The best books to understand tea and other Chinese things

Who am I?

I grew up in Los Angeles, the mecca of global consumer culture. I became a historian to escape from what I saw as this shallow, surface culture but through my work, I have returned to the mall. My work uses history to show how consumer desires are not natural. Instead, I ask why people consume particular things in particular places, and I show how they attribute meaning to the things they buy. I am not a specialist on China but while researching and writing on tea's global political economy and consumer culture I became fascinated by how China contributed to the making of global tastes, desires, and material culture. These books illuminate the history and cultural life of tea, opium, porcelain, and other things within and beyond China.

I wrote...

Book cover of A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World

What is my book about?

Tea has been one of the most popular commodities in the world. Over centuries, profits from its growth and sales funded wars and fueled colonization, and its cultivation brought about massive changes—in land use, labor systems, market practices, and social hierarchies—the effects of which are with us even today. A Thirst for Empire takes a vast and in-depth historical look at how men and women—through the tea industry in Europe, Asia, North America, and Africa—transformed global tastes and habits and in the process created our modern consumer society.

An expansive and original global history of imperial tea, A Thirst for Empire demonstrates the ways that this fluid and powerful enterprise helped shape the contemporary world.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of China Made: Consumer Culture and the Creation of the Nation

Why did I love this book?

Gerth's sweeping research, eye for detail, and beautiful prose help us understand how the rejection of foreign commodities was critical to the creation of Chinese nationalism and state-building in the early twentieth century. Rather than reject consumer culture per se, the Government and businesses pushed the Chinese to consume only "Chinese" goods. This nationalistic consumer culture was built though with the same tools we find in the West--advertising, exhibitions, and fashion. Chinese consumer culture can be seen then as both global and local.

By Karl Gerth,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked China Made as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Chinese people should consume Chinese products!" This slogan was the catchphrase of a movement in early twentieth-century China that sought to link consumption and nationalism by instilling a concept of China as a modern "nation" with its own "national products." From fashions in clothing to food additives, from museums to department stores, from product fairs to advertising, this movement influenced all aspects of China's burgeoning consumer culture. Anti-imperialist boycotts, commemorations of national humiliations, exhibitions of Chinese products, the vilification of treasonous consumers, and the promotion of Chinese captains of industry helped enforce nationalistic consumption and spread the message-patriotic Chinese bought…

Book cover of Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History

Why did I love this book?

This is the book I had been waiting for and was so delighted when it appeared. It provides a fascinating and sweeping account of the meaning of tea in Chinese culture from its earliest appearance to the late imperial period. Benn has a wonderful eye for examples and delicious details that illuminate how religion, art, poetry, class, and gender created a commodity and culture that travelled around the world. A great place to start if you are interested in the history of tea or China.

By James A. Benn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Tea in China as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Tea in China explores the contours of religious and cultural transformation in traditional China from the point of view of an everyday commodity and popularbeverage. Th e work traces the development of tea drinking from its mythical origins to the nineteenth century and examines the changes in aesthetics, ritual, science, health, and knowledge that tea brought with it.

Th e shift in drinking habits that occurred in late medieval China cannot be understood without an appreciation of the fact that Buddhist monks were responsible for not only changing people's attitudes toward the intoxicating substance, but also the proliferation of tea…

Book cover of The Social Life of Opium in China

Why did I love this book?

We know a lot about how the Chinese state sought to ban, limit, and exclude opium from its borders, but this book uniquely delves into the multifaceted way that the demand for the drug emerged in the first place and then spread down the social scale to become a mass commodity. I especially loved the detailed way in which the author showed how consumers produced a variety of meanings surrounding opium and incorporated it into both elite and popular culture. Writing against so many myths, Yangwen shows us that for much of its history, opium was celebrated not demonized.

By Zheng Yangwen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Social Life of Opium in China as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a remarkable and broad-ranging narrative, Yangwen Zheng's book explores the history of opium consumption in China from 1483 to the late twentieth century. The story begins in the mid-Ming dynasty, when opium was sent as a gift by vassal states and used as an aphrodisiac in court. Over time, the Chinese people from different classes and regions began to use it for recreational purposes, so beginning a complex culture of opium consumption. The book traces this transformation over a period of five hundred years, asking who introduced opium to China, how it spread across all sections of society, embraced…

Book cover of Harvesting Mountains: Fujian and the China Tea Trade, 1757-1937

Why did I love this book?

A classic work of global political economy written just before the genre became fashionable. I constantly return to this book to think about the role of China in producing, shaping, and being altered by global capitalism in the nineteenth century. Gardella does not romanticize the Chinese economy as an alternative to Atlantic world slaved-based capitalism, but rather he considers how Chinese practices could be deeply exploitative. At the same time, he shows how the Chinese worked with and against the colonizing forces of Euro-American imperialism right up until the 1930s. I also love Gardella's amazing footnotes!

By Robert Gardella,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Harvesting Mountains as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Few commodities are as synonymous with any civilization as tea with China. This book analyzes the multifaceted influence of tea production and the tea trade upon Fujian, a premier tea-growing region, illuminating the economic, social, fiscal, and environmental ramifications of China's involvement with a dynamic world economy. Today, as contemporary China increasingly opens up to foreign trade, the historical experience documented here takes on a renewed importance.

Book cover of Britain's Chinese Eye: Literature, Empire, and Aesthetics in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Why did I love this book?

Much of the Western world but especially eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain obsessively purchased, collected, displayed, and thought about Chinese things. A brilliant literary critic, Elizabeth Chang traces this obsession through a wide variety of British texts from Sir William Chambers, Dissertation on Oriental Gardening (1772) to Isabella Bird's, Chinese Pictures (1904). Chang takes us on an intimate journey into a pleasurable yet imperialistic and often racist material culture that still shapes the way the West looks at and consumes Chinese products.

By Elizabeth Hope Chang,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Britain's Chinese Eye as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book traces the intimate connections between Britain and China throughout the nineteenth century and argues for China's central impact on the British visual imagination. Chang brings together an unusual group of primary sources to investigate how nineteenth-century Britons looked at and represented Chinese people, places, and things, and how, in the process, ethnographic, geographic, and aesthetic representations of China shaped British writers' and artists' vision of their own lives and experiences. For many Britons, China was much more than a geographical location; it was also a way of seeing and being seen that could be either embraced as creative…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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