"All the tea in China” means a great amount; the Chinese grow and consume large amounts of tea. “Not for all the tea in China” means that someone won’t do something, even for a great monetary reward.
Walter Scott’s novel Rob Roy (1817) contains: “A toast and tankard would have pleased her better than all the tea in China.” Throughout the 1800s, a good drink of something besides tea was sometimes said to be enjoyed more than “all the tea in China.”
“Not for all the tea in China” appears in print in 1907, and the citations during this decade show that the phrase became popular in Australia and New Zealand before reaching the United States. The slang lexicographer Eric Partridge wrote that “not for all the tea in China” was an Australian colloquialism from the 1890s. In the 1920s, American gamblers used “all the tea in China” to mean a bet with everything riding on it.
“Not for all the tea in China!” is a dated expression but is still used, mostly in newspaper articles about China and/or tea.
Idiom Definitions for ‘All the tea in China’
If someone won’t do something for all the tea in China, they won’t do it no matter how much money they are offered.
The Phrase Finder
Not for all the tea in China
Not at any price.
The Oxford English Dictionary declares the phrase to be of Australian origin and reprints Eric Partridge’s 1890s date for the phrase, but unfortunately doesn’t provide any supporting evidence for either assertion. The nearest I can come to verifying the date, and to an Australian origin, is J. J. Mann’s travelogue Round the world in a motor car, 1914:
AUSTRALIA is not a hospitable country for anybody that has not got a white skin, and a clear record of white skins. By the laws of the country no dusky, tawny, or yellow races are allowed to land… When the question came up of letting in our Indian fellow subjects, an education standard was established, and if the unlucky Indian does not happen to know all the languages of Europe he is floored in his examination, and must stay outside. One is not even allowed to bring in a black servant, and when I applied to the authorities for permission to bring Samand with me, the reply was : “Not for all the tea in China.”
Wikipedia: History of tea in China
The history of tea in China is long and complex. The Chinese have enjoyed tea for millennia. Scholars hailed the brew as a cure for a variety of ailments; the nobility considered the consumption of good tea as a mark of their status, and the common people simply enjoyed its flavor.
Tea was first discovered by the Chinese Emperor Shennong in 2737 BC. It is said that the emperor liked his drinking water boiled before he drank it so it would be clean, so that is what his servants did. One day, on a trip to a distant region, he and his army stopped to rest. A servant began boiling water for him to drink, and a dead leaf from the wild tea bush fell into the water. It turned a brownish color, but it was unnoticed and presented to the emperor anyway. The emperor drank it and found it very refreshing, and cha (tea) was born.
While historically the origin of tea as a medicinal herb useful for staying awake is unclear, China is considered to have the earliest records of tea drinking, with recorded tea use in its history dating back to the first millennium BC. The Han Dynasty used tea as medicine. The use of tea as a beverage drunk for pleasure on social occasions dates from the Tang Dynasty or earlier.
Wikipedia: Chinese tea culture
Chinese tea culture refers to the methods of preparation of tea, the equipment used to make tea and the occasions in which tea is consumed in China.
Tea culture in China differs from that of Europe, Britain or Japan in such things as preparation methods, tasting methods and the occasions for which it is consumed. Even now, in both casual and formal Chinese occasions, tea is consumed regularly. In addition to being a drink, Chinese tea is used in traditional Chinese medicine and in Chinese cuisine.
(Oxford English Dictionary)
not for all the tea in China (colloq., orig. Austral.): not at any price.
1937 PARTRIDGE Dict. Slang 148/1 China!, not for all the tea in, certainly not!; on no account: Australian coll.: from the 1890’s.
1943 K. TENNANT Ride on Stranger ii. 19 I’m not going to stand in my girl’s light for all the tea in China.
1958 J. CANNAN And be Villain vi. 137 She wouldn’t get into a sidecar or on a pillion for all the tea in China.
1978 Radio Times 11-24 Mar. 25/5, I wouldn’t change Newcastle for all the tea in China… It’s a lovely place to live in.
By the author of ‘Waverley’.
By Walter Scott, Robert Macgregor
Published by , 1818
Martha, the old housekeeper, partook of the taste of the family at the Hall. A toast and tankard would have pleased her better than all the tea in China.
The Juvenile Forget-Me-Not:
A Christmas and New Year’s Gift, Or Birthday Present
By S.C. Hall
Published by Kessinger Publishing, LLC
“...of Ashleigh, is in town to befriend her; it will do her more good than all the tea in China.”
The Sunday at Home
By Religious Tract Society, Religious Tract Society (Great Britain
Published by Religious Tract Society, 1882
Item notes: v.29 1882
A cup of good café noir is worth all the tea in China.
By Augusta Evans Wilson
New York, NY: G. W. Dillingham
She brought a tumbler of iced water, and a stool which she placed beneath his feet.
“How delicious! worth all the tea in Chins! all the wine in Spain!”
9 September 1907, Marlborough Express (New Zealand), “What The Papers Say,” pg. 3, col. 3:
A short time ago the Celestial maiden would not exchange one of her tiny, disfigured feet for all the tea in China; if she lives long enough she will probably weep salt tears of regret that she is not in the fashion, and, even though respect for one’s elders is commoner in China than it is in, say, New Zealand, may in her heart feel bitterness against her parents for not having been up-to-date.
Round the World in a Motor Car
By J. J. Mann
Published by G. Bell and Sons, Ltd.
One is not even allowed to bring in a black servant, and when I applied to the authorities for permission to bring Samand with me, the reply was: “Not for all the tea in China.”
South Sea Shipmates
By John Arthur Barry
New York, NY: Outing Publishing Company
“I’ll bet all the tea in China on it.”
18 November 1915, Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, UT), pg. 8:
Now that it is all over, I want to say that I would not have missed those minor league and Pacific Coast league doings in San Francisco for all the tea in China.
15 June 1915, The Age (Melbourne, Australia), pg. 6:
“I wouldn’t have missed out ‘wrap’ for all the tea in China.”
16 September 1917, Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, UT), pg. 48?:
Here’s an Australian sport item that will interest boxers:
“Dave, however, could not be drawn out of his retirement shell again for all the tea in China or all the Shekels in Australian, and Albert has claimed the title on forfeit.”
Up the Country:
A Tale of the Early Australian Squattocracy
By Brent of Bin Bin, Miles Franklin
Published by W. Blackwood & Sons, ltd.
“I wouldn’t attempt it again for all the tea in China, would you, Bert?” remarked Tim.
2 September 1929, Washington (DC) Post, “Collyer’s Comment on the Sport of Kings” by Bert F. Collyer, pg. 6:
The good word from Dade Park is ELOISE, which will run for all the tea in China in the sixth cant.