3.02.2015

The Porcelain Thief, by Huan Hsu

The Porcelain Thief
The last three generations of Huan Hsu's family have suffered every upheaval of Twentieth century China. His great-great-grandfather Liu was a wealthy landowner and porcelain collector during the last decades of the Qing dynasty. He and his children and grandchild experienced the fall of Imperial China, the depredations of the Japanese during World War II, the evacuation of the Kuomintang, and the rise of Mao and the Cultural Revolution. His memoir, The Porcelain Thief, is ostensibly about Hsu's attempts to find his family's cache of porcelain. The book is more about Hsu's attempts to reconcile his relatives recollections with China's history than about reclaiming lost family heirlooms.

Hsu is American-born Chinese. His parents came from Taiwan and he was raised in Salt Lake City, where grew up with people praising his English and asking where he was from. Before his trip back to China, the only heritage Hsu had was family legend about his great-great-grandfather's land and porcelain. The stories never left him and, after giving in to taking a job with his uncle's Shanghai-based company, decides to finally see if anything can be found of his family's heritage. After war, civil war, the Cultural Revolution, and the rapid growth of modern China, there's not much left to find. The ground where the Liu family house was now houses a cotton factory.

Many of the chapters of The Porcelain Thief are retellings of portions of Chinese history from the perspective of one of Hsu's many relatives. The clan broke apart with the Japanese invaded in 1938. One branch of his family left mainland China with the Kuomintang. Another stayed on the mainland but relocated to various cities in southern China. The poorest branch hid from the Japanese and stayed in Xingang. The mainland branches survived the second world war, but barely made it through the Cultural Revolution. For me, the most interesting parts of the story were Hsu's oldest relatives recounting their experience of the last days of the Qing dynasty and the Republic of China. My only knowledge of this period of Chinese history was gleaned from watching The Last Emperor and sporadic reading of Wikipedia articles. 

Hsu also investigates the history of Jingdezhen porcelain. According to family legend, one of the members of the Liu family was an official in Jingedezhen, the site of an Imperial kiln that made porcelain for royalty as far back as the Song dynasty. (Jingdezhen still turns out porcelain, but mostly reproductions of old pottery.) I don't know if the final version of this book will include photographs. I hope so, because I spent most of my time going through these chapters flipping back and forth between the book and a Google image search. 

As if this wasn't enough material for Hsu, he also discusses modern Chinese culture. There's a lot of spitting, filth, defecation in the streets, dealing with officials, trying to understand idioms and dialects, and cheating in pretty much every aspect of business. Because he doesn't look like a foreigner, Hsu gets no special treatment from anyone but doesn't fit in either. He lives the curious life of a returned American-born Chinese in Shanghai and Jindezhen for three years.

Towards the end of The Porcelain Thief, I worried that the title hinted at the discovery that the Liu porcelain had been stolen by someone between 1949 and 2011. I kept waiting for the thief to turn up; it didn't happen. This and a few odd Britishisms kept me from fully enjoying this book. I think if Hsu had placed less emphasis on his porcelain quest at the beginning, I would have had the right expectations for this book going forward. The Porcelain Thief, as I read it, is really a memoir about sorting through memories and recollections from family before all that history is lost for good. 

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 24 March 2015.

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