I’ve had the pleasure of reading and reviewing a number of excellent tea books over the past few years, several of which took a reasonably close look at the history of tea. But worthwhile though these might be, in the history department they don’t really hold a candle to Mair and Hoh’s thorough and entertaining volume, The True History of Tea.
If you’ve only got room on your shelves for one book of tea history, this should be the one. Mair is Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania and Hoh has been a correspondent for Archaeology and written on Chinese history and culture for Natural History and others. They bring their considerable experience to bear in telling the history of tea in impressive depth.
The first few chapters of the book deal with tea’s origins in southeast Asia, with particular attention paid to China, where it first flourished. From here the authors follow the spread of tea as it gradually moved to medieval Japan and central Asia and later to Russia, Tibet, Mongolia and the Middle East.
Of course, no matter how jealously guarded the secrets of tea cultivation by the Chinese it was perhaps inevitable that it would eventually spread to the West. This was due in large part to the Dutch and particularly the British. The latter eventually brought tea farming to India, which remains a powerhouse in this arena to this day, and later to their possessions in Africa, where the output is also considerable.
All of which is conveyed in a manner much more thorough and entertaining than this brief summary could hope to get across. As the publisher’s blurbmeisters so accurately put it, The True History of Tea brings these disparate aspects together in an entertaining tale that combines solid scholarship with an eye for the quirky, offbeat paths that tea has strayed upon during its long voyage.”
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