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The Porcelain Thief, by Huan Hsu.

March 11, 2015

The Porcelain Thief, by Huan Hsu.  Crown (2015), Hardcover, 400 pages.

4 stars

An informative mix of travelogue, history, and memoir by a Chinese man, born in the US, looking for the fine porcelain that his great grandfather was said to have buried when the Japanese army invaded China in 1938.

Huan Hsu was the son of Chinese parents who had migrated to the United States. After working for a time as a journalist, he became interested in family stories about his great great grandfather, a wealthy landowner in China, who had buried his collection of valuable porcelain in his garden as the Japanese advanced into his country. Although Hsu had not previous been interested in his Chinese heritage, he decided to accept a job with a rich uncle who owned a large factory near Shanghai in order to search for the porcelain. For three years, he worked in China, traveling around the country interviewing relatives and others whom he hoped would help in his quest. In the process, he learned about China’s history and the present social conditions there.

The Porcelain Thief is an enjoyable, rambling account of Hsu’s time in China and what he learned about the country’s past and present. He uses his journalistic skills to weave together various elements of the story; his own search for information, his family’s personal experiences during World War II and the Communist era, and basic history of China in the twentieth century. He makes generalizations about the Chinese language and how and why being Chinese continues to carry weight for him. In addition, he relates his growing knowledge of history of Chinese porcelain, the museums where he saw it, and the disrupted fields where he and others collected its shards. He goes to live in Jingdezhen, the city on central China that was the center of porcelain production.

Hsu provides solid, relatively neutral historical information about Chinese history. Knowing little about the subject, I appreciated his account 0f major historical events and how they affected ordinary people in a variety of ways. He seems to present basic historical scholarship, although his dismal assessment of Cixi, the last empress of China, contradicts the more positive recent biography of her by Jung Chang. (See my review) Like his great great grandfather, Hsu felt no allegiance to the traditional emperors, the Nationalists of Chaing Kai-Shek, or Communists. At the local level, he observes that whoever ruled created chaos and destruction for those they ruled. Although he discusses economic change, his book is not framed by the conflicting views of communism and capitalism.

As Hsu traveled around China, he observed the cities and countryside, writing brief sharp accounts of what he saw. Often he supplements these with information about the changes brought by recent government policies. Recent building has meant the destruction of historical sites. In addition, the stories of his relatives and the individuals he happened to meet, he reveals how varied the experiences of World War II, Civil War, and Communist rule had been. Visiting Taiwan, he notes its particular mix of high regard for China’s traditional culture and westernization. Individuals experienced national events differently, often randomly, because of where they were at the time.

Looking for the buried porcelain and collecting porcelain shards leads Hsu to think about history and how it is preserved. He gradually moves beyond a simple desire to own his great grandfather’s porcelain to appreciate its larger meaning:

Corporeal beings eventually leave the world. Places persist under the capricious rule of the bulldozer. Stories—of my family, of bygone China—don’t have to die. Even their fragments can be reassembled.

That is exactly what Hsu does in this book.

I gladly recommend The Porcelain Thief to all readers who are interested in China and in the impact of the changing policies of Communist rule. It is a good introduction, not a definitive account, but for most of us, that is exactly what we need to read. This is also a book for all those who enjoy readable histories of distant places.

Thanks to Random House and Library Thing for sending me a review copy of this book. When the final version is available it will contain maps and other useful material not available in my copy. I think the additional information with increase enjoyment of this book.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2015 4:29 pm

    LOL I wonder what would happen if he actually found the porcelain? Would they let him take it back to the US?

    • March 15, 2015 3:52 pm

      From reading the book, I’d guess he’d sneak it out of the country.

      • March 15, 2015 4:18 pm

        Does he explore that issue, i.e. who ‘owns’ the porcelain? I don’t mean the legal provenance, I mean philosophically, i.e. who owns something if it belonged to a family long ago but it has cultural significance that makes it belong in a place that the descendants don’t live in.

  2. March 16, 2015 1:01 am

    Guess what turned up in my inbox from the Asian Review of Books? Another review of this intriguing book http://www.asianreviewofbooks.com/new/?ID=2196#!
    I’m going to have to get a copy of it from the library:)

  3. March 16, 2015 5:15 pm

    Good! Now you can tell me what you think.
    My sense is that what he discovers is his own cultural roots, rather than objects he can take. What he shares with Chinese in China, Taiwain, and around the world. He is inclusive than possessive of both past and present. And I think he writes better about the concrete than the abstract.

    • March 17, 2015 12:32 am

      Hmpf, they (my library) haven’t got it. I’ll put in a request for it, next time I’m there in person….

  4. March 19, 2015 10:02 am

    I received my copy to review a couple of months ago. It should be out by now, but it is new enough that it may be hard to find a copy.

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