Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West (book review)

I finished university with a double major in History and Spanish. I pretty much never speak Spanish these days ? as multi-cultural as Melbourne is, Spanish-speaking folk aren’t that common ? and most of my days are spent working on things like newsletters, content management and spam killing for a certain travel community. Despite the fact that my day job really doesn’t have much to do with what I studied at university, history remains a passionate interest of mine.

And so I was very interested to read Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West, an engaging introduction to the tumultuous and intriguing history of tea.

Beatrice Hohenegger is an expert on the history and culture of tea. Incidentally, she is the guest curator of a traveling museum exhibition called Steeped in History: The Art of Tea, which is currently running at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. She is, without doubt, well qualified to write about tea.

While her research is thorough ? and thankfully she includes an extensive bibliography for those of us who want to learn more ? Hohenegger writes for the masses, not the academics. Anecdotes and illustrations from the annals of tea history are interspersed throughout the narrative, which leads the reader through tea’s origins and cultural heritage in the East, through to its discovery by the West and subsequent rise to global popularity. The third section of the book breaks away from the narrative approach, instead looking at an assortment of topics relating to tea, including such timeless classics as the caffeine content of tea, its health benefits, and the origin of the word tea. Finally, Hohenegger turns her attention to today’s tea industry, offering a compelling case for fair trade tea, organic agricultural practices and small-scale tea farmers (whose plight is hard in an industry dominated by large tea plantations).

One of the clear messages of Hohenegger’s narrative is the abrupt and traumatic nature of the West’s colonization of the East. At times, this message is a little excessive. The pre-colonial era of tea’s history is written of in adoring tones, while Hohenegger’s discussion of the West’s role in tea history felt somewhat one-dimensional at times. But there is no doubt that the West has much to be ashamed of in the history of tea. First and foremost, the story of how the East India Company used opium to obtain tea ?encouraging widespread opium addiction in China to bolster its coffers ? is a sinister, shameful tale. It’s fascinating history, but I couldn’t help but feel outraged at the extraordinary greed of colonial Europe.

Liquid Jade is 270 pages long, not counting the appendices. There is a lot to cover in that space. As a result, I found myself thinking of it as more of an introductory text than an in-depth study of tea history or culture. In broad brushstrokes, Hohenegger paints an expansive view of tea’s journey through history. If you want a broad overview of tea history, this is a good place to start.

Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West is available from Amazon.com.

Discussion

  • 1

    I have also read this book and it is excellent and readable. Having read others, though, I have to say the Chinese did not treat their workers in the tea fields kindly – more like slaves. Which DOES NOT excuse the Europeans at all. Being worker class has never been an easy spot.

  • 2

    Hey Marlena, thanks for the comment! I haven’t read much else about the life of tea workers in China pre-colonial times, so it’s interesting to hear that there was injustice built into that system as well. As you said, it doesn’t excuse the Europeans; but it does provide some perspective. I think there’s a tendency in Liquid Jade to portray the pre-colonial times as a rosy, blissful period that was shattered by the colonists. That said, I agree with your assessment that it’s a very readable book!

  • 3

    Yes, tea history is a great read. People need to know where it came from in the distant past and how much it’s affected modern civilization. It’s especially useful here in America where many people just don’t know that coffee never compared in its impact on the modern world. Tea was the drink that fueled the industrial revolution and consumer revolution. Good or bad, it’s a fact about history, and it makes tea great. –Spirituality of Tea

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