Andrew Liu

Assistant Professor, HistoryVillanova University

Award Information

2011 IDRF Program

HistoryColumbia University

The Two Tea Countries: World Competition and Agrarian Labor in Northeast India and South China, 1839-1911

My dissertation is a comparative social history of agrarian labor in the tea regions of northeast India and south China in the late nineteenth century. Starting in the 1850s, increased world access to tea ignited a period of intense competition led by the two regions, during which world sales soared exponentially. As a result, hundreds of thousands of workers were enlisted by both foreign and native brokers to grow, process and pack tea for overseas consumers. I analyze this process of labor mobilization by looking at how new trade networks were established, how new mobilization practices were introduced, and how new concepts of political economy, such as free trade and the category of labor as a commodity, emerged in the writings of those connected to the trade. I am conducting research in two parts. In China this year, I am looking at fieldwork surveys, merchant correspondence, family genealogies and contracts. With the support of an SSRC grant, I will travel to London and India, where I will look at records on labor migration, annual reports on the Indian industry, company papers, and the writings of industry critics. Through this comparative study, the first of its kind, I build upon past approaches to the study of tea. Using assumptions based upon divergent trade statistics, scholars have traditionally represented the China trade as outdated, undeveloped agrarian production, contrasted against the colonial efficiency of the Indian plantation. But the reality was more complicated. Both "tea countries" shared in common a reliance upon informal networks of middlemen and brokers and also political economic debates tied to the development of labor markets. Ultimately, I show that these regions should be seen as connected through processes of competition, and their divergence analyzed as part of a larger phenomenon of economic unevenness. Thus, although I focus on tea, my study has wider implications for the study of local labor processes embedded in world markets