Chinoiserie and the craze for all things Chinese.
In 17?? the Swedish botanist Carl von Linnaeus was standing in the harbor of Gothenburg watching as a ship full of Chinese tea was being unloaded. At the same time he saw another ship full of silver embarking on the long journey to China. “Isn’t it outrageous,” he said to himself, “that precious metals are leaving our country and all we get back are a few dried leaves.” As a botanist, he decided to do something about the matter. He asked one of his students who was about to travel to China to bring back a tea plant. If only tea plantations could be established in Sweden, there would be no need to waste silver on expensive imports. In this way botany could serve the interests of the nation. When Linnaeus eventually received the tea bush he planted it in his garden in Uppsala. Since Swedish winters are very harsh, however, the plant died. Linnaeus was decided to try again and asked another student who also was going to China to bring home another specimen. Again, however, the plant died. It turned out to be far more difficult than he thought to start a tea plantation in Sweden.
As Adam Smith, writing at the end of the eighteenth century, was to argue, Linnaeus was not only mistaken about matters of botany but also about matters of political economy. The wealth of a nation consists of what it can produce and because of its weather Sweden is not very good at producing tea. It is much better to let the Chinese focus tea and for Swedes to focus on what they are comparatively better at producing ― cars, for example, or flat-pack furniture. Then they trade. By focusing on their respective advantages and by trading, the wealth of both China and Sweden will eb maximized.