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

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I love this book. I am reading it on my laptop with the Kindle app. Love it!
I had not heard of Robert Fortune before. As a science teacher, I am loving him. He is quick on his when the pirates were there and he dressed the crew in his clothes. But he is not observant of human behavior…he wondered why the crew was not talking to him…I often don’t notice things about people around me, but I do notice nature around me. It is like Science people are in a bubble on earth.
I had never thought about where flowering plants and potted plants originated.
We started Biology this week in my class, so the mention of Carolus Linnaes and the Ward’s case interested me.
I have made several notes about chapter 6 that I will save for next week.

If you have any questions you’d like to have included in next week’s discussion thread, let me know :)

I like your observation about how science people are in a bubble – they notice nature and natural phenomena but are not as easy with the social world. It helps me understand him not picking up on some of the social cues in yet another way!

Rabs said

I too really appreciate the insight of the “scientific bubble.” Quite a few things clicked in place when I read your post. I guess I was focusing on the artistry of gardening and I looked past how scientifically he set up his garden. From there the social awkwardness to how vast his identification ended up being in China, well it all makes more sense. Thank you :)

Lori said

Fortune seemed to have NO interest in the culture around him and I guess that is true as he is mostly a biologist and not necessarily an anthropologist…

I actually got it on the barnes and novel e-reader so i could get started right away, ebooks are so great! (this is my first one)

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Lori said

I am quite suprised by this book. It seems on every page I am learning something new…

One point not mentioned previously- I loved the detailed description about the concept of “face” in Chinese culture…And yet, as others have mentioned previously, Fortune has no interest in understanding personal /social interactions with the Chinese…

And the Ward’s case- who would have that a terrarium – which seemed to be a “novelty” to me – was instrumental in the transport of plants around the world…duh! How would you transport a plant on a ship for months??? I was aware of certain plants such as camellia, azaleas, magnolias as originating from China and those plants have been planted in Louisiana I am certain since the 1800s..but I never put the concept together- how did they transport those plants from China to US? Certainly there was no Fedex…

Your question got me curious so I started looking around! I found this about azaleas:

Azaleas in America

There are at least 26 species of azaleas native to North America, including the flame azalea (R. calendulaceum) and fragrant white azalea (R. viscosum), also called the swamp honeysuckle. In the 1990s, two deciduous azalea species were discovered in Alabama. Asian azaleas came to the United States via England. The first hybrids were planted in Charleston, South Carolina in 1848.

from here:

and I also read that there were some types of native magnolias in America. Interesting!!

yes, exactly Lori! i was like…ok plants, china to india….

Lori said

Ah- I did not know they had native Azaleas- and interesting that Asian Azaleas came to US in mid 1800s….

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If anyone is in the NYC area, Sarah is doing a reading at the Barnes and Noble on 5th and 18th street at 6:00 tomorrow night!

If you go tell her the Steepster Book club is loving her book!!!

oh my! i wish i could go :(

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1. No

2. Similar- the my country is better than yours attitude
Different – more strict classes, so much unknown in science
stand out – How the medical field and botany were so close, how long everything takes (sailing here and there, letters), how powerful the east india company was
what and why pidgen came about

3. China-almost civilized, worth trading with, greedy and jealous
i feel bad for both countries

4. Did you learn any facts that surprised you? What were they?
oh my so much! all sorts of flowers that came from china, about china, about the opium wars, all about Victorian botany and society, and the east indian company

5. Did you learn any new-to-you words? :)
not that i recall

6. What do you think of Robert Fortune so far? Do you like him? Why or why not?
he thinks he’s all civilized and observant and intelligent, but he’s in his own world of plants, i like him but sometimes he irks me

7. What tea-related information have you learned?
too much to list! how important warden cases were to having tea in india, how secret the favorite drink of the world was not so long ago

8. What is your favorite passage in the book so far?
i can’t pick one

. . . .

oh my this book is so fun so far, i was afraid it might be dry! the whole opium wars, victorian botony, victorian england view of china, origins of plants so much fun! i can’t wait to start reading chapter 6!

Lori said

Yes Fortune is irksome….not sure why- but he is…

maybe we want him to be all james bond or something and instead he’s book smart gardener ? best i can come up with so far with why he’s irking me

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k_t_bug said

I am really enjoying reading this book. I have read it all the way through and have now gone back and reread the first seven chapters. I am still stuck on the fact that I think that this stealing of tea was wrong.

On page 17, the author writes:
“These empire builders brought concrete knowledge from faraway locations, and with the acquisition of that knowledge England gained a growing confidence that it could possess, command, and profit from the entire world.”

Hummm….possess, command and profit from the entire world… forward to now….what if…..for the sake of discussion, you substitute China in that sentence rather than England. What if China thought that is was ok to “possess, command and profit from the entire world” through “collecting” what others consider their own intellectual property…..does Google come to mind?

Their “ownership” of tea and the processing of tea was their intellectual property (modern term).Fortune collected the plant and also the knowledge and knowledge workers to process that tea.

Hadn’t the some of the New World colonies revolted by the time of this book over practices by this empire and the East India Company?

Lori said

As regards to the stealing, unfortunately, this happens “all of the time”- in fact, now other countries, China, Viet Nam, and India, use manufacturing processes that were primarily developed in the West, especially US.

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All right, a little late to the party, but I’ll start with Jacqueline’s questions:

1. I hadn’t heard of Fortune before this book.

2.The classist ideas about who should be doing science really stood out to me. The attitude seems to go beyond “don’t expect to be paid for your work” to “if you aren’t independently wealthy you have no business in this field – get out” and Fortune is only barely tolerated for his amazing competence. In light of all that, I can certainly understand his motivation to make his name and (hah!) fortune.

3. Oi. England’s attitude toward China, from this book, is… odd. Dismissive of them as barbarian, but condescendingly tolerant “well they’re better than most” because of the shared botanical interests and clearly stratified society. Obviously I am Not Pleased about the colonialism in India, and seriously Not Pleased about the government-by-monolithic-corporation that Britain imposes on India. I hardly know how to deal with it beyond that.

4.The flowers! Oh my goodness I had no idea how many of the flowers I love (bright roses! Lilacs! Magnolias!) were native to China and not seen in the rest of the world until after 1850. It also surprised and amused me to realize that botanists were such adventurers; it seems like such a… homely occupation, to me. But clearly it wasn’t, and probably still isn’t, I just associate the word more with gardens and greenhouses than dangerous voyages and adventures.

6. I do like Fortune well enough so far.

7. Mostly things I feel silly for not having realized already e.g. the origins of jasmine and Earl Grey teas lie in packing tea with these native (to China) plants to naturally scent them. I also hadn’t realized that there were tea plants in India (though I did know of the existence of the Assamica varietal) and that tea was being made prior to Fortune’s adventure – it just wasn’t good enough! Likewise, that the harvesting and oxidizing techniques were relatively unknown, and thus as crucial as the plants.

8. Not sure of a favorite passage yet, but it is a fairly engaging read for nonfiction. I’m still reading chapter 5, so may add to this when I finish.

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Britt☮ said

I don’t have too much to say that hasn’t already been said. It was a little hard for me to get into this book in the beginning, but now I’m finding it quite intriguing.

I was surprised to learn was that Mexican silver dollar coins were the first world currency! In fact, I’m learning a lot about history I didn’t know before.

One passage that stood out to me: “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.” I read that and couldn’t help but smile, because, as a sugar-addicted westerner now living in Japan (where tea is always drunk plain), I feel exactly the same :)

Lori said

I too was shocked about the Mexican silver coins being the first world currency- almost seems unbelieveable…

Also, yes the green tea passage mimics my tea habits as well…

Cofftea said

That passage stuck out to me to! I’m sure because I, too, am learning to appreciate tea unadulterated after being raised on sweetened instant iced tea. You should see the looks on people’s faces when I say I don’t like my iced tea sweetened.

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Lori said

One other thought- was it not mentioned that the East India Company promoted abstaining from alcohol to promote the sale of its tea…..

Cofftea said

I remember reading that as well. That would not fair w/ me as I mix the two:)

Lori said


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I approach non-fiction with some trepidation generally. But For All the Tea in China is the first SBC selection and it’s about tea. So here goes.

Prologue (pp 1-6)

History was not my favorite subject in school and one I took little of (although I now wish differently). So much of this is new info to me. I’m glad the author decided to provide it for background or I’d have been lost as to why England wish to steal tea plants and knowledge.

aegis – a: protection. b: controlling or conditioning influence.
profligacy – wild extravagance
cession – a yielding to another : concession
entrepot – an intermediary center of trade and transshipment

Janefan said

how’d I miss those words? I need to start paying attention and writing down “vocabulary words” when I read to lookup later! I guess I just kind of skipped over them… I only knew “profligacy” out of those 4, but answered “no” to the question. Thanks for sharing!!

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Janefan said

I am way behind, somewhere in the middle of “week 2” still I think. Just haven’t had nearly enough reading time lately!

1. Had you heard of Robert Fortune before encountering this book? If yes, what did you know about him?
No. only through recent reviews of this book and stories on NPR.

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?
The idea of the Victorian fascination with plants, insects, etc. as a direct result of the industrial revolution fascinated me. I wonder to what extent we idolize bygone eras/environments/technologies as our cultural “progress” renders them obsolete.

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?
England seemed to be using each country for its own ends, and playing one against another.

4. Did you learn any facts that surprised you? What were they?
I had no idea of the general awesomeness and scientific importance of terrariums until now!

Also I had no idea about the Chinese concept of “face” – from which I assume we get the idea of “saving face”?

5. Did you learn any new-to-you words? no

6. What do you think of Robert Fortune so far? Do you like him? Why or why not?
He seems a bit oblivious to cultural differences – insensitive, but not hopeless

7. What tea-related information have you learned? Not yet

8. What is your favorite passage in the book so far?
Descriptions of the beauty of the Chinese landscape

Lori said

LOL! I loved the terrarium part as well…and yes, Fortune was oblivious…

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