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Quality Time


A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World

Erika Rappaport

Princeton University Press, pp.568, $24.95

Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India

Andrew B. Liu

Yale University Press, pp.360, $50.00

Tasting Qualities: The Past and Future of Tea

Sarah Besky

University of California Press, pp.251, $29.95

Every history, whatever its subject—Lakota America, the Arabic Book, the Chinese Typewriter, African Kings and Black Slaves, Railways and the Victorian Imagination, Ravenna, the Inca Apocalypse, Sleep in Early Modern England, The Life and Death of Ancient Cities, Wine and the Rise and Fall of French Algeria—works on at least two levels. On the first level we get everything that’s typically meant when we talk about “history”: what happened, why, with what consequences, and so on. The “what” may be a single battle or a subject spanning many centuries. On the second level, though—typically more implicit than explicit—every history is also “about” the time in which it is written, the intellectual preoccupations and fashions of the day.

Three recent books about tea show how this second level works: Erika Rappaport’s Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World, Andrew B. Liu’s Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India, and Sarah Besky’s Tasting Qualities: The Past and Future of Tea. These three books have appeared at a moment when the future of the university is uncertain. Contra academe’s vocal critics, they show us how, at their best, universities support and sustain scholarship that combines dazzling erudition, years of patient work, and genuine collegiality—scholarship informed, moreover, by humane impulses. And yet at the same time, these books occasionally remind us of the ideological conformity that (as critics rightly charge) characterizes the contemporary university to an absurd degree.

Not that these books are interchangeable. On the contrary, each of the three authors is quite distinct from the others. Rappaport’s work, as she explains her prefatory acknowledgments, evolved over many years, taking an ever-wider scope. The book is immensely long, even more so than the page count (five-hundred forty-eight pages, including copious endnotes and index) would suggest. The type is small. I recommend using it as a bedside book, reading a bit each night. Rappaport is solicitous of her readers, but her range is enormous: “The Temperance Tea Party: Making a Sober Consumer Culture in the Nineteenth Century,” “‘Every Kitchen an Empire Kitchen’: The Politics of Imperial Consumerism,” and “‘Join the Tea Set’: Youth, Modernity, and the Legacies of Empire during the Swinging Sixties.”

That last chapter, which concludes the book, is one of the most entertaining, combining melancholy and absurdity in its account of tea shops rendered passé virtually overnight and their futile efforts to reverse the decline. (Don’t miss the photo of Screaming Lord Sutch performing at a coffee bar in September 1960; how could the tea shops compete with that?) But Rappaport is careful to add that elsewhere, in “South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and even among certain consumers in the United States, tea did become part of postcolonial, postwar consumer revolutions.”

Rappaport’s book is written both for academics and for those fabled “general readers” (I was delighted to see a copy of it at our local library). Liu’s Tea War, by contrast, is aimed primarily at fellow scholars. On the one hand, Liu tells a story of intense competition between the tea industry in India (while it was still part of the British Empire) and the tea industry in China. His account relies much less on narrative than does Rappaport’s and much more on analysis of the material conditions under which tea was produced (brutal, squeezing more and more out of workers who had little recourse) and the political economy according to which the industry was rationalized.

At the same time, Liu argues that earlier accounts of this subject have depended on a false opposition between the advanced capitalist West and the “premodern” societies of India and (especially) China.

These works have long presumed that the disparate economic fortunes of the world could be explained by “some unique homegrown ingredient of economic success” found in “the West”—its climate? the soil? civilization and culture?—but nowhere else in “the Rest.”

On the contrary, Liu suggests, and I think he makes his case persuasively; I was particularly struck by his rejection of the longstanding opposition (in influential historical accounts by Joseph Needham and others) “between a time-disciplined Europe and a task-oriented Asia,” a trope I have often encountered in histories of time-keeping and our changing conceptions of time.

There is a good deal in Liu’s argument that exceeds my grasp, not from any failure of exposition on his part but simply due to my relative ignorance. But even a reader such as I (let alone those for whom the book is primarily intended) can find much to ponder here.

On the very last page of his main text, Liu quotes “anthropologist Sarah Besky,” whose book Tasting Qualities is the last of the three to be considered here. When my wife and I lived in Pasadena, ages ago, there was a decade or so during which I often encountered on street corners one young man or another promoting the Nation of Islam. They were always dressed in suit and tie; they tended to be slim and intense. Some were selling the Nation’s newspaper; others were selling bean pies. Over the years since then, I have occasionally encountered a book that I am tempted to hawk in that fashion. I want, somehow, to get more people to read it.

This impulse goes against my normal inclination, which is not to press anyone to read anything. I feel it when I read a book that many people I know would appreciate (so I imagine) if only they would give it a look, but which (of this I am certain) they are very unlikely to so much as open. I felt that way very early on in Besky’s book.

How to describe it? Besky explains in her acknowledgments that she began work on it in 2008. She wanted to understand how tea was valued. She “spent months observing tasting and auctioning for many kids of tea, which in summer 2008 fundamentally changed with the introduction of computerized auctioning. Ethnographic narratives from this pivotal moment in the Indian tea industry became the nucleus of this book.”

I imagine many of you who’ve persevered this far cocking a dubious brow. Ethnographic narratives of tea tasting and auctioning? They are quite wonderful, in fact:

On another lot, he noted that the quality had declined. [Slurps.] He examined the color of the liquor, holding the cup up against another. “Pink cup.” He dropped the price from last week’s sale. [Slurps the next cup.] . . .

The clerk called out a lot number to remind Mr. Chetal of the other BP Supreme’s location. Mr. Chetal went down and compared it to the cup he had just tasted. “Hmm. 128. That’s a better tea.” He picked the steeped leaves of the next cup and pushed on them with his index finger. He picked up the liquor and slurped. “Blacker. Tastes very smoky.”

Here is the first sentence in Besky’s introduction: “What makes a good cup of tea?” That question—the question of “quality”—runs through her book, and it spoke to me, not only as a lifelong drinker of tea but also as a reader deeply interested in what we mean when we talk about “quality” more generally (using a wide range of words). Her discussion of the subject in the specific context of tea kept popping up in my mind long after I finished her book, not only when I was taking my first sip of a cup of Scottish Breakfast or Russian Caravan or Milima or Vithanakanda or Darjeeling or Mao Feng. Is quality “real”? In what does it consist? The scope of Besky’s book is much wider than those questions suggest, but they are at its heart, even though it also includes (for instance) endnotes that begin like this: “The interplay between written communicative genres and modes of conversation or nonverbal registers has been noted in several anthropological studies of language and the market.” Indeed.

My younger brother and I grew up in a household, presided over by our mother and grandmother, in which alcoholic beverages were strictly forbidden and coffee was absent (until Wendy and I started drinking it c. 1973 thanks to our next-door neighbors, the husband Dutch Indonesian and the wife Swiss: bless them for introducing us to real coffee, not the swill served at football games and such). But tea! That was a different matter. After all, my maternal grandparents had been missionaries to China, where my mother lived (in Shanghai) until she was eleven. Even now, in my early seventies, I often think of my mother when I am making a cup of tea: usually black, sometimes green, and then of course there is the beneficent Throat Coat, which Wendy and I both swear by. My mom and brother and I loved the tins in which we bought Twinings loose tea for many years (I saved a few of them and have them in a drawer upstairs). Perhaps the tins had a lot to do with our fondness for the tea. Quality.

John Wilson is a contributing editor at the Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at Marginalia Review of Books.

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