We have long been accustomed to hearing about how China violates intellectual property rights, and steals the designs of Western firms.
But most of us are less aware that arguably the greatest intellectual property theft in history was at China’s expense. In her engaging book For All the Tea in China author Sarah Rose tells the story of how Britain stole the Camellia sinensis plant from China, and in doing so broke a centuries old monopoly on tea plant cultivation.
The book follows the adventurous exploits of British botanist Robert Fortune, who was engaged by the East India Company in 1848 to source the highest quality Chinese tea plants and seeds.
He was also given the tricky task of figuring out how China actually ‘made’ tea – a key part of his brief since no Westerner had the first clue about the manufacturing process, which had been kept a closely guarded secret.
Given the Chinese economy’s heavy dependence on exporting tea – and Britain’s thirst for drinking it – his mission would have wide-ranging ramifications.
Indeed, Fortune’s successful transplanting of tea to India – then controlled by Britain – would break an OPEC-like control over one of the nineteenth century world’s key commodities.
Rose argues strongly that the damage this did to the Chinese economy would directly contribute to the country’s stagnation over the next 125 years.
“When Robert Fortune stole tea from China, it was the greatest theft of protected trade secrets that the world has ever known,” she writes. “His actions today would be described as industrial espionage, viewed in the same light as if he had stolen the formula for Coca-Cola.”
Ironically enough, just before Fortune set sail for China, notions of intellectual property were getting their first legal boost. In 1845 a Massachusetts judge ruled in favour of a form of patent application, claiming it as the only way “we can protect intellectual property: the labour of the mind… as much a man’s own, as the flock he rears.”
As Rose adds, Fortune’s act violated this nascent principle: “Tea met all the definitions of intellectual property: it was a product of high commercial value, manufactured using a formula and process unique to China, which China protected fiercely, and which gave it a vast advantage over its competitors.”
So how did Fortune’s mission come about? Victorian Britain was the world’s biggest export market for Chinese tea. As is well known, it financed this demand by selling China opium, which was grown in India. However, British politicians worried that China might start growing its own opium. The Governor General of India, Henry Hardinge, warned that China’s soil could support the drug and that such a move “may deprive our government of one of its chief sources of revenue.”
Hardinge feared that if such a scenario arose, Britain would run up a massive trade deficit. Luckily he had a solution.
“I deem it most desirable to afford every encouragement to the cultivation of tea in India,” he advised. “In my opinion the latter is more likely in course of time to prove an equally prolific and more safe source of revenue to the state than that now derived from the monopoly on opium.”
The East India Company – then the world’s biggest multinational corporation – agreed with Hardinge’s assessment and planned a heist. All it needed was the right man. It settled on Fortune who had two things going for him: first, he was an expert gardener and botanist; second, he had already travelled in China, collecting plants for the Royal Horticultural Society. His expedition had been a tale of derring-do and led to bestselling book Three Years’ Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China.
On the East India Company’s salary Fortune would return to China, disguise himself as a Chinese mandarin official and wander again – this time to Zhejiang province (famed for green teas like Longjing) and to the picturesque Wu Yi mountains, where the best black tea (Oolong) was grown.
There he would discover that green and black tea came from the same plant (Europeans had long assumed that they came from separate origins but the difference in taste derives from black tea leaves being allowed to ferment longer). He would also discover that much of tea variety – like wine’s terroir – comes from the locality in which it is grown.
Fortune’s tea odyssey was not an immediate success. The seeds he secured on his first expedition were ruined en route to India. But he eventually invented a new method for shipping the seeds (which itself proves to be one of the era’s key scientific breakthroughs) and Chinese tea plants quickly took root in the perfect conditions of India’s Himalayan slopes.
“Within a generation, India’s nascent Himalayan tea industry would outstrip China’s in quality, volume and price,” comments Rose.
One aspect of the story which Rose doesn’t choose to emphasise but is nevertheless notable: all the key proponents in this venture are Scots.
Aside from Berwickshire-born Fortune himself, there is Hugh Falconer, the Elginshire-born director of the Calcutta Botanic Garden who enthusiastically pushed the project and played a key role in its success. And Archibald Campbell, the man most directly responsible for taking Fortune’s tea plants and turningDarjeeling into one of the world’s foremost tea areas.
By stealing Chinese tea, this Scottish clan served as a catalyst for China’s rapid economic decline in the next 100 years. A strange turn of events given the country’s 5,000 year civilisation far surpassed Scotland’s in longevity.
The lesson is clear enough: China’s population may have been well over a hundred times the size of Scotland’s in 1850 but, with a leading role in the European Enlightenment, Scottish society was the more innovative and dynamic of the two.
That meant China had few men of Robert Fortune’s ilk. The Qing Dynasty had largely suffocated the scientific creativity and dynamism that had once invented the blast furnace, the compass and gunpowder.
For this China paid a price, and went into a period of dramatic economic decline relative to the West.
And today? Well, some would say that the tables are turning again, and that China is rediscovering its share of figures who resemble Robert Fortune – which is to say, adventurous and dynamic individuals with an eye on the bigger prize (and like him with few scruples about stealing the odd bit of technology for the country’s –and their own – greater good).
For All the Tea in China has recently been released as a paperback – meaning it will no doubt become a fixture on the shelves of airport bookshops.
It is worth reading: not just to while away a few inflight hours, but also to put the tea industry into a whole new historical light.
(For other articles WiC has written on tea, see issues 14 and 33; and on Chinese inventions, see WiC23, page 16).
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