The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China
A journalist travels throughout mainland China and Taiwan in search of his family’s hidden treasure and comes to understand his ancestry as he never has before.
In 1938, when the Japanese arrived in Huan Hsu’s great-great-grandfather Liu’s Yangtze River hometown of Xingang, Liu was forced to bury his valuables, including a vast collection of prized antique porcelain, and undertake a decades-long trek that would splinter the family over thousands of miles. Many years and upheavals later, Hsu, raised in Salt Lake City and armed only with curiosity, moves to China to work in his uncle’s semiconductor chip business. Once there, a conversation with his grandmother, his last living link to dynastic China, ignites a desire to learn more about not only his lost ancestral heirlooms but also porcelain itself. Mastering the language enough to venture into the countryside, Hsu sets out to separate the layers of fact and fiction that have obscured both China and his heritage and finally complete his family’s long march back home.
Melding memoir, travelogue, and social and political history, The Porcelain Thief offers an intimate and unforgettable way to understand the complicated events that have defined China over the past two hundred years and provides a revealing, lively perspective on contemporary Chinese society from the point of view of a Chinese American coming to terms with his hyphenated identity.
rude to her just now. She’s come all this way from America, and you turned your back on her. I’m very upset with the way you’ve treated us.” The principal arrived, a middle-aged man with dyed hair and wearing dark pants and a white dress shirt, the picture of a second-tier city bureaucrat. Lewis shifted his aim without missing a beat. “My brother is Richard Chang,” he barked at the principal. “He came here a few years ago and met with the mayor and the party secretary. You know how many Zhenda
harvested and divided among the Liu families. With all the rules in the house, the girls joked that it was a good thing their grandfather had refused the post offered to him after the imperial exams. He would have been intolerable if he’d had official authority, too. Although Liu employed as many servants as there were members of the household, the girls had to do chores. They got up at first light to sweep the floors (“Sweeping leads to longevity,” their grandfather told them), wipe the tables,
the remainder of the silver. Now refugees, the family first headed south for Lushan. Other relatives without the means to make such a trek stayed in Xingang or scattered into the surrounding countryside. The Liu girls had tried to stuff their packs with the entirety of their possessions, and before long a trail of toys and clothes formed behind them as they walked up the mountain. The baby of the group, five-year-old Pei Ke, followed along with an aunt, clutching a pack of fruit candy. Every time
and Pudong, “east bank of the [Huangpu] river.” Historically, Puxi had been the city’s cultural, economic, and residential center, and home to the nineteenth-century colonial concessions that included the Bund, the mile-long stretch along the river where Western architects had erected dozens of impressive consulates, bank buildings, and trading houses, a concentration of international financial and commercial institutions that made the Bund the Wall Street of Asia. In the middle of the Bund,
the counterfeiters pursue authenticity, and how that keeps alive Jingdezhen’s ancient traditions, it is kind of beautiful. As we walked through the market, Huang Fei bought a ginger jar, a Song dynasty cup, and a bowl melted into a sagger. All the shard hunters were right about seeing a critical mass of ceramics. Despite all the items in the market, I had spent enough time looking at porcelain to roughly group them into periods and types, patterns of a larger tapestry. I started looking for