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  • A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World by Erika Rappaport
  • Kent Deng
A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World. By Erika Rappaport (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2017) 549 pp. $39.50

This book deals, in panoramic fashion, with the history of tea as a consumer product, an international trade item, and a source of taxation. Rappaport’s ability to disentangle multiple factors and their dynamics over two centuries and across Asia, Europe, Africa, Australasia, and North America is truly remarkable.

The dense text has three parts. Part I, by far the best part of the book, has four chapters that trace the origin of tea production and consumption in East Asia, as well as the spread of the plant and the taste for it in Asia and beyond. Rappaport hints that although tea was exotic, it filled a gap in the human diet as a portable, less perishable, and always-ready drink that could also serves as a nontoxic stimulant with some advantages that other beverages, such as beer (less portable) and coffee (less ready), did not have. The demand for tea thus took the world by storm. From the supply side, however, European colonial authorities also had strong incentives to carry out policies for “import substitution” that led to the proliferation of tea plantations in colonial Asia to replace tea imports from the Far East. Meanwhile, the imperial taxmen managed to rack in huge fiscal revenues in Britain and its colonies; their tea-cum-rent-seeking activities resulted in the rebellious “Tea Party Movement” as the first step toward independence in America. In addition, there were decided attempts to give Chinese tea bad press in order to boost South Asian tea (“good tea”) sales despite the fact that tea produced in South Asia had a different taste. Rappaport’s findings clearly show that the colonial state played a crucial role in stifling tea trade with China to promote the new type of tea produced inside the European colonies. Imperial China and colonial Asia were caught in a zero-sum game; trade did not necessarily benefit all parties.

Part II traces the patterns of tea consumption in Britain and across the British Empire along two distinct dimensions: (1) by the upper classes as a social drink (typically the English “high tea”); and (2) by the masses as a symbol of commonwealth or shared identity within the Empire. Remarkably, [End Page 144] market operators were able to mix the two dimensions harmoniously without causing a Marxian class struggle. In such a context, tea transcended social classes and ethnic differences, acting as an efficient cultural bond. Drinking tea became a (if not the) subtle icon of British “soft power” in the world. Tea largely lost its link to China and Chinese exoticism. Instead, it began to carry a unique message of “Britishness.”

Part III is a short and open-ended reflection on the decline of tea consumption after World War II, when other beverages, such as coffee and Coca Cola, came to the fore. It suggests that tea became the victim of another zero-sum game. The advantageous influence of mass consumption was weaker than one might think.

Overall, this reader-friendly volume unveils a history of consumer, producer, and imperial behavior in which each party was intent to maximize its own interests. Its qualitative and quantitative information will appeal to economic historians, and its extensive use of visual aids—old photographs and newspaper clippings—will also resonate with cultural historians. The main message is that modern taste is subject to top-down manipulation by the visible hand of the state. The role of the market is secondary. If true, this book provides considerable ammunition against the “Washington Consensus,” which views the market is as a complete, endogenously independent determinant of resource allocation, as well as growth and change. There was no such consensus in the history of tea in the British Empire behind the façade of rapid expansion of global trade.

The only weakness of the book is its relative silence about technology and technological change (in areas such as production, transport, management, finance, and taxation). For example, modern packaging and modern...


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pp. 144-145
Launched on MUSE
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