Review of “For all the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History” by Sarah Rose

Recently, I finished For all the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose. I listened to the unabridged audio edition, narrated by the author (who also produced the ‘trailer’ for the book):

For all the Tea in China is the story of Robert Fortune, a botanist and explore/industrial espionage agent. Indeed, Sarah Frost spends a good deal of time on the essential nature of these titles. Indeed, the protagonist is remarkably similar to those who are accused of exactly such crimes. Technically educated, personally ambitious, patriotic, and not scrupulous about the laws of the country he visits, a similar book may one day be written about Baidu’s attacks on Google. Like some of the Chinese scientists accused of corporate espionage, Fortune was professionally published (he has a number of plants named after him, three of which are prominent enough to have their own Wikipedia pages), as well as popular books which are available from Google:

Sarah Rose frames the story as one of two countries, HEIC (technically, Mughal) India and Manchu China, and two flowers, opium and tea. Indian opium was exchanged for Chinese tea, a precarious balance that could be easily be tilted if the Qing ever decided to regulate & tax opium. The HEIC did not believe it could rely on the incompetence of the Qing dynasty forever, and so began its only form of protection: attempting to grow tea.

For all the Tea in China reminds me of Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age, in that it is the story of the tremendous research and development efforts a monopolist can make. While Crystal Fire revolved around AT&T (the American Telephone & Telegraph Company), For all the Tea in China is the chronicle of HEIC (the Honorable East India Company). For HEIC not only did the hard work of maintaining experimental tea farms in India, sending explorers into India, providing them with contacts and cover stories, taking care of shipping… but also invention. While Fortune did not invent the Wardian case which would allow the first successful tea transplantation, he did pioneer their use as a portable incubator for tea plants.

The tone of the book is slightly feminine, as while the history is told ‘straight,’ the context of the story focuses on the life and relationships of Robert Fortune, as opposed to the geopolitical context. The somewhat Gothic nature of his marriage is emphasized more than, say, the global catastrophe which looms over Fortunes adventures. (He visits China shortly before the Taiping Rebellion, India before the Sepoy Mutiny, and America before the Civil War). While this aspect is missing from other female historians, like Barbara Tuchman, is adds another dimension to the book.

For all the Tea in China is an exciting tale of the East India Company, the Qing Dynasty, and the trade is neuroactive flowers that enmeshed them both. It is available from Amazon.com and Audible.

Rationality and Historical Validity of Faiths

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
John 1:1

The word for Word, of course, is ‘Logos,’ which means ‘Word,’ ‘Account,’ ‘Fraction,’ or ‘Reason.’

Its somewhat self-referential, but a comparison of religions from the Christian perspective is really a comparison of Reasons, and determining which one is most rational. Of course, religion predates the tool of science, so I’m not saying that religion is scientific, but in the Christian tradition religion is rational.

Therefore, a first cut through the world’s religions removes irrational religions, such as mysticism or animism, as simply not compatible with what a religion should be. These may be avenues or reflections of something that is true in a religion, but they cannot be rational religions in themselves.

This reduces the number of possible religions rather sharply, and we are basically left with two rational traditions

  • Abrahamic
  • Dharmic

I think from an evolution of thought perspective these two systems seem to be the most ‘fit.’ For instance, take this striking visualization

With which only a few present a historical account or reason why it is valid instead of others. Many faiths appear to faith, of course, but those that provide a system of evidence of arguing that their historical claims are actually true.
As far as I’ve read, the faiths that present an argument from historical validity may be classified as

  • Catholic Christianity
  • Orthodox Christianity
  • Rabbinical Judaism
  • Islam (most varieties)
  • Sri Lankan Buddhism
  • Chinese Buddhism

Faiths I am specifically and intentionally excluding include:

  • Protestant Christianity: A coherent adherence to Sola Scriptura removes these faiths from the need for historical validty, and a rejection of Sola Scriptura is incoherent
  • Zen Buddhism: Tibetan Buddhism is a form of spirit worship
  • Japanese Shinto/Buddhism: ditto, but with nature worship too
  • Mormonism/Scientology: Science-fiction faiths which are empirically testable, and thus not faiths, but rather (astoundingly improbable) scientific theories

So back to the list

Sri Lankan Buddhism is very well attested, but I am not sure that it is not simply a form of atheism.

In areas where Chinese Buddhism contradicts Sri Lankan Buddhism, (a) Sri Lankan Buddhism’s version is attested hundreds of years earlier, and just as suspiciously, (b) Chinese Buddhism is remarkably similar to Nestorian Christianity (even has a Trinity!), which was introduced to China at about the time at Chinese Buddhism formed

So of the four that remain, all incorporate by reference a trail of documents and books stretching back to Abraham in the desert, all have rather details accounted of the Roman Empire, and all hinge on specific teachings given by Jesus which we can only access second- or third- hand.

Of these four, the Islamic tradition is the worst attested. The Koran contains numerous innovations that contradict the both Catholic/Orthodox Christianity and Judaism, some of which are simply unattested (Did Abraham offer up Isaac or Ishmael) and some of which are very improbable (the Koran’s claim that Jews worship Ezra as the Son of God):

“And the Jews say: Ezra is the son of Allah, and the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah. That is their saying with their mouths. They imitate the saying of those who disbelieved of old. Allah (Himself) fighteth against them. How perverse are they!
—Qur’an, Sura At-Tawba”

This is a striking passage. I cannot think of a similar one in another tradition, in which a major tenant of a rival religion is stated incorrectly. It would be akin to Luther arguing that Catholics believe that Mary is the Pope — it’s not just a caricature of the belief, it doesn’t even make sense as a slander.

Between Catholic/Orthodox Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism, the question is more difficult, as both are in a real sense bolted on to the now vanished faith of Temple Judaism. They may both be considered to incorporate the Old Testament, to have a follow-on system of laws or interpretations (the New Testament for the Catholics and Orthodox, the Oral Torah for Rabbinical Jews), and to emphasize the role of context in understanding these.

Between Catholic/Orthodox Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism, I would argue that the Catholic/Orthodox tradition is older (seemingly formed by AD 70 by Romanized Jews in Palestine) than the Rabbincal tradition (seemingly dating from AD 200 by Romanized Jews throughout the Empire). But ultimately this time difference is not very great in the scale of things, so here my argument becomes more tenuous.

The question between the Catholic and Orthodox traditions is more narrow yet, as it relies on a long-running debate over Church governance and the proper role of Church-State relations. The debate is almost identical to the debate between Trotsky and Stalin — is it best to have a world-wide revolutionary movement that opportunistically seeks to subvert States to its own ends (the Catholic/Trotskyite strategy) or it is best to build ‘in one country,’ with the Church/Party as the ‘heart’ of the State (the Orthodox/Stalinist strategy). Basically, the entire debate comes down to interpreting Paul’s words on government. I really don’t like the idea of National Churches, but perhaps that is my own cultural and intellectual bias.

Either way, that’s how I arrive at Catholicism — a focus on rationality, historic validity, and interpretation of a couple stray verses!

Review of “The Man on Mao’s Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square” by Ji Chaozhu

Recently I read The Man on Mao’s Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square by Ji. Chaozhu. Ambassador Ji’s book is divided intwo three sections. The first is his childhood, from a “landlord’s home” in China to a neighborhood in New York. The second is his long induction into the Chinese Communist Party, during which he moved back to China, interpreted for Zhou Enlai, and assisted in the negotiations to end the Korean War. The third is his career as a high-level foreign ministry official.

Ambassador Ji on a business trip
Ambassador Ji on a business trip

Ji’s early life in China is spent under the shadow of an absent early brother, who was a student in France with Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, and who continued his studies in the United States instead of immediately returning to China. Jis’ family clearly had connections, as his father was approached by both the Chiang Kaishek and Wang Jingwei governments as acting as an official for them. The most vivid episodes from Ji’s early life are hiding from Japanese planes on the voyage to Chongqing and eating icecream on the boat to America. He must have been an outgoing child, as he mentions visiting Elanor Roosevelt (unannounced) shortly after the death of her husband.

Events from early in Ji’s career combine both personal anecdotes and interpretation of wider events that should be taken with a grain of salt. The personal anecdotes are vivid, such as his attempt to cover up an error he made in translating English for Zhou Enlai (who, unbeknownst to Ji, also knew English). At that year’s party for the Foreign Ministry, Zhou’s speech had a line about the importance of honesty — directly of course at Ji. Likewise, Ji discusses his work as a translator in the Korea and Geneva talks, his hovel, and his wife (whose father was one of the few accidental emigres to ROC-controlled Taiwan). However, when Ji interprets events from this period, he interprets them from the perspective of his younger self, without the benefit of context or handsite. For instance, he refers to narrowly surviving an assassination plot against Zhou Enlai — but does not mention that the person who tipped off Zhou was probably Chiang Chingkuo. In this unspoken subtext, Zhou’s ‘accidental’ life-saving move of bumging Ji from the plane is all the more meaningful, as Zhou was choosing which of his young aids would live, and which would die.

Ji’s later career is told in the context of his early work at the Chinese legation office / embassy in DC (a building he found), his Ambassadorship to Guam, and his Ambassadorship to the Court of Saint James’s. Ji’s time in DC was complicated by high-level politics between Cultural Revolution radicals (such as Jiang Qing) and opportunists (such as Nancy Tang, Ji’s childhood acquaintance in New York and future nemesis and Wang Hairong, Mao’s grand-niece). Ji was once recalled, but when he was sent back, he was given special permission to meet with his father-in-law, a KMT member now residing in Los Angeles. He was then demoted to being ambassador to Fiji, before being re-promoted as Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Sadly, there is little inside information about the Foreign Ministry from this period, which is disappointing considering that Ji met Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton.

Two general themes emerge from this work. One is the role of the Returned Students faction, of which Ji, his older brother, and Zhou Enlai were members. The book can be read as the long story of the triumph of this faction of Chinese politicians against the Whampoa Clique (the book’s focus on China resumes in 1950, after the Youth Corps was defeated on the Mainland and retrocessed with its KMT benefactors to Taiwan). The other is the his recurrent ‘reforms’ in the countryside, which have been recounted in every biography of a Chinese bureaucrat I have read.

Amazon.com includes a review by Roger W. Sullivan, a published academic who makes an important observation about the text:

I knew Ji back in the 70’s. At that time none of us, I suspect, had any idea the hardships he had endured in China, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. Toward the end of the book, however, when he gets to Tiananmen, I felt he was trying to set up his readers to conclude (incorrectly) that the Tiananmen demonstrations were essentially a reenactment of the Red Guards/Cultural Revolution excesses and as such deserved to be suppressed by whatever means necessary. This of course is the party line in China and it was disappointed to see someone like Ji parroting it. Toward the end I even began to wonder if the whole purpose of the book was to justify the Tiananmen massacre.

The Man on Mao’s Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square is an interesting book. It is not as insightful as Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary, not as immediate as Prisoner of the State, and not as grand as Chiang Kaishek and the the Struggle for Modern China. But it is a life of one man which complements, and a good resource on how the Chinese Communist Party appears to see itself.