The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried Treasure – Huan Hsu (Review)

by krstaten

18525763Time for a long overdue book review! I received this book in April or May of last year with the intention of reviewing it then, but things fell behind. No regrets–I’m grateful for the unusual (for me) foray into nonfiction, specifically memoir, even if it did end up taking longer for me to complete the journey than it should have.

In 1938, during the second Sino-Japanese War, journalist Huan Hsu’s great-great-grandfather was forced to flee home due to the Japanese invasion, and he buried his valuables in the process–including a large collection of valuable porcelain. Decades later, Huan Hsu himself–raised in America, with conflicting feelings about his Chinese ancestry–takes a three-year journey to uncover his heritage and the histories and mysteries of the buried porcelain.

This memoir weaves relevant and interesting Chinese history in a way that is digestable to those unfamiliar with it, without breaking the flow of the narrative. Part of this is because Hsu himself is in many ways as unfamiliar with China as the rest of Americans; in the book, we are fed this history through the perspective of someone who is both an outsider to Chinese culture and very much a part of it. Hsu grew up in Western culture and gives us his Western perceptions, while also discussing the evolution of China’s culture from a historical perspective. The narrative is rich with history–of China itself, of China’s production of and relationship with pottery and porcelain, and of particular families and individuals who were shaped by all of the above.

We’re given all this through brilliant, life-giving prose, interspersed with a journalistic affinity for facts and statistics. We’re given vivid imagery introducing us to a country, its culture (and history of ever-changing cultures), and its people that make us feel rooted and enveloped in story, seasoned with the kind of factual delivery that reminds us of Huan Hsu’s journalistic background.

As the narrative moves forward, it becomes as much about uncovering Hsu’s individual and family history as it is about uncovering the porcelain. Hsu calls into question what it ultimately means to preserve history–what defines preservation, authenticity, even permanence and wholeness. The whole narrative is told through information gathered by individuals, not always reliable, allowing us to question how much is real, and whether our definition of “realness” really matters, while giving us literal and figurative understandings of what it means to piece together the fragments of a broken history.

*I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.