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The Empire of Tea Paperback – February 24, 2009

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Overlook TP; Reprint edition (February 24, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590201752
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590201756
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 4.8 x 7.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #508,840 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Iris MacFarlane, a tea planter's wife, lived on a tea estate in Assam, India, for 20 years, and in the first chapter of this informative story of tea, she gives a moving account of her futile attempts to better the lives of the Assamese laborers, whom the British looked down upon as "irremediably inferior" to themselves. Then she and her son Alan, who was born on the estate and is now a professor of social anthropology, delve into the history of the leaf that over thousands of years became "the world's favorite drink," emphasizing the links between tea and political, cultural, social and economic events in China, Japan, India and England, where the British obsession with that "nice cup of tea" fueled the rapid growth of the British Empire. They also expound on the health benefits of tea, listing its many medicinal properties and contending that when tea was first introduced into China, Japan and England, it led to a decline in mortality rates because boiling the water to make it kills harmful bacteria. The story comes full circle in the final chapters, which concentrate on the hardships of the "coolies" who labored to harvest and process tea under the control of their rapacious British overlords. Although the book is more scholarly and less provocative than Roy Moxham's recent indictment of the British tea industry, Tea: A History of Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire, it presents an equally fascinating picture of tea's impact on the lives of millions of people around the world. Illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Brief but affecting... A good primer on a resonant and endlessly stimulating subject."-Boston Sunday Globe

"A fascinating picture of tea''s impact on the lives of millions of people around the world."-Publishers Weekly

More About the Author

I was born in Shillong, Assam, India in December 1941, son of a tea-planter. I was educated at the Dragon School, Oxford, Sedbergh School Yorkshire. I went to Oxford University where I read history (M.A., D.Phil), and then anthropology at London University (M.Phil., Ph.D.). I became a Senior Research Fellow at King's College, Cambridge in 1971 and a Lecturer, then Reader, then Professor of Anthropology at Cambridge. I became a Fellow of the British Academy in 1986 and am now Emeritus Professor of Anthropological Science and Life Fellow of King's College.
I have published about twenty books, put up over 800 films on Youtube, have a large website at
I travel a good deal to Nepal, Japan, China and elsewhere and am interested in filming, computer databases and other things.
My hobbies are walking and gardening.
I work on all my many projects with my wife Sarah.
If you want to see a slice of my life, look for my very recently published volumes of autobiography, 'Dorset Days' and 'Dragon Days'.

Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Cat on August 9, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Overall, I found this book to be a fascinating account of just how important a role tea has played (and continues to play) in the history of the world. The introduction by Iris Macfarlane was a fine example of colonial literature that helped to put a human face on this vast subject. The author draws together many seemingly disparate elements in world history and shows the links between them in a way that I found thoroughly engrossing. While he did seem quite biased towards tea, I don't think his analysis of tea's impact is far off. An accessible history for the casual or scholarly observer.

It seems to have been previously published as "Green Gold" ISBN 0091883091.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Rajen Barua on January 26, 2006
Format: Hardcover
At last a book on tea, which describes the whole story with all the fascination and romance of the tea plant, and the industry it developed and much more. "Tea is more than just a drink. Over the last two thousands years this humble camellia tree has grown into one of the most powerful social and economic forces known to man." Thus starts MacFarlan'e book "Green Gold, The Empire of Tea."

Tea industry has great affect not only on the East India Company but on the entire commerce of the British empire that question may be asked, "Was there a possible link between the rise of trading and tea drinking and the rapid spread of the British empire?"

The story of modern tea industry itself is very fascinating, and it practically started with the discovery of wild tea plant, Camellia Assamica, in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, in the beautiful state of Assam, India in early nineteenth century. Since then the tea industry has contributed to the wealth and economy of many nations. Most importantly, it has contributed to the growth of the British Empire itself. But these growths in wealth and economy of nations were achieved at what cost? Tea Industry had its mixed affect on the native people of Assam who were exposed to the benefits of the western culture on one hand but on the other hand they lost their most valuable thing, their political independence because of it. In fact, the growth of the modern tea industry is intricately intertwined with the history and culture of the Assamese people during the British colonialism in the nineteenth century. That story is very sensitively captured in the book by the authors.
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16 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Michael Gunther on September 19, 2004
Format: Hardcover
"The Empire of Tea," written by Cambridge University cultural anthropologist Alan MacFarlane, combines the general history of tea consumption, and its impact on civilization, with the particular history of tea production in the Indian state of Assam under the British Raj.

According to MacFarlane, consumption of tea was vital in sustaining the imperial population growth of China, Japan, and Great Britain. Boiling water for tea, the argument goes, destroyed many water-borne pathogens (cholera, etc.) that would otherwise have decimated these populations in the era before modern sewage treatment. Moreover, drinking tea (rather than alcoholic beverages, the only other alternative to "raw" water) avoids the harmful effects of overconsumption of alcohol. Thus it was, that Tea became, in Macfarlane's view, almost literally the fuel of the British Empire.

The author explains that tea's benefits came at a high cost, namely, the imperial depradations of Great Britain in their effort to obtain control over this vital resource. One example was the Opium War, which was fought to equalize the trade balance between Great Britain and China (basically, opium for tea). However, Macfarlane expends his greatest passion on the exploitation of native tea-workers in Assam. Several chapters sustain this argument, which seems motivated, at least in part, by the author's family connection to tea farming in that province.

It might fairly be argued that this book exaggerates both the benefits and the social costs of tea cultivation. On the plus side, the reader will come away with an increased appreciation of the large role which this seemingly ordinary beverage has played upon the world stage.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Bec on August 13, 2005
Format: Hardcover
If you can get over the political leanings of the authors, who clearly have a particularly unique perspective on the subject they're addressing, you'll find plenty of interesting information to entice even the casual tea-drinker to finishing this book.

Did you know that tea has natural anteseptic properties which can be passed from nursing mothers to babies, possibly providing an extra safeguard against infection?

Or that every single kind of tea in the world comes from the same plant - and only the location and processing change the flavor?

Or how tea became a "social equalizer" of sorts in class-concious Britain, as everyone from lords to factory workers had the unspoken right to a "tea break", which may have possibly contributed to the massive industrial expansion, by allowing workers to work longer with more energy due to the caffine?

See? Regardless of your politics, this remains a fascinating subject, and one that you can't deny had some affect on the history of not only the British Empire, but all the societies that have adopted it as more than a casual drink.
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