WEAI Author Q&A: Andrew Liu’s “Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India”

April 22, 2020

We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India published by Yale University Press. The book’s author, Andrew B. Liu, is assistant professor of history at Villanova University.  

In analyzing the global competition between Chinese and Indian tea, Andrew B. Liu challenges past economic histories premised on the technical “divergence” between the West and the Rest, arguing instead that seemingly traditional technologies and practices were central to modern capital accumulation across Asia. He shows how competitive pressures compelled Chinese merchants to adopt abstract, industrial conceptions of time, while colonial planters in India pushed for labor indenture laws to support factory-style tea plantations. Further, characterizations of China and India as premodern backwaters, he explains, were themselves the historical result of new notions of political economy adopted by Chinese and Indian nationalists, who discovered that these abstract ideas corresponded to concrete social changes in their local surroundings. Together, these stories point toward a more flexible and globally oriented conceptualization of the history of capitalism in China and India.

We thank Dr. Liu for taking the time to discuss his book with us. 

Q: Can you start by introducing yourself? Broadly speaking, what are your research interests and what disciplines does your work draw from?

I’m Assistant Professor of History at Villanova University. My doctorate was with the International and Global History program at Columbia.

My focus has been on trying to situate modern China in the context of global history, transnational Asian history, and the history of political economy and capitalism. In short, I’m fascinated by how capitalism works — not just as a way or organizing society and economics but also in its intersections with culture, gender and racial categories, and ideas.

Most paradigms for studying modern economic life have focused on the Euro-American experience, with some exceptions. There’s a clear need to connect these works with the study of China and Asia. I’ve drawn from the traditions of economic and social history, especially from postcolonial scholars arguing for a “global labor history” focused on peasants, sharecroppers, unfree workers, and young women, beyond the classic ideal of the male factory worker. I also draw from the history of economic thought, arguing that the materialist history of things, people, and money was also accompanied by changes in perception and ideology among Chinese and Indian people, paralleling transformations found in the classical context of the north Atlantic.


Q: Why focus on tea? 

Let me answer this from two perspectives.

First, how did I jump into this topic in the first place? In my first year of PhD work, I decided to revisit something I had been curious about since my undergraduate days, when I took survey courses on modern India and modern China in consecutive semesters. The infamous opium-for-tea triangle trade between the British empire, colonial India, and Qing China had popped up in both courses. Yet neither of the course textbooks had much to say about the circuit itself in all its transnational dimensions, and certainly no conceptualization of China-India connections. I had been inspired by the questions South Asia historians raised about power, colonialism, and culture, and I was looking to bring this into conversation with Chinese history, so I pursued this linkage in hopes of finding a concrete way to unite them.

I found that the flipside to Indian opium—the drive to export tea, first from China then India—entailed an even more substantive history of connection and competition. I first wrote a journal article about the British imperial project to bring teamakers from Jiangxi, China to Assam, India and establish the Indian industry. From there, I decided to pursue a long-term historical survey, paying attention to the local details of life in both Chinese and Indian tea districts while maintaining a comparative focus that would disabuse me of nationalist and culturalist explanations.

At the time, I was also reading classic works on the history of north Atlantic capitalism that foregrounded particular commodities, such as Sidney Mintz’s study of sugar or Marshall Sahlins’s essay on Hawaiian sandalwood. These inspired me to try something similar with tea across China, India, and the British empire.

Secondly, now that I have finished the book, I can step back and say that tea is a crucially valuable topic for those of us interested in situating China and Asia more broadly within debates over the emergence and ongoing dynamics of modern capitalism.

For the regions in question—south and central China and eastern India—tea served as their entrypoint into the global capitalist division of labor, introducing local peasants and merchants to international markets at an unprecedented speed and intensity. From the 18th to early 20th centuries, tea in China and India ranked number one in several regional categories, such as export volume, value, registered companies, and above all—and to my own surprise—total numbers of employed workers for an export industry, surpassing jute, silk, and cotton.

But these tea-growing districts are also a surprising and unlikely site to locate the origins of modern capitalist dynamics in Asia. These were the mountainous hinterlands of Anhui and Fujian in China and the remote Brahmaputra Valley in Assam. Because they did not feature large factories with proletarian workforces, they have been ignored by historians seeking to trace something like “modernization” in China and India. This book does not shy away from those tensions. Instead, the unexpected experiences of the Chinese and Indian tea districts force us to rethink conventional notions of what capitalism entails and what it looks like, to strive for a more flexible and globally adequate conception of its history that, at the same time, helps us make sense of the most recent decades of economic integration across Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

Q: Tea War follows the tea trades of India and China, two major producers with competing claims to the distinction of being “the birthplace of tea.” What sparked this rivalry, or “war” as you call it?

The book begins with an anecdote that I think embodies a common approach found in histories of modern Asia.

By the late 19th century, colonial Indian tea had caught up to the Chinese tea trade in export sales. British planters described this competition as a “tea war,” and the same sentiment was echoed by Qing writers, most notably the economic thinker Zheng Guanying, who coined the term “commercial warfare” (shangzhan).

In this “tea war,” British and Japanese propagandists pushed the theory that the tea plant must not have been native to China—how else could one explain how much better Indian and Japanese tea tasted? Or the way tea accorded with the Indian and Japanese air and soil? In doing so, these propagandists ignored centuries of Chinese writing on tea, dating back to the Tang. Though it seems quaint and silly now, there was a real controversy at the turn of the 20th century over whether tea was a plant indigenous to China, India, or Japan.

I think this anecdote illuminates a few things. First, there is the historical link between political nationalism and capitalist competition at the turn of the century. This pairing has returned with a vengeance in our own world in recent years. More on that in a moment.

Second, this story illuminates how so many writers in the 20th century came to portray Chinese and Asian history as eternally backwards, in a flagrantly ahistorical manner. Observers projected China’s poverty and economic uncompetitiveness—recent products of the 1800s—backwards through time, papering over a dynamic history of commercialization and expansion. The British propagandists’ soil theory may have been absurd, but for generations students have otherwise listened to Orientalist explanations that blamed China’s poverty on its Confucian culture, its despotic traditions, and its impractical scientific worldview.

With this anecdote, I try not only to critically highlight Orientalist explanations rooted in local, timeless traditions — in the tea trade and more broadly — but also argue that these ideas were, paradoxically, the byproduct of interactions across China and the global market that were themselves dynamic and transnational in character.

Another goal of mine is to highlight the role of competition in trying to explain what makes the modern world so distinctive. That is, if we agree that capitalism is not simply the existence of commercial trade, which has been around for millennia, then we need to provide some account for the novelties in the past few centuries of unprecedented economic growth and space-time compression. Competition has been at the heart of those changes. Thus, the story of capitalism is not something that can be understood locally but necessarily has to be transregional. I could not understand transformations in the Chinese tea trade, for instance, without looking at the colonial Indian industry, and vice versa. Competition, then, is both central to my presentation of the tea trade but also my argument for how best to conceptualize capitalism’s history.

Q: What are the conventional assumptions about capitalism in China and India? Why had these assumptions taken hold? And what does challenging those assumptions add to the global discourse on capitalism?

Historians of Asia have typically taken their cues for talking about capitalism from the Euro-American story, the gold standard on the subject. This book tries to turn things around and ask: how do the varied experiences of Chinese and Indian tea, and the postcolonial world more broadly, challenge us to refine and expand our image of capitalism’s history?

Typically, capitalism has been defined along two main criteria.

First, it is equated with growth and industrialization, characterized by revolutionary technological innovations. Think steam engines, railroads, and electricity. The second definition is about social relationships. Both Marxist and neoclassical historians assume that modern economic life is distinguished by the alienation and commodification of land, materials, and especially human labor. For neoclassicals, this means optimal resource allocation; for Marxists, proletarianization produces a more rational approach to commodity production. Kenneth Pomeranz pointed out this unlikely convergence many years ago.

Common to both approaches, though, is the assumption that capitalism is not only distinguished by, but outright equated with, revolutionary leaps in economic output, made possible by mechanization and resource reallocation. Because these assumptions are interested in improvements in the techniques of economic activity, I see them, for lack of another term, as “technicist,” or functionalist, in their approach.

Such technicist approaches do not work well with the history of the tea trade, however. To this day, tea plucking and processing remain highly human labor-intensive. The “tea war” was notable precisely because neither side was a classic example of free labor: Chinese workers were mostly landowning peasants and indentured Indian workers were bound to their employers under threat of violence. Yet both were undeniably bound up with global circuits of money, goods, and people, animated by pressures to innovate and keep up with one another. Rather than explain how these millions of workers across Asia were an anomalous exception to the older Eurocentric models, I try to rethink capitalism’s contours to account for and make sense of these epic histories.

Though capitalism has certainly been distinguished by technical innovations, these should not be seen as the source of historical change but rather the result. Such innovations were the outcome of deeper underlying social dynamics that assume other forms as well. I argue, following others, that capitalism’s history has been distinguished by the regional and global competition over profits, which, in turn, has placed ever greater emphasis upon the productivity of human labor as the basis for accumulating wealth. In other words, accumulation not simply through taxation, force, monopoly, or exploration but also revolutionizing the methods of production themselves. This constituted a novel form of wealth. While this pursuit of productivity certainly led to technological innovations in some regions, in the tea-growing districts of China and India, it was manifest differently.

Q: How does the tea war end?

The story of direct competition ends rather anticlimactically. By the turn of the 20th century, the “tea war” between China and India was joined by rival industries from Japan, Taiwan, the Dutch East Indies, and eventually Kenya. Within the regional economies of China and colonial India, tea begins to lose relative importance, as more valuable sectors emerge. The final two chapters instead turn their attention to the afterlife of the “tea war” and how it contributed to a few major intellectual and political themes in 20th-century China and India.

In India, the tea industry had amassed hundreds of thousands of workers, mostly women, who had signed unfree penal contracts. British colonial officials and planters had justified this system through the language of enlightened rule and a gradual transition to free labor. By the 1920s, they were forced to dismantle the indenture system, even though it remained effective and profitable. Why?

From the late 19th century until the 1920s, nationalist writers from Bengal and wider India challenged the penal contract as “unfree,” invoking the concept of an “economic drain” of wealth from Indian labor to British planters while also comparing the tea “coolies” to enslaved Africans in the Atlantic world context. This novel valorization of political and economic “freedom” (swadhīnatā) among Indian writers emerged as part of the intensification of wage-based commodity production across eastern India, not just for tea but also jute and coal. Such criticism of tea indenture by Ramkumar Vidyaratna and Dwarkanath Ganguli and other reformers contributed to broader movements for economic and political freedom and decolonization early last century.

Similarly in China, the tea merchants experienced a dramatic reversal of reputation. In the 19th century, the families responsible for ferrying goods between rural Anhui and Fujian to the treaty ports of Canton and Shanghai were seen as the crucial vanguard of Chinese capitalism, revered for their contributions to the self-strengthening movement (ca. 1860-1895). By the early 20th century, though, Chinese writers suddenly denounced them as parasitic “compradors” (maiban), a label that acquired major significance for the Communist Party led by Mao Zedong. Again, why the reversal of political-economic thought?

I argue it was grounded in the social dynamics and pressures of capitalist competition, which forced thinkers from the late Qing onwards to reconceptualize political economy as something centered upon peasant labor, in turn devaluing commerce as “unproductive” (fei shengchan). In the 20th century, Wu Juenong (1897-1989) became China’s foremost expert on tea, serving both Nationalist (Kuomintang) and Communist governments. He led the charge against the coastal tea merchants as economic parasites who had fettered the Chinese peasant economy. The sudden and widespread resonance of this new economic criticism reflected how Chinese writers and reformers had come to embrace the categories of classical political-economic thought, even in the Chinese countryside, in the absence of obvious, physical markers of industrialization among peasant households.

Even though the direct competition between Chinese and Indian tea had faded by the new century, it helped generate ideas foundational for modern nationalism in China and India, rooted in the antagonisms between rural Chinese and Indian society in their encounter with the global division of labor. Many of these modes of labor-intensive accumulation survive today, revived with late 20th-century globalization. As workers, farmers, managers, and merchants from across Asia —east, southeast, and south —  play larger roles in the world economy, we find echoes of the world of the 19th- and 20th-century “tea war.” Then as now, the crucial connections span not only the division between east and west but also horizontally, across and throughout China, Asia, and the broader postcolonial world.