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Not for all the tea in China

Posted by Victoria S Dennis on May 02, 2008 at 18:45:

In Reply to: Not for all the tea in China posted by RRC on May 02, 2008 at 14:49:

: : Not for all the tea in China? After reading this phrase on this site I have become slightly confused. I thought the saying came from the following. British authorities discovered the poppy seed in China and later flooded China with cocaine. In the process they dominated the tea market. After this the Chinese race became an unfit race, from very fit, because of the use of the poppy seed by the British. This quote is used in a Bruce Lee movie - Enter the Dragon. I was told this from a very young age and would like to know if this is the correct story?

: As I understand it, the British did encourage opium use in China, but it was because there was a trade imbalance - the British were buying more things from China than they could find other things to sell back.

: Some detail problems: Opium originated in the Middle East and was in use in Europe and the Mediterranean thousands of years befor the time in question. The British were importing opium into China, they didn't find it there. Cocaine is from the South American coca plant. At the time in question (1700's through the Opium Wars of the mid-1800's), people were using "raw" opium not the refined versions like heroin or morphine. Morphine was first isolated in 1804 but didn't come into wide-spread use until the invention of the hypodermic needle in 1853. Heroin wasn't developed until 1874. At the time, morphine was considered a "cure" for opium addiction.

There's no earthly reason to suppose that this phrase has anything to do with opium, or, indeed, anything other than tea. The phrase is actually documented as early as 1817; in his novel 'Rob Roy' Sir Walter Scott wrote 'would have pleased her better than all the tea in China'.

At that time the consumption of tea in Britain was already enormous. It was the first exotic imported foodstuff [is a drink a foodstuff? - anyway, you know what I mean] to be adopted as a staple by all classes; everybody, from paupers to royalty, wanted and expected to drink tea every day. And it all had to come from China, because the Chinese guarded Camellia Sinensis very carefully and forbade the export of seeds or cuttings. It wasn't until 1839 that tea was cultivated outside China in significant enough quantities for non-Chinese tea (from Assam) to be available for sale in Britain. So until 1839 "all the tea in China" effectively meant "all the tea in the world" and, given the immense value of the tea trade, the phrase had as much weight as, say "all the gold in Fort Knox".

It's true that one of the things the British imported into China (no, we didn't discover it in China - the opium poppy is native to Europe as well and has been used medicinally since the Bronze Age), to pay for the tea, was opium. But the phrase "all the tea in China" precedes the ructions over the opium trade by at least half a century. (VSD)