The best books to understand tea and other Chinese things

The Books I Picked & Why

China Made: Consumer Culture and the Creation of the Nation

By Karl Gerth

China Made: Consumer Culture and the Creation of the Nation

Why 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.


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Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History

By James A. Benn

Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History

Why 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.


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The Social Life of Opium in China

By Zheng Yangwen

The Social Life of Opium in China

Why 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.


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

By Robert Gardella

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

Why 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!


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

By Elizabeth Hope Chang

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

Why 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.


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