Despite the well-known phrase “I wouldn’t trade [insert item] for all the tea in China,” this social liquid has been become immediately identifiable over the last three hundred years as uniquely British. Although it was Queen Elizabeth I who granted the East India Company exclusive rights to the Asia trade market in 1600, tea would not be imported in any great bulk until 1664 – and then a meager 100 pounds as a gift for the wife of King Charles II of England from the East India Company to curry favor with the king. By 1750, tea imports reached 4.7 million pounds per year and today the English drink more than 165,000,000 cups every single day of the year.
How did this come to be? “For All the Tea in China,” by Sarah Rose, tells the story of Robert Fortune, an English botanist hired by the East India Company to complete the impossible mission of infiltrating the forbidden Chinese interior, procure the finest specimens of Chinese tea plants and seeds, as well as the process for harvesting and processing the plant, and ship those specimens to the East India Company’s experimental tea farms in India without destroying their viability or getting himself killed.
It’s hard to discern the importance and danger of Fortune’s undertaking without at least a brief look at the British and Chinese cultures of the mid-1800s, or the status of the two nation’s relationship.
At the heart of this culture clash is the Asian concept of face. Face can be closest compared in western terms with honor or prestige, but even these words do not even touch on the complexities of its infusion into the Chinese culture.
“In China,” Rose writes, “‘face,’ or mianxi, was a concept that a westerner like Fortune did not instinctively understand, describing as it does the prestige and reputation on gains from every human interaction. Relationships in China are defined by the reciprocal obligations between people, whether the same or different status, and every individual existed within a network of influence, a matrix of duties and social connections. The family came first, then the extended social neighborhood. Face expressed a person’s position within his or her network and was the mechanism by which Chinese assessed their obligations: which orders to obey, which favors to grant, and which supplications and apologies to make” (69.)
Her description does an excellent job of shining a light on the Chinese mind when compared to the definition of other Chinese culture experts.
In the American Journal of Sociology, David Yau-fai Ho, describes face as “the respectability and/or deference that a person can claim for him/herself from others, by virtue of the relative position he occupies in the social network and the degree to which he is judged to have functioned adequately in the position as well as acceptably in his social conduct” (833.)
Although Rose points out only two instances of Fortune’s misunderstanding of face and how the men he trusted with his life nearly get him killed in their quest to increase their own face, this concept permeates nearly every aspect of her tale.
It begins on an international scale after Britain’s defeat of China in the Opium Wars. The entire nation suffers a loss of face to the European “barbarians” and as a result of treaty must tolerate even more western influence. China was forced secede the island of Hong Kong to the British crown and open up several more coastal cities as well as Shanghai to westerners as trading posts. Although westerners had been able to gain some ground in China, they were still not allowed to leave these cities under penalty of slow and painful death (Gray 58.)
It is into this tension filled relationship Fortune steps. And his misunderstanding of the culture of face creates great tension between Fortune and his guides as he traverses the Chinese interior. Face is as integrated into Chinese culture as tea – and just like tea, wars have been fought – and westerners tortured and killed – over it.
Fortune faced a gruesome penalty if he had been caught in the Chinese interior attempting to steal China’s greatest state secret – the cultivation and processing of tea.
Long before 1849 when Fortune accepted his mission, Britain had become a nation obsessed with tea. It was not just a daily social event it was a sign of civility and a symbol of British propriety over the barbarians of the east. (Although the fact tea came from China and the Chinese revered the drink every bit as the British seemed to be irrelevant to one’s status as a barbarian or paragon of civility.)
The only place to buy quality tea at the time was China. The East India Company had failed miserably to grow its own tea in India and it was impossible to transport viable seeds and plants across the Pacific or Atlantic during this time. With the British government’s withdrawal of the East India Company’s exclusive tea trading rights, the company was desperate to increase their profits and regain dominance in the tea trade. China considered all aspects of its tea production a closely guarded state secret (Rose 29.)
The man chosen by the company for this dangerous mission was Robert Fortune, who had already made a name for himself collecting plants in China from 1846-1849. It could be argued Fortune benefited from his own increased face during his first venture. After years of toiling in anonymity for the Royal Horticultural Society, the society asked him to go to China to collect plant specimens. He was offered 100 pounds per year ($10,000 U.S. currency.) Expenses were not included and he had to beg for extra funds to buy weapons for his own protection (Rose 10.)
When he tried to negotiate better pay he was told the pay or profit from the mission should be secondary to “the distinction and status which you could not have attained in any other way” (Rose 11.)
In Chinese terms: face.
This first journey had some peril but he acquired most of his specimens through trade, although he did disguise himself several times to leave the protective walls of the trade cities, nearly died from fever, and was nearly killed by pirates (Rose 50). He parlayed his trip into a low-paying but prestigious position at the Chelsea Physic Garden, wrote a successful memoir, and this increased renown drew the attention of the desperate East India Company (Rose 35.)
He benefited greatly from his own increased face and the East India Company’s loss of face when the English parliament revoked the company’s exclusive trade rights in Asia. It was not only an embarrassment for company executives, but a financial blow as well. Not only did they now have to compete with the established presence of Islamic traders and the growing American presence, they now had to compete with other European trading companies.
Their answer to this was to hire Fortune, a man of great reputation with previous experience in China, to return there, steal the secrets of tea growing and production, and ship his specimens and findings to India where the company was trying to grow tea in the Darjeeling area of the Himalayas – an area with similar climate and soil to China’s Sung Lo and Wuyi mountains where Chinese green and black teas are grown respectively. 
“The Himalayas possessed the same growing conditions as China’s best tea regions. They were subtropical… high and cool, so the tea would be slow growing and retain its pungency (Rose 31.)
Unlike the Royal Horticulture Society, the East India Company had a very generous offer befitting an expert of his experience. He would receive 500 pounds (about $55,000 today) per year, paid passage and expenses, as well as all profits gained from any plant specimens he could sell at auction (Rose 50).
Although Rose doesn’t mention face at this point it seems likely the Royal Horticulture Society was right – Fortune had gained a significant amount of face with this peers and suitors.
Robert Fortune, the Indiana Jones of the late 19th Century botany world.
Fortune arrived in Shanghai, China in September 1948. He hired two men to help him. Wang and another man Fortune refers in his accounts to only as “the Coolie.” He chose Wang because he was a young man born in the foot hills of the prime green tea growing area of the Sung Lo Mountains whose father still owned a farm there (Rose 54.)
It was on the first leg of his journey to the Sung Lo Mountains when Fortune had his first encounter with face putting him in danger.
“Had it been known a foreigner was in the very heart of the city of Hangzhou (Hang-chow-foo), a mob would have collected and the consequences might have been serious” (Fortune 38.)
Although disguised with a shaven front head and pony tail sewn into his existing hair, he ordered his guide, Wang, to go around the busy trade city of Hangzhou for fear of being recognized and put to an inglorious death. It wasn’t until they were nearly at the gates he realized he had been disobeyed. Furious, and in opposition to his desire for anonymity, he berated his young guide in a public square. Wang’s reaction is not what Fortune believes it to be. Going back to Ho’s explanation that face includes “…the degree to which he is judged to have functioned adequately in the positions…” on the surface it would appear that Wang was losing face for displeasing his master, however the opposite is true. To be berated so harshly in public increased Wang’s face with workers who witnessed it. Only a servant who held a position of high trust and importance could draw such ire. In addition, Wang’s master must be a very important person to become so angry he would berate his servant in public (Rose 69.)
“[Fortune] did not appreciate the high level of status he conferred upon [his guides] by depending on them so heavily. Nor did he see how rebellious this would make them” (Rose 71.)
Roberts own words indicate he did not understand. Since Fortune could not read Chinese, he entrusted the younger Wang to the hiring of boats and procuring of contracts because he felt the other servant was “little better than a common coolie” (Fortune 21.) This put Want in the position of skimming off the top – pocketing the change from each transaction (known as “the squeeze”). This was a great affront to the older coolie, who felt it was his duty as the elder to perform this task and thus reap the benefits of the squeeze. It caused an enormous amount of jealousy and loss of face to the older Chinese man.
“I thought that in the present jealous state,” Fortune explained, “the one would prove a check upon the other. The projected journey was a long one, the way was unknown to me, and I should have been placed in an awkward position had they agreed to rob me when far inland. The jealous feeling that existed between them was therefore, I considered, rather a safeguard than otherwise” (Fortune 23.)
A westerner clearly not understanding the situation. In fact, Fortune lost face with the older worker who began to cause problems continually arguing over money with the younger Wang. The coolie once caused a drunken brawl which brought unwanted attention and expense to his master. He also told the crew of one of the boats they hired he was an Englishman. If not for the negotiation skill of Wang, Fortune would have been sold to the government for an award. And would probably be cut to 24 distinct pieces as a warning to others. And of course Wang was rewarded with a significant squeeze from each incident which only drove the coolie to greater furor (Rose 28.)
Despite the treacherous relationship in this cultural triangle, Fortune made it to Sung Lo and back to Shanghai completely intact, with thousands of seeds and detailed knowledge of the tea planting, harvesting and curing process, touring one of the factories disguised as an important Mandarin.
Fortune took extensive and detailed notes on the process of tea. Including the type of soil, elevation, weather, length of time until harvest, harvest method, drying method, length of fermentation and all aspects of the physical handing of the leaves. Everything and anything that could possibly effect the quality of the tea was noted.
Now it was time to travel to the black tea districts in the Wuyi Mountains (also known as Bohea). Here, with a new guide, face would rear its misunderstood head again and cause Fortune more headache. Upon the recommendation of an English trader, Fortune hired Sing Hoo. Sing Hoo was from the Wuyi Mountain area and he bore the flag the Imperial Court where he had once worked – very few encountered on the road would question him (Rose 139.)
At first things went well. Rose recalls Fortune’s account of a traffic jam on the river. A boat captain refused to wait his turn and tried to get past the boat Fortune had hired. Unwilling to see his master “outfaced,” Sing Hoo brought out his Imperial banner and brow beat the offending boat captain into submission. (141.)
However, Sing Hoo turned out to be not much different than Wang when it came to the squeeze. The more important his master, the more he could afford. To raise his own face, Sing Hoo began to make each introduction of his master more detailed, glorified and status oriented.
“Rather than helping him maintain a low profile, Sing Hoo raised it and then embellished it in order to bask in the reflected glory of his master’s perceived stature.” The more his background grew the more uncomfortable Fortune became. He was a descendent of Genghis Khan, hand many wives and was very rich, a venerated warrior and respected leader (Rose 169.)
Fortune wanted to draw as little attention as possible – either good or bad – but just like Wang and his former coolie, Sing Hoo’s face had other plans, and just like his former guides, the attention Sing Hoo drew was sometimes negative. One night while taking refuge in an opium den that doubled for an inn, Fortune woke terrified at the sound of loud fighting in the courtyard. He discovered his drunken servant in the middle of it.
“Eight or ten stout fellows, including the chair-bearers, were attacking my servant,” recalls Fortune, “who was standing, like a tiger at bay, up against the wall of the house. He had a large joss-stick in his hand which every now and then he was poking at the faces of those who threatened to close with him. The most adventurous sometimes got a poke which sent them back, cursing and swearing, rather faster than they came. The whole scene brought vividly to my mind Bailie Nicol Jarvie’s fight with the red-hot poker, so admirably described by Sir Walter Scott. Had I been an uninterested spectator, I might have enjoyed a hearty laugh at the scene before me but I was in the midst of a strange country and hostile people and, being the weaker party, I felt really alarmed. The only weapon in my possession was a small pocket-pistol, one of those which are loaded by unscrewing the barrel. Thinking that if matters came to the worst this might be of some use, either in frightening our assailants or in saving my life, I went back to my bed-room and got it out. When I examined it I found that the wet had rusted the barrel, and it would not unscrew. It was therefore of no use.” (290-291.)
Fortune decided to bluff his way out of trouble and waved his useless weapon around to calm everyone down. He discovered his servant – in an effort to get the most lucrative squeeze – had made promises of payment to the laborers for some unspecified reason. He berated his servant and forced him to pay the money out of his own pocket. Sing Hoo lost a tremendous amount of face. And Fortune, terrified by stories of opium den murders was determined not to spend another day there. But word of the ruckus had reached the nearby village and laborers refused to work with Sing Hoo, so he had to carry Fortunes equipment on his own through the rain and mud. He begged his master to return to the inn, but Fortune was too frightened to do so (Rose 181.)
With a more contrite servant in the wake of his loss of face, as well as creating a loss of face for his master, the rest of Fortune’s journey went more smoothly. He made it to Bohea where he stayed at a temple which grew and processed its own black tea. He stayed for nearly a month learning everything he could about the process as well as collecting seeds and plants to send back to India when he returned to Shanghai.
Thanks to Robert Fortune (and British imperialism), the Darjeeling District of West Bengal, India is a respected modern producer of the highest quality of tea in the world.
Even after his three previous years in China, Fortune still had a westerner’s ignorance of face and its importance in Chinese culture. Strangely, more than 100 years later, western leaders still remain ignorant.
At a welcoming ceremony outside the White House in 2006, a reporter heckled Chinese president Hu Jintao. The reporter was a member of the outlawed Falun Gong religious sect. To Americans he was using his freedom of speech. But to the Chinese it’s considered negligence by the U.S. at least and disrespect at the worst, specifically in such a formal situation. Another face damaging/not giving face example also happened at the ceremony. The band played the “national anthem of the Republic of China,” which is actually the name of Taiwan. President Bush apologized later in his office. The next day, “Hu was in no mood to make concessions. In negotiations, he gave the U.S. nothing on delicate matters such as the nuclear problems in North Korea and Iran, the Chinese value, and the trade deficit with China” (Milbank 2006.)
Which brings us to one last matter of face in the case of Robert Fortune. According to Rose, most of her story about Fortune’s life in China comes from his published materials and a few surviving journal entries. (His wife inexplicably burned her husband’s notes and personal affects after his death.) But even so, there was no record of his private life in England. It has been speculated by authorities in the author’s research that his public birth date was registered a year later than his actual birth date by his parents to prevent embarrassment, and that Fortune preferred his personal background not be scrutinized too closely due to his own position of high honor in English society (Rose 245.).
The author does a brilliant job of painting the cultural landscape of 19th Century China, explaining the dynamics of face in Chinese relations and the consequences of being ignorant of this concept. Rose entertainingly educates the reader in Chinese and British culture. If the author had any prior preconceptions or biases it did not show through her writing – I could not even tell if she liked or disliked tea. But I could tell she loved her material which she nursed through three years of research and visits to the green and black tea areas of China, as well as England and India.
The only weakness of her tale is how Fortune moved all his Wardian cases through China. She describes in detail how the Wardian case was discovered and how it works to protect plants on their overseas journey, but it’s unclear on how massive or easy this undertaking was and how many people he had with him besides his guides to ensure safe transportation. The cases can hold thousands of tiny seeds, so it seems they didn’t need to be very large, but he also placed in them grown plants which are much larger than seeds.
But it’s just a minor flaw in an otherwise seamless telling of an amazing true life adventure and cultural discourse.
Wardian cases – self contained environments which allowed plants to grow and survive the nine to 11-month trip back to Europe and India. Before it was invented plants usually died from lack of sunlight in cargo holds or from the spray of salt water if stored on deck.
 United Kingdom Tea Council. “History of Tea.” Web. <www.tea.co.uk/history-of-tea>
 By 1920, 75 percent of imported tea in Britain came from plantations in India. International Tea Committee. “History.” Web. <http://www.inttea.com/>.
 A “coolie” is a generic term for a Chinese laborer many of whom were imported to India and the United States and treated little better than slaves (Northrup 127.)
 The worst punishments were saved for foreigners and 24 pieces was the greatest insult. If a judge was feeling lenient, a prisoner appropriately contrite, or extenuating circumstances involved, the sentence may be reduced to being cut into eight pieces (Gray 59.)
 A type of incense used in many East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, traditionally burned before a Chinese religious image, idol or shrine (Merriam-Webster.)
 This same reporter heckled Hu’s predecessor at the White House five years previously (Milbank 2006.)
 Invented in 1829 by Dr. Nathaniel Ward, the Wardian case is a small glass box which provides plants a sealed, independent environment to grow. This breakthrough allowed plants to survive the six to 11 month journey from Asia and the Americas. Prior to its use most plants died from lack of sunlight in the cargo hold or from the spray of salt water from being stored on deck. (Hershey 276.)
(References pages are always available to anyone interested in more information.)