CM Exclusive: Prologue to the Chinese Language Edition of The Darjeeling Distinction

Posted by patwari on May 16, 2017 · 17 mins read


By Sarah Besky

Sarah Besky received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is currently Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. She is the author of The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India (University of California Press, 2014). Her current research works across ethnographic and archival evidence as well as rural tea plantations and urban auction houses and blending factories to explore “cheapness” as a social and economic value. A second book based on this research is tentatively titled The Cost of Cheap Tea: An Ethnography of Value in India.

[Previously by Sarah Besky: Surkh Salam, XQs]


Prologue to the Chinese Language Edition of The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India

Forthcoming from Tsinghua Press

When I sat down to write this Prologue to this new Chinese-language edition of The Darjeeling Distinction, I had just returned from a six-week research trip to London, where I steeped myself in the archives of the British Indian tea industry, mostly housed at the British Library. As I pored through old correspondences between planters in the hills of Assam, Darjeeling, Kerala, and Kangra and brokers and buyers in London, comparisons between the teas of China and India abounded. Even if the idea of writing a Prologue for a Chinese edition of my book had not been at the back of my mind during those months surrounded by musty letters, notes, and scientific documents about everything from chemical contents to proper modes of storage and shipping, these comparisons would have been impossible to miss.

Anxiety on the part of European tea planters in India about how the quality of Indian tea measured up to that of Chinese tea are emblematic of a longer economic and geopolitical entanglement between Britain, India, and China that spans continents and centuries, and links commodities including tea, opium, and silver. Readers of The Darjeeling Distinction can find some of the history of this struggle recounted in the book's early chapters. In this Prologue, however, I want to share two anecdotes from my recent archival work. These stories hopefully connect the material in The Darjeeling Distinction even more firmly to this ongoing, complex set of historical relationships.

The two stories I want to tell date back to the early 1930s: the early days of the global depression and arguably the moment when the tide of British dominance in India was beginning to turn back. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, anxiety over the place of British-grown tea in the world market stoked a movement led by tea industry elites to distinguish tea from India and Ceylon as “Empire Tea.” Movements for special stamps and emblems of “Empire Tea” that would differentiate it from teas from other regions, namely Dutch-occupied Indonesia (which was growing in market share), as well as China and East Asia, can be seen as a precursor to the organic and fair trade labels and Geographical Indication (GI) status that I discuss in the book. I think it might be instructive to compare how British consumers thought of the difference between Indian and Chinese tea in the 1930s to how this difference is understood today.

Though I do not devote a lot of space to this in the book, it is impossible to talk about Indian tea—its taste, its ecology, its production process—without also talking about Chinese tea. This is true not just for scholars like myself but for tea drinkers, tea sellers, and those interested in the future of the global tea trade. The Darjeeling Distinction is addressed, I hope, to all of these audiences.

The first anecdote comes from a speech, entitled a “Plea for Empire Tea,” given on 17 November 1931 at the Royal Empire Society by Sir Charles McLeod, Chairman of the Imperial Tea Committee and the National Bank of India. His subject was the problem of “blending” tea, a common practice among purveyors and packagers in the United Kingdom. As he explained, the practice of blending took advantage of, “ignorance in the public mind in regard to the origin of the tea drunk here and of the contents of the blends which are placed on the market.” His argument was, like much discourse about tea consumption, pointedly gendered. As he told his audience:

It is a common be asked in hotels and tea-shops whether you will take 'Indian' or 'China.' If you demand the Indian product, you might get a blend of Indian, Ceylon, and Java tea; if your preferences go for the China article, Heaven knows what you will be served. There is an amusing story of the two ladies who, going into a tea-shop, ordered 'One pot of Indian tea and one of China, please.' The waitress, in her turn, called down to the kitchen: 'Two teas — one weak!' And it may well be imagined that the lady concerned, like all other people in similar circumstances, was satisfied that the weak beverage supplied to her was made from genuine China leaf.

This is a story about the tension in the world of tasting and valuation between geographical specificity (a key theme of The Darjeeling Distinction) and global circulation. The explosion in tea consumption across Europe over the course of the 19th century had led to what Sir Charles feared was a dilution of appreciation for the qualities not only of Empire grown tea but also of what was at the time still its fiercest competitor (in quality if not quantity), Chinese tea. In other words, this is a story about the early consequences of globalization. The challenge for the British in this period was not so much to demonstrate the superiority of Empire grown tea over Chinese tea, but its distinction from Chinese tea.

The second anecdote illustrates how difficult this project had become. In the same speech, Sir Charles describes how an “enthusiastic lady who was anxious to respond to the appeals now being made by some of the most eminent personages in this land, recently wrote and asked where she could [obtain] good Empire China tea.”

I subsequently found the letters to which Sir Charles was referring in the British Library. The first letter was written to the Indian Tea Association (a guild-like association of Indian tea planters) by a Mrs. Henry Bayly. Mrs. Bayly was one of many middle-class consumers who had been targeted by a wave of publicity, in the form of pamphlets and news reports, about the benefits of “Empire Tea.” Published during the early days of the Great Depression, when protectionist economic policies were ascendant in Britain, such publicity touted Empire Tea as a high-quality product, superior to Dutch imports. It also reminded consumers that Empire Tea was a commodity whose mass production and consumption was not only crucial to the British economy but also central to the economic “development” of the Indian people.

Mrs. Bayly's handwriting was faded, but I have managed to reproduce her note here.

20 May 1931


Having received your circular… [I am writing to inquire] whether I can get China tea which is grown within the Empire? I live in a small flat and do not like weak tea myself, but I have it for my friends who prefer China tea, [but] I cannot buy it in large quantities. [I have gone to the Army Navy store looking] for China Tea grown “within the Empire,” [and they said] they could provide it, but were curious to know where it could be got. If I could let them know, they would be very grateful.

[signed Mrs. Henry Bayly]

There is much that Sir Charles might have said about Mrs. Bayly's understanding of China tea. What she saw as its “weakness” a connoisseur would have interpreted as its lightness, its floral notes, and its delicacy. Of course, as Sir Charles explained in his speech, Mrs. Bayly was trying to do a patriotic duty: to purchase this variety of tea from the Empire and for the Empire.

Though Sir Charles did not mention it in his speech, I think that Chinese readers of The Darjeeling Distinction will find the response to Mrs. Bayly's inquiry from the Secretary of the Indian Tea Association quite insightful:

21 May 1931

Mrs. A.L. Bayly

99, Cadogan Gardens

London SW 3

Dear Madam,

I have your letter of the 20th … but beg to advise you that China Tea is not grown within the Empire and that the article you require (namely Empire Grown China Tea) cannot be obtained.

Might I suggest that you use Darjeeling Tea which is famous for its characteristic flavor.

Yours faithfully,

[Signed the Secretary of the Indian Tea Association]

Darjeeling's distinction, in other words, cannot be disentangled from its historical association with Chinese tea. As I explain in The Darjeeling Distinction, Darjeeling's reputation for quality and delicacy comes in large part from the fact that it is comprised exclusively of leaves from the China variety (or jaat) of tea, Camellia sinensis. Other teas grown in India, prized by British consumers for their malty, tannic flavors, are often comprised in large part of leaves from the Assam jaat, Camellia sinsensis var. Assamica.

In the book, I describe the process of bioprospecting and botanical espionage that first brought Camellia sinensis out of southwest China and into the Himalayan foothills of Darjeeling. But the connections between Darjeeling and China are not only botanical. Over the course of the past two centuries, there has been a parallel exchange of modes of production.

In fact, the first British-operated tea production in India in the early nineteenth century explicitly mimicked a Chinese model of “family garden farming,” distinguished by small production plots where farmers—many of them Chinese laborers recruited to India by British planters—grew green leaf and brought it to a centralized location for processing and packaging. Early production in Assam and northwest India depended on Chinese workers and Chinese forms of cultivation. By the time tea came to Darjeeling in the early 1860s, British planters had set out to “improve” on that that model by establishing vertically integrated plantations. By the late-1800s, planters had begun consolidating landholdings and building on-plantation factories, working towards a faster, more efficient system for converting highly perishable green leaf tea to a fermented, dried, transportable (and drinkable) form.

As many Chinese readers of The Darjeeling Distinction will know, this exchange of production styles did not end with the British turn to plantation production. In fact, as I write this Prologue, there is a move afoot among some tea industry reformers in India to bring back the small family garden. The argument goes that plantations have become dangerous anachronisms. Reformers see them as expensive to operate, oppressive, and detrimental to rural development. Much of this reform effort has taken hold since the initial publication of The Darjeeling Distinction. As my recent research is revealing, the push for a return to smallholder production is seen by many tea growers not as a decolonization of tea but as the harbinger of a new set of economic burdens. In modern smallholder tea production, poor harvests, low prices, and other risks are pushed onto vulnerable farmers and away from corporations.

Meanwhile, industrial scale plantation production, I am told, is now central to the Chinese industry. Still, as I describe in The Darjeeling Distinction and in other writings about tea production in India, the rise of the plantation system did not spell the end of an intimate connection between people and tea plants. Just as tea remains woven into the fabric of everyday life in Chinese villages, it is woven into the fabric of everyday life on plantations in Darjeeling, the Dooars, Assam, and elsewhere in India.

As readers will learn, this weaving is far from a romantic or harmonious interspecies relationship, even if the rhetoric of ethical trade schemes like Fair Trade and GI might say otherwise. I am also told that Fair Trade and GI are now making inroads in China. If one lesson of this book about the relationship between India and China is historical and retrospective—the stories about taste and quality and plant varietals and modes of production—then an equally important lesson is about the future of tea production in both countries.

For growers, the economic benefits of GI status, which offers trade protections to products associated with particular locations or regions, are potentially tremendous. But as I argue in the book, the discourse of GI frequently masks the histories of exchange (of knowledge, of labor power, of seeds) that undergirds all modern agriculture. My critique of GI in this book is focused on India, but I hope that it has lessons for other contexts, including China.

Likewise, the rise of Fair Trade has given hope to many advocates for an increase in both the quality of made tea and the quality of tea farmers' lives. In India, fair trade certification is even being touted by some as a gateway to the revival of the “family garden.” But fair trade, as I argue, is a problematic fit for tea. Since Mrs. Bayly penned her innocent inquiry back in 1931, tea's popularity has only continued to grow. Its production still requires the contribution of thousands of overworked and underpaid laborers, many of them women and minorities.

As I conclude this Prologue, then, I want to acknowledge the translation work of my colleague Huaqing Huang and to thank Tsinghua University Press for allowing me to reflect on the ongoing connections between Darjeeling and China. I hope that readers in China will enjoy the book, perhaps with a cup of their preferred delicate, floral tea, and keep the conversation going.


Sarah Besky

Providence, Rhode Island

April 15, 2017


Ishtiaq Chisti | May 19, 2017

Loved reading the prologue, recently having traveled to Darjeeling and China to enjoy the strong and the light (weak) teas from both regions!