Empire of Tea: The Remarkable History of the Plant that Took Over the World

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From the fourth century B.C. in China, where tea was used as an aid in Buddhist meditation, to the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when its destruction became a rousing symbol of the American Revolution, to its present-day role as the single most consumed beverage on the planet, The Empire of Tea explores the effects of the humble Camelia plant?both tragic and liberating?in the history of civilization. Alan MacFarlane explains, among other things, how tea became the world's most prevalent addiction, its use as an ...
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Overview

From the fourth century B.C. in China, where tea was used as an aid in Buddhist meditation, to the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when its destruction became a rousing symbol of the American Revolution, to its present-day role as the single most consumed beverage on the planet, The Empire of Tea explores the effects of the humble Camelia plant—both tragic and liberating—in the history of civilization. Alan MacFarlane explains, among other things, how tea became the world's most prevalent addiction, its use as an instrument of imperial control, and how the cultivation of tea led to the invention of machines and technology during the industrial revolution.

The Empire of Tea also incorporates personal stories of the people whose lives have been affected by their contact with the global obsession with tea, including the elegantly detailed account of Iris MacFarlane about her life on a tea estate in the Indian province of Assam, the world's center of tea cultivation. A fascinatingly tour of the world's great tea cultures—Japan, China, India, France, the United Kingdom, and others—The Empire of Tea brings into sharp focus one of the forces that have shaped history.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Iris MacFarlane, a tea planter's wife, lived on a tea estate in Assam, India, for 20 years, and in the first chapter of this informative story of tea, she gives a moving account of her futile attempts to better the lives of the Assamese laborers, whom the British looked down upon as "irremediably inferior" to themselves. Then she and her son Alan, who was born on the estate and is now a professor of social anthropology, delve into the history of the leaf that over thousands of years became "the world's favorite drink," emphasizing the links between tea and political, cultural, social and economic events in China, Japan, India and England, where the British obsession with that "nice cup of tea" fueled the rapid growth of the British Empire. They also expound on the health benefits of tea, listing its many medicinal properties and contending that when tea was first introduced into China, Japan and England, it led to a decline in mortality rates because boiling the water to make it kills harmful bacteria. The story comes full circle in the final chapters, which concentrate on the hardships of the "coolies" who labored to harvest and process tea under the control of their rapacious British overlords. Although the book is more scholarly and less provocative than Roy Moxham's recent indictment of the British tea industry, Tea: A History of Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire (Forecasts, Aug. 25), it presents an equally fascinating picture of tea's impact on the lives of millions of people around the world. Illus. not seen by PW. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Somewhat stiff but unfailingly informative history of tea, from the widow and son of a tea planter. Though the Macfarlanes' prose cannot be said to be as liquid as its subject ("The idea of adding a leaf to boiling water, however, is not a very obvious one, and certainly not an option open to the monkeys . . . that first consumed tea"), the story of tea can't help but fascinate due to the sheer scope of its influence. Tea played a critical role in the evolution of Japanese porcelain and British ceramics; it fueled the expansion of the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution, keeping workers alert beyond the toil and drudgery. It both soothes and invigorates, and its medicinal properties are little short of miraculous: antiseptic and antibacterial, tea "lowers cholesterol levels, reduces blood pressure, helps strengthen the walls of arteries, and consequently reduces the level of strokes and heart disease." It may inhibit cancer and diabetes; the simple boiling of its water helped free humans of waterborne disease. What really captures the reader's attention, though, is the authors' description of the tea plantation, palatial for the managers, squalid and miserable for the workers, from the early colonial farms in Assam to contemporary tea plantations. (The Macfarlanes concentrate on India, though circumstances can't be much different in Sri Lanka, Java, or China.) Tea pickers are mostly women, harvesting approximately 3,000 shoots an hour, "co-ordinated into a reaching-plucking-and-depositing set of movements every second or less for many hours a day, six days a week." They also reap boredom, rotten pay, occasional rape by employers, and the opportunity to be held in contempt bytheir colonial masters, who once described Indians, for example, as "chilarky . . . a word that covered lying, cheating and a general (innate, of course) inability to resist being saucily devious." Those Twinings cans may be decorative, but the history of their contents is not always so pretty, even as it makes for an absorbing read. (14 b&w illustrations)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781585674930
  • Publisher: Overlook Press, The
  • Publication date: 3/29/2004
  • Pages: 308
  • Product dimensions: 5.34 (w) x 7.56 (h) x 1.19 (d)

Meet the Author

Alan MacFarlane combines a historical and anthropological background that includes thirty years of experience in the Himalayas and research on British and Japanese history. He is professor of social anthropology at the University of Cambridge.

Iris MacFarlane lived in an Assamese tea garden for twenty years and has written on India and Assamese history.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements
Introduction
1 Iris Macfarlane: Memoirs of a Memsahib 1
Pt. I Bewitched
2 The Story of an Addiction 30
3 Froth of the Liquid Jade 40
4 Tea Comes to the West 64
Pt. II Enslaved
5 Enchantment 78
6 Replacing China 98
7 Green Gold 118
8 Tea Mania: Assam 1839-1880 138
9 Empires of Tea 166
10 Industrial Tea 188
11 Tea Labour 202
Pt. III Embodied
12 Tea Today 226
13 Tea, Body and Mind 254
14 Bewitched Water 274
Notes 287
Bibliography 295
Index 305
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 29, 2005

    Kudos

    I stumbled upon this book at a sale and what a pleasant surprise! The authors have done well in making a significant contribution to a piece of veiled history. Although the book might seem to be a mild account of the development of tea, it nonetheless reflects, among other aspects, the fate of coolies in the tea estates¿state of living conditions, lack of health-care and basic necessities. An inventive account of exploitation and neglect.

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