol.

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So far my favorite passage is the reprint of the review of Robert Fortune’s book “Three Years” from The Times of London – I’ll include it because it really evokes the period, and it’s just too clever with all the tea references:

When readers have recovered from the intoxication produced by the exciting drink of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we seriously recommend them…to “try Fortune’s mild Bohea.” There is no adulteration in the article. It is pure – almost to a fault, and has to be taken, as the Chinese themselves drink tea, without the ad-mixture of milk and sugar, for luscious ornament and superfluous additions our singleminded author has none. Concerning the flavour there can be no mistake. One trial will prove the excellence of the commodity, and he that sips once will be soothed and sip again.

I really want to see if I can track down this book!

The pirate story was none too shabby either!!!!!! Very heart stopping-ly told!!

Rabs said

There are really a lot of poignant sentences/passages so far. I loved that passage too. :) You’ll have to keep us posted if you do track down a copy! I could envision this as a Masterpiece Theater production.

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Two words that were new to me were perquisites and sinecure.

(from Mirriam-Webster)

Perquisites: a privilege, gain, or profit incidental to regular salary or wages; especially one expected or promised

Sinecure: an office or position that requires little or no work and that usually provides an income

These words tie into the discussion of class. Robert Fortune wasn’t independently wealthy, which is I think the predominant reason why he went on such a long, dangerous journey to parts unknown! His birth and class put a sort of glass ceiling (or should I say Wardian case ;) over him. He couldn’t advance as much as he wanted to without already having means. The book talks about how people like Charles Darwin had sizable private incomes with which to fund their research. This isn’t something we think of as much now with student loans available, America being called “the land of opportunity” etc. but it was so all encompassing during the Victorian era.

One way I think we are similar to the Victorian era is the fetishizing of the natural world. Just like industrialization made Victorians yearn for heaps of potted plants on every sill, and painted ferns on their dishes, our environmental crisis is producing our “green” movement. It’s kind of eerie to note the similarities, especially knowing that after the Victorian era came two world wars then a great expansion of the chemical industry!!

…and to further the class discussion – the concept of Face in China. Interesting that Robert Fortune lacked class distinction in England AND Face in China, yet changed the world!!!

Rabs said

^^^That right there – that’s a wonderful insight JacquelineM! I actually did a mental doubletake when I read that post. I’m now very curious to see if he gains Face in China or England (or both).

k_t_bug said

I too think that he undertook this assignment for the money and the potential to make a lot of money shipping plants back to England.

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You probably knew perquisite without realizing you did, because I’m pretty sure it’s what the term “perk” is short for, little extra things you get as part of a job. As in a perk of the job is free tea. :-)

Ah, yes! We should call them perqs!!! :)

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k_t_bug said

I finished reading the book last night. I will try to stick to the first 5 chapters with these comments.

1. I had not heard of Robert Fortune before reading this book.
2. The class stratification of Victorian Society stands out, as does the East India Company shipping opium into China, but Queen V not letting it be brought in to England. I had heard of the Opium War, but did not realize that it was so the East India Company could ship opium into China! Talk about a drug war!!!!! outrageous!
3. With China being basically a closed except for a few trade ports, there was no way that Fortune could have understood Chinese society. His inability to speak the language fluently would not help either. Also, I think that being Anglo-centric, as Victorian era Britain was, he did not have the desire to understand the culture. He did not value the culture.
4. So many things surprised me….the East India Company and their role in India…..the opium trade…..that bleeding heart flowers originally came from China.
5. hummm, words….will have to go back and look.
6. I think that Fortune was very resourceful. I do not admire him as a person. He did make some scientific breakthroughs, but I really think that he did all this for the money. I guess that I think that the whole premise of stealing the tea was wrong.
7. I think that the big tea learning comes later in the book.
I am going to go back and re-read the first 5 chapters.

I was also not aware of the particulars of the opium trade back then. I was pretty surprised too! I guess the drug trade has always been lucrative, and governments profiting from drug trade continue until this day (Iran Contra, Noriega).

I am not going to pass judgement until I finish the book, but I am kind of letting the fact sink in that the secret of tea was stolen from China, and that some of my favorite teas are from India, and just sort of living with those concepts right now. Definitely feeling the weight of that!

Agree, Jacqueline. I haven’t been thinking about Fortune as a thief yet, just sort of watching the story unfold from the sidelines without judging at the moment. As a character, he’s interesting, which is what I mean when I say I like him. It would be difficult to get through the book if he didn’t seem somewhat likeable or at least interesting, so that may be to a certain extent authorial license to make the book more readable. I do think there’s an aspect of him wanting to make money from the venture, but I don’t get a sense that he’s a mercenary about it. He seems to value horticulture independently of its financial value.

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Lori said

I have just started the book- but JacquelineM your point about the stealing of tea from China resonates with me as well-

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Ah! You guys are fast! I am around page 40s.

I was amazed that East India Company by that time already had the major features of modern day global corporation. I knew it was a monster, but didn’t image it’s system was so “modern” back then. Now I wonder what biggest companies in other European countries were like during that time.

I haven’t read much into the book yet. But in my current impression, Fortune is very different form Darwin not just in their financial status. Darwin was a lover of biology world. Fortune was a plant hunter. In her book Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean describes 19c orchid hunters as adventurers who risked their lives to get orchids from tropics for their millionaire masters. They could kill each other and could burn tropical forests after them so that others wouldn’t get the same orchid species. Their adventure was not out of love for the plants, however they were some bravest and most capable adventurers. Although Fortune didn’t look as horrible as this, I think he was a plant hunter and I have more respect toward Darwin.

I guess the core contents are still in the later part of the book. So far from the general descriptions, I don’t feel it was “stealing” behavior taking tea from China to India. Plants have been transported from countries to countries all the time, and tea was introduced from provinces to provinces in China for many times, and people wouldn’t call the introduction of plants “stealing”, especially in 19c, when there wasn’t much regulation on what should and shouldn’t be taken out of a country. But that’s what I think. Britain imperialists stole many other things from China, but the tea doesn’t look like a “stealing” case to me.

That Orchid Thief book sounds like it needs to go on my reading list :)

I agree that Fortune was doing it for the money, but also to advance himself in the world of science and horticulture. Unlike Darwin with his private income, he had to do what was available to him… but as Morgana said above, he’s not mercenary about it.

Rabs said

Oh, I had forgotten about The Orchid Thief. I’ve wanted to see it ever since watching the movie Adaptation. These two books would probably be very fascinating to read side-by-side.

So far I’m viewing Fortune as a plant hunter, but one with less of a viscious streak. I’ve started viewing him as a socially awkward nerd who wants to both provide for his family and also make a name for himself in the snobbish scientific community. We’ll see how my opinions shift the further into the book I get :)

Lori said

Now after this book, I want to tackle the Orchid Thief… that could be a possible for one the book discussions….

so far i am not sure how i feel about him going after the tea – he knows china wants to keep it secret….

Now i’ve gone and added The Orchid Thief to my wishlist

I didn’t really get it though, if China was really that serious about keeping tea in secret. Surely China wouldn’t want England to get it (and maybe didn’t even think England could get it), because at that time, England was an enemy state. But other than that, there didn’t seem to be a reason why China wouldn’t want to give tea to other countries. Tea was introduced to Japan and Korea long time ago as friendship exchange.

But I think the book does well illustrate the states of the two societies at that time, England an industrial society and China pretty much an agricultural society. I got the impression that East India Company deemed its own behavior as stealing the tea, but back then in China there wasn’t such a concept as intellectual property.

Orchid Thief is a very interesting book. It’s about crazy orchid lovers and their passion. When I read the book, I thought of crazy tea lovers all the time :D

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