When I first read about The Porcelain Thief, I knew I had to read it. The author, Huan Hsu, who grew up in Salt Lake City, returns to his family’s ancestral home in China in search of his great-great grandfather’s hidden porcelain collection.
I’m always up for a good mystery, especially when it involves Chinese history. And Huan Hsu’s book turned out to be just as thrilling as I’d expected. But it also includes a solid lesson in Chinese history, especially as it relates to his own family’s history.
There’s a family tree in the beginning of the book, which I found to be very helpful. I was also drawn to the maps at the front. Taking a quick look at two of them, I noticed the Chinese words for Hidden River, the town in Hubei province where my ex-husband comes from. I NEVER read about Hidden River in books, apart from my own, so was more than thrilled to see it on these maps. I didn’t come across any reference to Hidden River in the book, but that didn’t take anything away from the story or my enthusiasm for the book.
One of my issues with many China male expat memoirs is that they self-censor anything negative about China. Hsu is refreshingly honest about everything and everyone he encounters in China. That doesn’t mean he’s negative or racist or intolerant; it’s his experience and he tells it as it is.
For all that’s changed in China over the last 15 years, I read with great interest all that’s stayed the same. The endless maze of bureaucracy that–no matter how many cigarette bribes–leads to nowhere but frustration; locals’ sometimes suspicious mistrust of outsiders; and the cultural divide between those who escaped to Taiwan in 1949 and those who stayed behind.
I found myself rooting for Hsu at every twist in the story. He writes about how white expats can do no wrong in China, but that’s not true for someone like him who was born and raised in the U.S. and has parents who were born in China or Taiwan. I was drawn to Hsu’s colorful uncles, Richard and Lewis Chang, who had reputations on the mainland for being selfish and miserly. But what Hsu learns is that his uncles had unfailingly sent money back to China and had supported the former missionary school that had educated so many of the women in their family.
The book was so gripping that I didn’t stop to think about the significance of the title until after I reached the end. And then it hit me like a stone. You’ll just have to read it to find out!
If you’ve enjoyed books by Jung Chang, Frank Dikotter, Michael Meyer, Peter Hessler and the like, you should love The Porcelain Thief. Parts about the porcelain can seem a bit academic, but that’s one of the main things that sets this book apart from others.