All the tea from China

PRECIOUS CARGO: SCOTS AND THE CHINA TRADE. Royal Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

A major exhibition in Edinburgh offers fascinating insights into trade with the Orient, ship building and life at sea writes Deedee Cuddihy

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.

Runs until January 4, 1998. Further information on 0131 225 7534.

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