The first volley of return fire in what could become an all-out trade war between the U.S. and China struck close to home on Friday.
The day after President Donald Trump announced he was imposing a $50 billion tariff on Chinese-made steel and aluminum, China announced its plans to retaliate by imposing a two-stage tariff on American goods. The first phase involves a 15 percent import tax on agricultural and botanical goods, including wine, almonds, fresh fruit — and ginseng.
While the president may not know a lot about ginseng’s role as an American export good, the Chinese do, since they’ve been buying and savoring wild Appalachian ginseng for more than 300 years.
In fact, direct trade between the U.S. and China began in 1784, when the copper-plated, three-masted Empress of China, a privateer during the just-ended Revolutionary War, set sail for Canton, China (now called Guangzhou), from New York a few months after the last British warships sailed home following the American victory.
War-torn America had few manufactured goods to sell to the Chinese, so the holds of the Empress contained bolts of woolen cloth, ingots of lead, crates of Spanish coins and 30 tons of dried ginseng root, dug the previous fall.
Once the American ship sailed up the Pearl River and docked at Canton after a seven-month sea voyage, its crew learned that “the Chinese had less interest in buying foreign goods than they did in selling their own,” according to an account appearing on the New England Historical Society’s website.
“They did, however, prize ginseng, used as a curative, energy booster and aphrodisiac,” the account continued. Since ginseng was known to grow in only a few scattered locations in Asia, making imports from North America vital to keep pace with demand, the Chinese were eager to buy what was then the largest single shipment of the root ever to arrive in their nation.
The Empress returned to New York with a cargo of tea and porcelain and a return on investment of about 30 percent.
China continues to be the primary buyer of wild Appalachian ginseng, importing on average 2 to 4 tons of the dried root annually from West Virginia alone, providing state ’sengers several million dollars in walking-around money each year.
The Chinese correctly assume the U.S. diggers will not relish the prospect of getting 15 percent less for their efforts at the end of this fall’s harvest, should the tariff be invoked.
The Chinese also know the American states that produce the most ginseng have something in common besides the presence of the legendary root: They are the same states that appear on maps depicting areas where Trump drew his strongest electoral support.
While the Chinese have not forgotten their U.S. trade “roots,” the British are still a bit aloof. The BBC announcers heard on Public Radio mentioning items to be included in the initial Chinese tariff called the wild Appalachian herb “ginsung.”
Maybe they thought the tariff warships had already sailed.