Sunday, May 01, 2011

Liquid Jade by Beatrice Hohenegger

A good friend recommended this book, and, although I had a bit of trouble finding a copy, the hunt was more than worth it. Liquid Jade tells the history of tea tracing its origins to second century b.c.e. China. Berenice Hohenegger quotes extensively from texts dating back centuries. This most interesting tale tells of plots to steal the closely guarded secrets of growing and brewing the perfect cup of tea. I like coffee, but there are times when nothing but a nice, hot mug of Earl Grey will do.

The story of the earliest discoveries of the benefits of brewed tea leaves begins in the Han Dynasty, which lasted from roughly 200 b.c.e. to 220 c.e. She tells the story of the tragic “gunboat diplomacy” which forced open the trading ports of China and Japan and the establishment of the East India Company and its attempts to monopolize world tea production, shipping, and sales. The author reveals the origins of afternoon tea, and its growth as a drink enjoyed world-wide, albeit in many different forms.

Unfortunately, the tea trade became tightly bound to the opium trade, which destroyed the lives of untold millions in China and Western Europe. This disturbing story did shed new light on this period of history for me. Furthermore, while “the Chinese do not use sugar in their tea,” the English did, dumping several spoonfuls in each cup. As a result of this practice, we now all use “teaspoons” (99). The English even invented a new type of sailing ship – the tea clipper – to bring the delicate tea leaves to England in one-third the time of traditional sailing ships (171).

The secret of porcelain – also closely guarded by the Chinese – fell under the control of English manufacturers when the first industrial spies roamed freely around the countryside. Blue willow porcelain, designed by Josiah Spode in the 18th century, depicted an Englishman’s view of Chinese mythology. The story associated with this pattern became so popular, the Chinese and Japanese began manufacturing it for export and even created a myth to go along with the design.

Hohenegger sums up the history of tea with some amazing statistics. Worldwide tea acreage today amounts to 6.2 million acres, with 89 percent in Asian countries. In 2004, over 7 billion pounds of tea was produced, which amounts to “3.8 billion cups of tea drunk every day around the world’ (240). Unfortunately, all this pleasure comes at a price.

A tea worker must pluck an average of 2,000 young shoots to attain about 1kg of leaf. With a “daily target weight of 30kg, the worker will have to perform the gesture of plucking the two leaves and the bud 60,000 times in one day, every day, from morning until night” (242) for the paltry wages of about one dollar (244). Hohenegger makes an excellent case for supporting fair trade coffees and teas. The added price amounts to less than a penny a cup. I rushed to the cabinet and checked my three favorite brands of Earl Grey. I was happy to see they were all organic and fair trade. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/9/11

No comments: