In the 19th century, gardens were big business in England. The newly rich merchant class was buying estates and landscaping them. Simultaneously, the next wave of England’s exploration of the world beyond Europe was taking place, and naturalists were fanning across the globe, looking for new flowers and trees to plant in gardens or hothouses. England was celebrating people who brought back drawings and specimens of plants from faraway lands.
Robert Fortune, the son of a Scottish gardener, was one such horticultural celebrity. In 1843, he was appointed botanical collector of the Horticultural Society of London, and travelled to China, where the British had established five trading ports after defeating the Chinese empire in the Opium War. He spent three years there, returning with azaleas, roses and ornamental trees—and a manuscript titled Three Years Wanderings’ in the Northern Provinces of China.
The Oriental route: The illustrative panels capture a bird’s-eye view of the stream of ‘nine windings’.
In 1852, Fortune was sent to China again—not by the Horticultural Society, but by the East India Company. The Company was motivated not by love for pure science, but strictly commercial considerations. The Celestial Kingdom refused to allow foreigners into the Chinese mainland, which meant no European had any idea how tea was grown. The Chinese empire allowed only finished tea leaves to enter ports. The mystique around the tea plant was so great that Europeans believed black and green tea were two different species.
The East India Company was desperate to break the monopoly of the Chinese state and grow its own tea in India, but had neither the know-how nor the raw materials. Fortune was enlisted for a mission of agricultural espionage, and commissioned to smuggle tea plants to Calcutta (now Kolkata), and find out how tea was grown.
Fortune travelled into the Chinese interior disguised as a high-ranking Chinese official, speaking only basic Chinese. Fortunately for him, his disguise was rarely penetrated, because the Chinese empire had been so successful at keeping out foreigners that nobody in the interior knew what a white man looked like. Fortune successfully convinced his interlocutors that he was a mandarin from a distant Chinese province.
Fortune succeeded in his mission, but before the East India Company could do anything with his tea plants and know-how, the 1857 rebellion had broken out and their monopoly on trade with India was annulled. Even so, the knowledge was out of China, and the Indian tea industry was born—thanks to the efforts of one taciturn Scotsman.
Fortune published A Journey to the Tea Countries of China, an account of his espionage mission, in 1852. Lounge presents selected excerpts:
Fortune predicts world peace through botany
Chinese plants have not only been introduced to Europe and America, to enliven and beautify our parks and gardens, but we have also enriched those of the Celestial Empire with the productions of the West. Nothing, I believe, can give the Chinese a higher idea of our civilisation and attainments than our love for flowers, or tend more to create a kindly feeling between us and them.
Roadside altars that dot the tea gardens.
Fortune disguises himself
When I rose on the morning of the second day, we were some distance from Shanghae (sic), and the boatman suggested that it was now time to discard the English dress, and adopt that of the country, according to our agreement. To put on the dress was an easy matter, but I had also to get my head shaved—an operation which required a barber….
He did not shave, he actually scraped my poor head until the tears came running down my cheeks, and I cried out with pain. All he said was, “Hai-yah—very bad, very bad,” and continued the operation. To make matters worse, and to try my temper more, the boatmen were peeping into the cabin and evidently enjoying the whole affair, and thinking it capital sport.
The botanical aspects of warfare
At the time of the last war, when the Emperor of China, very considerately no doubt, wanted to conquer the English by withholding the usual supplies of tea and rhubarb, without which, he supposed, they could not continue to exist for any length of time, we might have returned the compliment, had it been possible for us to have destroyed all his bamboos. With all deference to the opinion of his celestial Majesty, the English might have survived the loss of tea and rhubarb, but we cannot conceive the Chinese existing as a nation, or indeed at all, without the bamboo.
Gender roles in different Chinese provinces
All the Yen-chow and Nan-che boats are what we may call family boats, that is, the captain or proprietor carries his wife and family along with him, while the Hwuy-chow people, who go up the other branch of this river, leave their families at home. The women always take a prominent part in the management of the boat, sculling and poling as well as the men. If they equal their better halves in these laborious duties, they far exceed them when any disturbance takes place in which the tongue has to play a leading part. In the evening in question, as the numerous boats came in to anchor in the creek, they drove each other about in great confusion.
Weeping Cypress trees that were introduced to the West.
Driving away the mosquitoes
Our boatmen…asked Sing-Hoo why he did not go and buy some moscheto (sic) tobacco, which they said might be had in the village, and which would drive all the moschetoes out of the boat….
Two of these sticks were now lighted and suspended from the roof of the boat. They had not been burning five minutes when every moscheto in the boat sought other quarters. We were quite delighted, and enjoyed a sound and refreshing sleep, for which we were most thankful.
Fortune goes native
Talk of knives and forks indeed! One cannot eat rice with them, and how very awkward it would be to pick out all those dainty little morsels from the different dishes with a fork! In the first place, it would be necessary to push them to the bottom of the basin before the fork would take a proper hold; and in many instances we should do what the novice in the art of using chopsticks frequently does—drop the food on its way from the dish to the mouth. There is no such difficulty or danger with the chopsticks when properly used. The smallest morsel, even to a single grain of rice, can be picked up with perfect ease. In sober truth, they are most useful and sensible things, whatever people may say to the contrary; and I know of no article in use amongst ourselves which could supply their place.
Excepting the fingers, nature’s own invention, nothing is so convenient as the chopsticks.
A Journey to the Tea Countries of China is now in the public domain and available on Google Books.
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