“Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India” by Andrew B Liu

Andrew B Liu’s Tea War comes with a promising title and an equally promising concept. What better window into macro-economic evolution of east and south Asia than the development of iconic beverage of the region, “the most consumed beverage around the world today” aside from water? And war it was, between the centuries-old Chinese and nascent Indian exports of a quintessentially Asian commodity. A 1890s pamphlet by David Crole, who had managed one of the rather recently constructed tea estates in India, “described the current economic rivalry as ‘the tea war that has been and is still being waged’.” Liu quotes Qing reformer Zheng Guanying (1842-1922), writing at the same time as Crole, describing “the onslaught of overseas industrial threats facing Chinese tea and silk merchants by conjuring the phrase “commercial warfare” (shangzhan).”

With vanishingly few exceptions, the world’s words for tea all trace back to pre-modern Chinese, hardly an unexpected phenomenon given that camellia sinensis is native to the hilly environs of what are now southwest China and northern Burma. The Tang Dynasty’s Classic of Tea (780 CE) enshrined a beverage that already had a thousand-year history in the region. And the Opium Wars of the middle decades of the 19th century were largely a product of the European demand for tea, along with porcelain and silk, exports of which were draining the British silver reserves, so the British East India Company hit upon the idea of developing opium as a crop for export to China, and the rest, as they say …

The Indian side of the skirmish is somewhat less often told, but equally interesting—a graph in the introduction demonstrates the dramatic rise in Indian tea exports through the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th, while China’s exports dropped by two thirds from the 1880s to 1915. Here then begins the “war” of the book’s title. The decline in China’s exports should surprise no one—those years featured real war, with France and Japan, the dissolution of the Qing Dynasty and the advent of China’s warlord era, none of which were particularly conducive to stable exports. India’s dramatic increase during this time also sprouts from a colonial root.

 

In the 1860s, colonial officials introduced penal contract labor laws that prevented migrant coolies from leaving their employer under the threat of criminal punishment. Labor indenture powered the rise of Indian tea, whose exports to Britain first surpassed the Chinese trade in the 1889 season and thrived for decades afterwards.

 

Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India, Andrew B Liu (Yale University Press, April 2020)
Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India, Andrew B Liu (Yale University Press, April 2020)

Liu begins his introduction with a description of Wu Juenong,

 

a man who has since been hailed as the most important figure in twentieth century efforts to revive the Chinese tea trade.

 

In 1918, after the relative collapse of China’s tea exports, Japan had joined the ranks of tea exporters, and Wu joined tens of thousands of Chinese who made pilgrimages to Japan to learn from the former vassal state (more or less) that had risen to global leadership in so many commercial areas. After Wu’s visit to Japan’s tea producing center, Shizuoka, he had adopted Juenong as his nom de plume, replacing his birth name, Rongtang. “Juenong” means “awaken the peasant”, and Wu spoke to his choice of name in his essay, “The Agrarian Question of China”:

 

In our nation, most peasants are in a slumber, a deep, deep slumber. There is no one to guide or lead them, so who will be able to wake them up? For now we say, there is no other way than for the awakened [juewu] young men and women to go “back to the village”.

 

People drink tea for its mild stimulant effect; Wu saw in tea cultivation the potential for an awakening stimulant for the Chinese peasantry en masse. In a footnote, Liu points up the similarities between Wu and his friend, Lu Xun (1881-1936), who also studied in Japan and also returned with a zeal to save the Chinese people, in Lu’s case through writing.

 

Tea War has a number of such interesting windows into the macro phenomena of the Indian and Chinese tea production and export and consumption, but Liu sometimes seems to be more interested in slaying dragons within the walls of academia than in letting the interesting phenomena speak for themselves, or in developing a unified argument. For example, he suggests that,

 

In the colonial era, [Indian] domestic marketing had been stymied by tea’s strong association with imperialism.

 

Immediately following, Liu’s writes that,

 

Indian consumption only took off in the early 1970s with the development of cut-tear-curl, or ‘CTC’, in which serrated steel rollers shred leaves into smaller particles, strengthening their flavor.

 

CTC also dramatically reduced the price of tea, suggesting that it wasn’t an end to solidarity with the imperially oppressed proletariat (one would think that any Indian who could afford expensive tea would be eager to consume it, as a badge of economic stature) but rather price, that increased Indian consumption “from 30 percent in 1947 and one half in the 1970s to 70 percent by the end of the century.”

Similarly, Liu suggests that

 

the 1980s gains in [Chinese tea production] were actually the fruits of successful policies in the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). After the disastrous Great Leap Forward, central authorities reasserted control over agriculture…”

 

One needn’t adhere to a revisionist version of the Cultural Revolution to understand that Chinese tea production recovered rapidly starting in the early 1960s because the baseline had dropped by half, from about 400,000 hectares to about 200,000, during the state-directed insanity that carries the misnomer Great Leap Forward (1959-1962, which was enforced by “central authorities”—the “reasserted control” suggestion is counter-historical). Liu describes the helplessness of Wu Juenong as being able to only watch (during the Leap years)

 

as cadres and workers destroyed the tea fields of central China… Villagers even uprooted old tea bushes in order to fuel backyard furnaces used for smelting iron into steel.

 

Quotidian reality—acreage returned to cultivation, a five-times increase over the decade to the mid 1970s, and the fact that newer tea bushes produce more leaves than older ones—led to steady increases in China’s tea output through the early 1990s.

 

Shelves groan with works about the opium trade in general and the Opium Wars in particular, with Stephen Platt’s Imperial Twilight a most recent and magisterial entry. While the story, more accurately stories, of the Tea War deserve a less theoretically truncated telling, the book takes another quintessentially Asian commodity as the foundation for a broad-based, macroeconomic view of east and south Asia’s development over the past century and a half, and as such is a welcome, refreshing contribution to the genre.


Van Fleet’s first book, Tales of Old Tokyo, a scrapbook history of the city from 1853 to 1964, was published in 2015. His second ‘book’, Quarrelling Cousins: China and Japan from Antiquity to 2022, is appearing in modules. He serves as Director, Corporate Globalization, at the Antai College of Economics & Management, Shanghai Jiao Tong University.