In 1938, when the Japanese invaded China and drew close to Huan Hsu’s great-great- grandfather Liu’s estate, Liu dug a deep pit a short distance from his house, lined it with bamboo shelves, and buried his treasured collection of imperial porcelain. The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China is Huan Hsu’s account of his incredible search for those lost pots.
Hsu was born in the US. Growing up, he did everything a boy could to distance himself from his heritage, wanting to be American. Then, as a young man, in order to look for the porcelain, he moves to China to work for his uncle, learns Chinese, and reunites with relatives he barely knows. His descriptions of modern day China are fascinating. If you do not live in China, you might experience a bit of culture shock just reading them. When Hsu commissions a suit, it is badly made and doesn’t fit. When he asks to have the suit he brought with him copied, the copy is perfect. He is astonished to see people wearing their pajamas in public. There are seemingly no rules, except to stay out of politics. Hsu’s observations are at times funny and always interesting.
But of course, it is the quest for the porcelain that intrigues us, and in this Hsu does not disappoint. Over time, he learns about the history of porcelain and the role it has played in China. He comes to understand that men of means, such as his great-great-grandfather took enormous pride in their collections. And he discovers that for the imperial court, porcelain and status were one. “In dynastic China,” he writes, “ownership of the imperial porcelain collection had conferred the right to rule, and so long as it remained in Taipei, Chiang’s government could claim that it, not Beijing, was China’s capital.”
During Hsu’s search for his great-great-grandfather’s collection, he sees that in the regions where pottery was made, there are crumbling and overgrown remains of numerous ancient kilns and thousands, millions of shards. The kilns, he laments, China’s heritage, are being destroyed, lost forever, as the country modernizes.
He becomes a shard hunter. “Opposite the mud hut were undulating mounds of shards so large that it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the scale,” he tells us, “The piles closest to the house had crevasses deep enough that people disappeared when they descended into them. Elsewhere swaths of vines, sesame blossoms, wildflower and small trees had taken root.”
Toward the end of his journey, he visits an elderly man whose ancestors travelled in the same social circle as his great-great-grandfather. The man lives in “a gloomy Communist era apartment.” Two boxes of ceramics are carefully carried out to the kitchen table for Hsu to see. Everyone is nervous, as if the pots might be dropped, or stolen. “I turned the vases over to see that both bore the mark of Guangzu, the second-to-last emperor of the Qing dynasty, though the blue one’s was pierced through and the red one’s was rubbed away; effacing the seal was a common practice when the emperor gave imperial wares as gifts. These were real imperial porcelains, not in a museum, an auction house, or wealthy collector’s home. They had remained in China for their entire existence, no more than a hundred miles form their birthplace, and had somehow managed to survive a century in which everyone, Chines or otherwise, seemed intent on removing them or destroying them.”
I will not tell you what happens when Hsu finally comes to dig where his great-great-grandfather lived. You must read the story for yourself. The Porcelain Thief is part memoir, part history, and part travelogue, all of it riveting. It will be published in March. Watch for it. Better yet, ask you local independent bookseller or librarian to hold a copy for you.