Crops on the Move: a China-Centred Perspective on the Travels of Rice, Tea and Cotton through Early Modern Eurasia

Crops on the Move: A China-Centered Perspective on the Travels of Rice, Tea, and Cotton through Early Modern Eurasia

Francesca Bray


Cotton pickers returning home at sunset on Alex Knox's plantation at Mount Pleasant, near Charleston, S.C. Photo by G.N. Barnard. Wikipedia Commons.

During the colonial period, Westerners deliberately planned the introduction of valuable Asian crops such as rice, tea, or cotton to territories under their own control. In developing the cultivation and processing of these crops, they established a new science of tropical agriculture and distinctive technical systems of production and extraction, notably the plantation system and slavery.

Although propelled by very different vectors, planning was frequently involved in the precolonial development and dissemination of the same crops, which had played key economic roles through much of Asia for centuries.

Here I propose a China-centered account of the early modern, precolonial circulation of tea, rice, and cotton through Eurasia and of the knowledge and practices associated with their production and use. I focus particularly on the role of planning in the  dissemination and development of these valuable crops. As a first step, I consider the transmission of technical knowledge / savoir-faire from the long-established tea industry of China to a completely new industry in British India.