Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India. By Andrew Liu. Yale University Press; 360 pages; $50 and £35
EMPIRES ROSE and fell; the industrial revolution was consolidated. And, in the century before the first world war, goods and capital began circulating at unprecedented scale and speed. Coal was one of the crucial substances in this process. Another was a plant once associated most with China, then with India, and which is the focus of Andrew Liu’s book, “Tea War”.
The role of tea in the rise of the British Empire, the era’s leading power, is hard to overstate. Its sales, and taxes on it, filled state coffers. Its caffeine kick fuelled factories—consumption by workers helped bosses wring longer hours from them. Tea featured in wars Britain lost and won. Mr Liu mentions the Boston Tea Party’s significance in the American Revolution only in passing, since his main focus is Asia. As for the Opium War (1839-42), he reminds readers that while the conflict bears the name of a smokable narcotic, a drinkable stimulant was involved, too.
The war was triggered by a trade imbalance: Chinese consumers were not buying nearly enough British goods to compensate for the rising amounts of Chinese tea that Britain was importing. The British hit on the plan of shipping in opium from their new colony of India. The Qing dynasty objected, refusing to relax its policy of limiting Western traders to the single port of Canton (the Portuguese, who had a colony in Macau, were an exception). The ensuing British aggression was presented as a principled defence of free trade, but was largely motivated by the profits to be had in the triangular shuttling of opium and tea between India, China and Britain. The resulting victory made Hong Kong a British colony and opened parts of other ports to Western commerce.
Another “tea war” involving the same participants interests Mr Liu even more: the post-1842 competition between the Qing Empire and Assam to be the world’s leading centre of tea production, a non-violent struggle often described in martial terms. Mr Liu illuminates the role of British actors in this episode, but is more concerned with its Asian participants—such as Chinese and Indian farm workers and tea entrepreneurs—and its influence on the development of capitalism in the region and indeed the world.
A historian of economics and ideas at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, Mr Liu ranges widely in his carefully researched and well-crafted narrative. He is most concerned with the conduct and impact of the tea trade, but punctuates the story of profit and exploitation with fascinating cultural titbits. For example, he describes how Chinese Buddhists advocated tea as a healthy alternative to alcohol centuries before Victorian temperance campaigners promoted it for the same reason. Even readers who see economic history as more edifying than enjoyable will appreciate his brew of anecdote and arguments.
By The Economist https://www.economist.com/prospero/2020/07/24/a-fascinating-history-of-the-conduct-and-impact-of-the-tea-trade