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TRADE WITH China is often in the news. At the same time, I’m enjoying Eric Jay Dolin’s book, When America First Met China, as sort of a “Chinese Trade, Part 1.” (See www.wp.me/p2ETap-QU.) The book is replete with historical insights and, every so often, truisms that are relevant today. One of these, “the tragedy of the commons,” cropped up in my recent reading.
Here’s a summary of China trade tidbits from several sources, including Dolin’s fine book.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the principal commodity coming America’s way from China was tea. Porcelain and silk were also important (particularly before secrets of their production were sneaked out of the Middle Kingdom).
Curiously enough, then as now, other Chinese imports to America (and elsewhere in the west) were artful reproductions. Only these early ones were on commission, not simply knockoffs.
Reproductions of his work ticked off Gilbert Stuart, but many colonial homes held Chinese-made copies of his George Washington portrait, the familiar one on which the one-dollar engraving was based.
America’s first commodity to sell to China was also a curious one: ginseng. China had only a limited source of Panax ginseng, its fleshy root considered an energy booster, an aphrodisiac and a supposed curative for everything from poor vision to pleurisy. Its scientific name “Panax” reflects this: Greek for “cure-all,” whence our word “panacea.”
For millennia, ginseng was gathered in forests of northern China. In 1717, however, another species of it, Panax quinquefolius, was discovered in eastern Canada and subsequently farther down the Atlantic coast. P. quinquefolius wasn’t quite as potent—but it was good enough. The first American ship to visit China, the Empress of China in 1784, brought 30 tons of ginseng.
America’s great thirst for tea continued, though the economics of the ginseng business (gathered by Native Americans who had long recognized its uses) became less favorable. It was a good thing while it lasted, but the Chinese market could absorb only so much of the stuff.
Thus, American traders needed something else to trade.
Before taking the decidedly evil turn to opium (not that these others don’t make us wince now too), U.S. trade to China around 1800 focused on sea otter furs, sealskins and sandalwood.
It originated in eastern ports of New York, Boston, Providence, Philadelphia and Salem. Traders traveled around Cape Horn of South America, up to the west coast of North America, on to Hawaii and other Pacific ports and, finally, to Canton (today’s Guangzhou).
Sea otters flourished up and down our continent’s west coast. Their fur is the densest of any mammal, with as many as 1 million hairs per square inch (versus a human’s at around 700). The pelts were prized in China for their warmth and lustrous appearance, the best going for $120 each (perhaps $1700 in today’s dollars).
Whalers encountered plenty of fur seals, and the animals’ slaughter became a byproduct of the whale oil industry. Of this fur seal business, James Fenimore Cooper wrote, “It would be like picking up dollars on a sea-beach.”
Last, certain kinds of sandalwood—and only these kinds—contained a fragrant oil that made their heartwood and roots prized in China. Uses ranged from exquisitely carved furniture to sweet-smelling incense.
Not unlike the ginseng story, China originally had (better) sources of sandalwood from India and Malaysia. But American traders discovered Hawaiian sandalwood that was good enough. (It was also used on the islands for making a stringed instrument called the ukeke; sound familiar?
Sandalwood trade was not without its risks. Early on, an incorrect species of sandalwood made it all the way to China, only to be worth next to nothing. In time, the Fiji Islands, Tonga, the Society Islands and Samoa were other sources.
Author Dolin notes that trade with these three commodities resulted in what’s called today the tragedy of the commons. He observes that “strong demand, limited supply, greed and a lack of regulation inevitably left a path of destruction.”
As with the overgrazed village commons, individuals acting in rational self-interest conflicted with long-term best interests of the group.
There are those today who argue that modern societies do the same with another shared commodity in limited supply—the Earth’s atmosphere. Chinese coal-fired power plants and developed countries’ profligate use of fossil fuels are two of the overgrazers.
Is it possible to avoid the tragedy in this modern setting? ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013