I don’t normally have to include the full subtitle of a book, but as I’ve got two books, by different authors, both titled ‘Green Gold’ (and I fully intend to read and review them both), I needed to differentiate.

I’ve been slowly working my way up to this book; I mentally categorize it in the trifecta of historical China tea-industry books, alongside Gardella’s Harvesting Mountains (1757-1937) and Smith’s Taxing Heaven’s Storehouse (1074-1224). This’ by far the shortest–about 250 pages–so of course I decided to hit it last. As the title suggests, it follows China’s tea production under the People’s Republic, up until roughly present day (the book was published in 1993).

According to the internet, this book never had a dust-cover, or maybe the book is just so rare that a scan of the cover simply doesn’t exist (edit: I come from the future to report that I’ve found exactly one tiny thumbnail). I read a library-bound copy with a blank cover. So, like Taxing Heaven’s Storehouse, there’s no preview for this one (‘Storehouse’ also lacks a preview as there’s no good scan of the cover–which is fine by me, as it’s probably the most garish thing I’ve ever seen).

Though I put off reading this (before the above-mentioned), in retrospect I feel this would have been a good prelude before reading Tea Production, Land Use Politics, and Ethnic Minorities (and to a lesser extent, Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic). Green Gold covers the history of the Chinese tea industry (with a focus on exports) from the beginning of the People’s Republic in 1949, until the book’s publication in 1993, with focus on the impacts of regulations under the Maoist and post-Maoist regimes. Tea Production also begins at about this point, but instead focuses internally, on how the regulations and redistribution of land impacted minority tea farmers and domestic tea production.

Green Gold is also a useful primer before I read the sequel to The Teahouse, as The Teahouse Under Socialism picks up where The Teahouse leaves off: on the eve of the Communist Revolution. This’ why I chose not to immediately jump into it.

I mentioned during my review of The Teahouse that a general knowledge of China’s history is useful, but for Green Gold I’d say it’s worth reviewing, at least post-1949. I ended up having to make myself a quick summary cheat-sheet of dates and terms to keep up, since it’s been quite a while since I took a course. The book expects you to have at least a rough understanding of the changes in government and the regulations at play. It details what branch of government tea agriculture and tea exports fell under during each period (and it changed a lot–almost constantly; if not every five years, then sometimes several times within the same year). How these changes effected reporting, regulation, and production, and the issues it caused. The book does include a list of acronyms for you to reference, but I never could keep them straight.

It’s an extremely dense read, but not a dry one (although my standards of ‘dry’ probably differ). I think it’s because this book makes up for it by being relatively short, about 250 pages. If you’re looking for in-depth look at production technique, this isn’t the right book. It focuses more on government regulations and statistics. But it does discuss the attempts to modernize the tea industry during the Cultural Revolution. It focuses on the numbers, raw output, export, area expansion and yield, to give us a look at how China was struggling in the international marketplace at the time.

Thus, the book focuses mainly on exports–the west looking in, and how China’s economy plays in the larger landscape of tea exports against India, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. It does touch a bit on China’s domestic market, as well as border tea–tea made specifically for China’s rural areas and minority nationalities. During this time, the government allotted a specific amount of tea production to meet export, domestic, and border tea requirements, and outlined how provinces were expected to meet them.

The laxing of these regulations coupled with the strong shift towards domestic consumption in the 1980s eventually lead to the ‘Tea War’ (an event the book spends the first half building up to). A period from about 1985 to 1989, characterized by a shortage of raw tea, a shift from export-driven to domestic-driven (shifting from black tea towards green tea production) and an industry profitable only to tea manufacturers, resulting in fighting over raw leaf, factories buying out leaf from under other factories, and a drop in quality, while raw leaf was trafficked across province borders to sate the highest bidder. The Tea War was mentioned frequently throughout the book (and had me wondering the entire time), but finally detailed in chapter 8, and had a lasting impact on China.

It might be worth noting, that as it’s published in 1993, Green Gold doesn’t quite bring us all the way up to modern day in terms of history; and it’s also a product of its time in terms of tea terminology. Although I think a lot of these teas did already have standardized names, the first chapter of the book is spent defining the different tea types, and making some interesting/confusing choices. “Dark Green Tea” is the term used for heicha (it took me a while to puzzle this one out; as the book finally describes: “the Chinese word is black”). But I suppose makes sense, picturing the natural aging of ‘green’ teas. The book applied this term mostly to talk of border tea, with a mention of pu’erh.

Oolong is what I found the most confusing, though. The book defines oolong tea by name, then proceeds to use the terms ‘grey tea’, ‘oolong tea’, and ‘qingcha’, which it describes as ‘old green tea’ produced in Jiangxi. The terms are used almost indiscriminately.

Qingcha as a term deserves its own research rabbit-hole. I think we’ve all come across it under the definition for oolong tea. But other than being described online as ‘another term for oolong’, this’ the first time I’ve seen literature ascribe it to a specific region, and I have no idea if that’s accurate, as I haven’t been able to find any other information relating to qingcha production. The best I’ve got is that Qingcha may be the name of a village in Jiangxi. So that’s a mystery to table.

Throughout the book, and especially in the last couple of chapters, Etherington and Forster spend time detailing the Taiwan tea trade, how it contrasts with China, and what it’s done right. I looked into their bibliography, and they’ve written several articles regarding Taiwan’s tea industry. It’s a shame they haven’t published a full book on it, as there aren’t many on Taiwan to begin with.

Etherington and Forster’s overall description of China’s tea industry is disparaging, but optimistic. Because it focuses on tea for export, and how China compares to other major exporters (namely India and Taiwan as two dichotomies–India for large-quantity commercial production, Taiwan for low-quantity, high-quality specialty production), the book is an interesting contrast to Tea Production. So much so I think I’d like to reread it to compare, as it covers the same time-frame but from the view off the production regions in Yunnan, focusing on pu’erh. I’d reread Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic as well, but I lent my copy to a friend, so that will have to wait.

It’s difficult for me to properly outline the different chapters without going overboard in description, so I’ve included a shot of the Table of Contents, since there doesn’t seem to be one available online.

  • Table of Contents: Page 1, Pages 2 & 3
  • Availability: Good luck. I’ve come across exactly one listing of this book in my searches, on US Amazon, with no available shipping to Canada. I had trouble even finding past-auctions of this book, just to get an idea of what it would go for. It’s rare, to say the least, and the search is made more difficult by MacFarlane’s Green Gold sharing the search results.