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All the tea from China

It's hard to believe that an exhibition which tells the story of Scotland and + its three centuries of trade with China could appeal to everyone from + pre-schoolers to academics, but Maureen Barrie, of the Royal Museum of + Scotland, has high hopes that the show in Chambers Street will do just that.The+ exhibition looks terrific. Gorgeous collections of blue and white porcelain, + ranging from the real Chinese articles to the spin-offs that were eventually + produced in Scotland, have been arranged in clever, packing case-style display + units down the middle of the exhibition area. This can be appreciated on its + own or as part of the whole story of the Scots who, particularly in the 18th + and 19th centuries, played a leading role in Britain's trade with China.There + are portraits of traders such as William Jardine and James Matheson,whose ships+ eventually outnumbered those of the British Navy. Other paintings show what + China looked like when Scottish missionaries, doctors and teachers first + travelled there. Everyday life in late 18th-century Canton is portrayed in a + display of unique, hand-painted wallpaper brought back from China in 1812 by + James Drummond of the East India Company and hung in his Perthshire home.In + addition, there are fabulous, embroidered robes; a wedding dress made from rich+ Chinese silk; exquisite fans with figures picked out in mother-of-pearl; + carved furniture and other luxury goods.But the exhibition reveals that these + gorgeous items were, in fact, secondary to the most precious cargo of all to be+ carried across the sea from China: tea. The beverage that, in 17th-century + Britain, was first drunk for medicinal reasons and was so expensive it was kept+ under lock and key so the servants couldn't get at it, had become so popular + by 1784 (when the tax on it was substantially reduced), that it was overtaking + beer and ale as the national drink.Our thirst for tea, and the competition + among traders to supply it, stimulated a demand at the shipyards, particularly + in Scotland, for vessels that could get the tea from China as fast as possible.+ Thus voyages that used to take up to two years were reduced to 260 days and + then 104 days. Clippers could be loaded up with as many as 40,000 boxes of tea,+ weighing an incredible two million pounds. Much of the porcelain and other + objects which are so highly prized today were added as ballast.Splendid models + of a variety of the ships used are also on display and the exhibition's + designers have managed to track down a film, made in 1929,of life on board one + of the world's last commercial sailing vessels, which demonstrates just how + hellish a sailor's life could be. With an atmospheric sound track of crashing + waves, creaking timbers and sea gulls, the film is being shown on a sail-like + screen suspended from the ceiling. Not surprisingly, the exhibition focuses + almost entirely on what the Scots brought back from China, for it appears that + there was very little in the way of moveable goods that the Chinese wanted from+ us. Silver was used to pay for the tea and when that started to run out, + Indian opium was used by many traders to buy back the silver (from Chinese + smugglers) to trade for more tea. Although opium had originally been used in + China as a mild anti-depressant and a cure for dysentery, its addictive + properties had become very apparent by the 18th century and the Chinese + government banned the smoking and importation of opium in 1729. The law, + however, was not strictly enforced.Fascinating stuff, but the sweet-toothed + visitor who is partial to fruit crumbles and tarts may be even more interested + to learn that we have the Chinese to thank for rhubarb. Chinese rhubarb root + was believed to be the best cure for constipation and the importation of + Chinese rhubarb seeds in the 18th century sparked off a rhubarb-growing craze, + particularly in Scotland, where it's been springing up ever since.Precious + Cargo ends in the 20th century with a colourful display of contemporary Chinese+ artefacts and the engaging, real-life stories of two women, one a Scot who + moved to China in 1961, the other a Chinese who made the reverse journey in + 1959.So, a multi-stranded exhibition which, for the purposes of a class + project, could be broken down into ship building, trade, life at sea, + tea,changing times and even drugs.Activity sheets will be available for the + exhibition and a series of lectures and cookery demonstrations is being + planned. Special steps to allow small children a better view of the exhibits + can be borrowed at the museum enquiries desk. Precious Cargo: Scots and the + China Trade Royal Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh> Runs until January 4, 1998. + Further information on 0131 225 7534.

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