qatsi (qatsi) wrote,


Book Review: The Porcelain Thief - Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China, by Huan Hsu
I picked this up in a work book sale over a year ago. Initially I had assumed it was fiction, but closer inspection explains that it is the author's search for porcelain owned by his nineteenth-century ancestors, buried in 1938 as the Japanese army approaches, and subsequently lost in the fog and aftermath of war. I have a romanticised, tranquil, Confucian view of China, which can never have been real and which Hsu quickly disabuses; as an American-Born Chinese, he says, he "feels Chinese in America, and American in China", and he readily draws attention to flaws in behaviour, living standards, commercial and government practices, and so on. Taking a job in a relative's electronics factory, he uses his spare time to learn Mandarin and to visit surviving relatives, who give vague accounts of the family history. Undeterred, he visits the area of Jiujiang and talks to dealers, researchers and current practitioners of the mostly defunct porcelain industry. What emerges is an interesting extended family portrait, from the years of the Republic of China, through World War II, the Communist takeover, Taiwan (to which some parts of the family fled, including his own branch, with his parents later moving to the US), and the Cultural Revolution, to the present day, but Hsu's obsession with the porcelain - that it must still be buried somewhere - is rather at odds with all the evidence, and he struggles with the idea that it might just have gone, that it might have been stolen, that any concept of absentee ownership might just not have meaning in this jurisdiction and over this time period, and although it's the raison d'être for the book, his denial and stubbornness rather sours it at times.
Tags: books, history
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