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The porcelain thief by Huan Hsu
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The porcelain thief (2015)

by Huan Hsu

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Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
This is a personal story but also a rendering of thousands of years of the history of China. I learned a lot about porcelain making and the Chinese dynasties and also the more recent history of China as it affected this one family.
Huan Hsu is an ABC, that is an American-Born Chinese. His parents grew up in Taiwan but moved to the USA to pursue post-secondary schooling and stayed to work in Utah which is where Huan grew up. Huan’s grandmother stayed in Taiwan and then moved to Shanghai with Huan’s uncle Richard who owned a company that made computer chips. One day in the US Huan saw an exhibit of Chinese porcelain and was fascinated by it. He mentioned it to his father who said that Huan’s mother’s family used to have a big collection of porcelain before the Communist takeover. He learned that his great-great grandfather had been a scholar and landlord in Xingang. During the Second World War his grandfather had to flee from the approaching Japanese soldiers with only what he and the family with him could carry. They buried the porcelain and a great deal of silver deep in the ground. Although the family returned after the Japanese were defeated there was such turmoil between the Republicans, lead by Chiang Kai-Shek, and the Communists, led by Mao, that it never seemed safe to unearth the buried treasure. The great-great grandfather was 80 years old when the Communists took control of China. As a landlord he was persecuted and stripped of all his landholdings. He continued to live in a small outbuilding on the land but died soon after. The people who knew about the porcelain never had a chance to return or it was never safe to do so. Huan’s grandmother was quite elderly when Huan started his investigation but he decided to move to Shanghai to be able to talk to her about her grandfather’s home and porcelain collection. To do this he had to take a job in his uncle’s business and learn to speak Mandarin. Little by little he accumulated information as he talked to elderly relatives and travelled to places in China and Taiwan. This is the story of his search and what he found.
Although I found the book fascinating there were a few things I would have changed if I was an editor. Firstly, there were several stories that were repeated throughout the book. Once would have been enough to hear about the glaze makers’ attempts to make a deep red glaze. Also, some pictures would have been nice. ( )
  gypsysmom | Apr 1, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
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. ( )
  mdbrady | Apr 7, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
What a fascinating memoir involving a family myth resulting in the quest to ascertain the legitimacy of that myth. Along the journey, author, Huan Hsu, discovers his family's history through the memories of aging relatives. He explores Chinese culture through living, working and traveling within China and through conversations with many who have endured the myriad of revolutions encountered over the last few generations.
Hsu, is a gifted writer whose vivid descriptions of the lanscape and his encounters place the reader directly alongside him. The historic detail of the Chinese porcelain trade is thorough and fascinating. The recounting of the Japanese invasion and the actions of corrupt leaders through various revolutions was factual and yet, disturbing.
The presumed vast treasures of the family's buried porcelain and coin were highly valued by Hsu's great-great-grandfather and represented his tangible legacy for his family. However, it appears that education is an equally important legacy of Hsu's great-great-grandfather as he made sure that daughters were as well educated as sons. Sadly, the cultural revolution, as noted in the story, penalized those who were educated and the gift was deemed a curse and could often threatened one's existence. Survival seemed all that mattered.
I am grateful to author, Huam Hsu, and LibraryThing Early Reviewers for having provided a free copy of an uncorrected proof of this book and hope that the abrupt ending was somehow eased before final publication.

Synopsis:
Hsu, a first-generation Chinese American, returns to China to discover the fate of his great-great-grandfather's long-buried porcelain collection and, in the process, unearths the key to understanding his family's history over the past one hundred years of Chinese history

In the tradition of the best works of history that uncover a forgotten family story, such as The Hare with Amber Eyes or The Lost, The Porcelain Thief recounts journalist Huan Hsu's journey through the old and new worlds of China to find hidden treasure, reconnect with his ancestry, and come to terms with his hyphenated identity.

In 1938, when the Japanese arrived in Hsu's great-great-grandfather's Yangtze River hometown of Xingang, the family was forced to bury their valuables, including a vast and prized collection of antique porcelain, and to flee on a decades-long trek that would splinter it over thousands of miles and countless upheavals. Hsu, raised in Salt Lake City and armed with mere strands of a family legend, moves to China to work in his uncle's semiconductor chip business and begins to understand his family's history as he never has before. A conversation with his grandmother, the last living link to his family's life in dynastic China, ignites his desire to learn more about not only his ancestral heirlooms but also porcelain itself. Mastering conversational Chinese enough to launch himself into the countryside, Hsu sets out to separate the layers of fact and fiction that have grown up around both his family and China, and finally complete his family's long march back home.

Melding memoir, travelogue, ethnography, and social and political history, The Porcelain Thief takes the reader along with Hsu as he travels throughout mainland China and Taiwan in search of his family's fabled porcelain collection and, as a result, discovers the great-great-grandparents and estranged aunts and uncles he never knew. The Porcelain Thief is an intimate and personal way to understand the bloody, tragic and largely forgotten events that defined Chinese history in the 19th and 20th century. ( )
  KateBaxter | Feb 28, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This is a wonderful, comprehensive history of the author's family as well as that of China. It encompasses not only the royal dynasties but also the strive of the Japanese invasion of China and the country's subsequent civil war. The book was a well-written engrossing tale of one man's quest to recover his family's personal and physical history. ( )
  Amusedbythis | Feb 13, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
At first, I was really taken with this book and the adventure it promised. Then I started reading it and the constant racial diatribes became boring. Complaint after complaint, sprinkled with irritating, obstructionist and downright rude relatives. Then I skimmed another review that reveals no porcelain was ever recovered by our intrepid narrator and I lost interest. It will be only my second DNF for the Early Review program. Sorry.
  Bookmarque | Feb 10, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hsu, Huanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dong, LaurenDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kim, NaCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ward, Jeffrey L.Cartographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Dedication
To my family,
the treasure I always had,
and to Jennifer,
the treasure I never expected to find
First words
This book recounts my time in China from 2007 to 2010, and then the summer and fall of 2011. (Author's note)
The first sign of trouble came in the spring of 1938. (Prologue)
If my parents ever told me about my great-great grandfather's buried porcelain, it had never registered.
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Book description
Contents:

Map #1 (China and Taiwan) -- Map #2 (Liu's Journey) -- Map #3 (Huan's Journey) -- Prologue -- 1. This is China -- 2. A Chicken Talking A Duck -- 3. Liu Feng Su -- 4. Panda Chinese -- 5. The Orphan -- 6. Street Fight -- 7. Journey to the West -- 8. The Real China -- 9. End of Paradise -- 10. From Far Formosa -- 11. City on Fire 12. Falling Leaves Return to Their Roots -- 13. All Death is a Homecoming -- 14. Nanjing -- 15. Northern Expedition -- 16. A Stumble From Which There Is No Recovering -- 17. The Nine Rivers -- 18. The Long Valley -- 19. Xingang Marks The Spot -- 20. Chasing the Moon from the Bottom of the Sea.
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307986306, Hardcover)

Hsu, a first-generation Chinese American, returns to China to discover the fate of his great-great-grandfather's long-buried porcelain collection and, in the process, unearths the key to understanding his family's history over the past one hundred years of Chinese history
 
In the tradition of the best works of history that uncover a forgotten family story, such as The Hare with Amber Eyes or The LostThe Porcelain Thief recounts journalist Huan Hsu's journey through the old and new worlds of China to find hidden treasure, reconnect with his ancestry, and come to terms with his hyphenated identity.
 
In 1938, when the Japanese arrived in Hsu's great-great-grandfather's Yangtze River hometown of Xingang, the family was forced to bury their valuables, including a vast and prized collection of antique porcelain, and to flee on a decades-long trek that would splinter it over thousands of miles and countless upheavals. Hsu, raised in Salt Lake City and armed with mere strands of a family legend, moves to China to work in his uncle's semiconductor chip business and begins to understand his family's history as he never has before. A conversation with his grandmother, the last living link to his family's life in dynastic China, ignites his desire to learn more about not only his ancestral heirlooms but also porcelain itself. Mastering conversational Chinese enough to launch himself into the countryside, Hsu sets out to separate the layers of fact and fiction that have grown up around both his family and China, and finally complete his family's long march back home.
 
Melding memoir, travelogue, ethnography, and social and political history, The Porcelain Thief takes the reader along with Hsu as he travels throughout mainland China and Taiwan in search of his family's fabled porcelain collection and, as a result, discovers the great-great-grandparents and estranged aunts and uncles he never knew. The Porcelain Thief is an intimate and personal way to understand the bloody, tragic and largely forgotten events that defined Chinese history in the 19th and 20th century.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:02:36 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"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"--… (more)

» see all 3 descriptions

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