A Pleasant Weekend Read

            Over the recent weekend I read Huan Hsu’s The Porcelain Thief ~ Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China (London: Fourth Estate, 2015, 380 pages). I enjoyed the work to such an extent I thought I’d write a brief blurb for others. Hsu, a San Francisco native, is a graduate of William and Mary and holds an MFA from George Mason. Readers interested in Chinese and Taiwanese history and culture, as well as the background of the porcelain trade may find this work of value. Readers interested in genealogy may find this book of interest as well, following the author’s tale as it unfolds while he retraces his family’s roots. Hsu has the Salt Lake City area in his background, a noted area for genealogy given the Mormon Church’s research center.IMG_0376
            Hsu’s initial writing alludes to the turmoil of the Japanese bombing and eventual occupation of the mainland during the Second Sino-Japanese war in 1937, a period during which his great-great-grandfather Liu Feng Shu buried in a bamboo walled hole under the family garden in the village of Xingang his family’s porcelain collection along with their other valuables prior to their retreat to Taiwan with other mainland non-Communists. Liu owned large sections of arable land in Xingang, much of which was along the Yangtze river bottom in the Poyang Lake area. Hsu’s book tells the story of his quest, through reengagement with his family in China and Taiwan, to attempt to find and unbury the porcelain below his family’s former property, the modern day site of a dilapidated cotton plant.
            Through dialogues with his family, Hsu employes a relatively balanced political approach to the many subjects covered. Hsu traces the porcelain trade and development through the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Song Dynasty (960-1297), Kublai Kahn’s Great Yuan Dynasty (Mongolian era 1271-1368), the Ming Dynasty (China’s dominant economic period from1368 through 1644) and finally through the Qing period(1644-1912). Hsu takes readers through the turmoil of significant transitions including the two Opium Wars with Britain (China’s relinquishing Hong Kong, the period’s looting and destruction of many antiquities), the first Sino-Japanese War (fought over Korea, resulting in Japan’s gaining Taiwan), Guangxu’s Hundred Days’ Reform of 1898, the peasant’s Boxer Rebellion (resulting from a host of hardships, including the affects of the opium trade), the subsequent demise of the Dynastic period (and once more the subsequent looting by the citizens of the many occupying states), and the May Fourth Movement when intellectuals and students in 1919 attempted civil reforms, rejecting Confucian traditions. Hsu covers the horrors of the Second Sino-Japanese War, 1937 through the end of WWII, writing about the immense hardships the Chinese endured and the Period’s resulting negative impact on the country’s porcelain and antiquities. The author covers the subsequent civil war period, the country’s turning inward with the ending of the Republic in 1949; Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintangs’ (including the writer’s grandparents) retreating to Taiwan after having breached a dam and flooding villages, towing along hoards of porcelain to be protected from destruction by the Communists. Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” and the Cultural Revolution’s purges are covered through discussions Hsu has with his family. Through Hsu’s family dialogues, including a section where Hsu’s relative, Cong Ji, discusses the “five bads,” one understands the gravity of the Mao era purges. In Hsu’s book one learns of the negative attributes of the Nationalists as well given some of Chang’s actions before and during the the civil war period. Finally, the reader senses the immensity of the relief of Deng Xiaoping’s “great opening” and economic reforms.
            Hsu alludes to guanxi, which is a Chinese term alluding to a person’s connections. “Originally a value-neutral idea rooted in Confucian values, guanxi was critical to doing business in China and had lately become conflated with nepotism, cronyism, and other corruption,” Hsu writes. The importance of networking in Asia is significant. Hsu goes to Shanghai and begins his quest for his family’s buried porcelain by finally accepting a job (thereby attaining a visa) at the semiconductor firm his Christian evangelical uncle Richard founded in China, SMIC. Richard was indifferent to Huan Hsu’s porcelain search. A frugal minded fellow, Richard is a colorful character who for many years initially worked for Texas Instruments. According to the author, Richard left TI and founded WSMC, a Taiwan chip firm which he sold to TSM (Taiwan Semi). Following the sale of WSMC, Richard founded SMIC in China. Hsu notes that Richard constructed christian health facilities, churches and schools across China. Hsu alludes to the Chinese propensity to copy (pirate) products in one section of the work. This national tendency spilled into SMIC and resulted eventually in SMIC’s losing a lawsuit against TSM following a California jury ruling and resulted in Richard’s resignation from the company.
            The history of Chinese porcelain, according to Hsu, begins in the city of Jingdezhen, 90 mies east of his great-great grandfather’s village of Xingang. Jingdezhen’s kaolin deposits were significant and stabilized the clay during the kiln’s heating (1250 degrees Celcius) process. “While in Jingdezhen, I met a geologist from Montana who had traveled there to study its ceramic materials and who told me that both the size of its clay particles and its impurities could not have been more perfectly suited for making pottery. ‘The materials are absolutely unique here…’” Hsu writes. Hsu writes on porcelain trade development throughout each of the country’s dynastic periods along the Yangtze with Europe and the Middle East.. The Mongols (Yuan era) developed trade relations with the Persians, incorporating Persian cobalt into the porcelain resulting in a beautiful white and blue hue. Hsu’s description of thousands of kilns burning during the Qing dynasty’s porcelain heyday (and briefly mentioned deforestation) had me thinking of Butte’s 19th century copper boom (the environmental impact on local streams). Hsu notes the competitive led demise of the porcelain industry for China following the Saxon alchemist Johann Bottger’s inadvertent discovery of kaolin which resulted in the growth of today’s well known industry players.
            The nature of the characters in Hsu’s family are of interest. Hsu’s great-great-grandfather (maternal side) Liu Feng Shu was a self made man whose father was a day laborer in the Xingang area during the early 19th century. Hsu writes that Liu’s father applied what resources he could towards the education of Liu at Xingang’s local sishu (private academy). Liu later preforms well on the imperial civil service exam, but declines working for the government for fear of remaining poor. On Liu’s declining, Hsu writes, “But Liu, a strict Confucian, figured that an overeducated man in the fields was still more virtuous than a cultured one taking bribes. He returned to Xingang and started his own sishu, where he became known for reducing or waiving fees for especially bright students. Just about every male in the village received some kind of training from my great-great-grandfather. ‘If you don’t go to school, you have no prospects,’ he liked to say. ‘So go to school.’” Through educating the children of the merchants, Liu developed wealth and status, becoming a significant land owner and collector of porcelain. Liu’s way of thinking spilled down through the generations, including Hsu’s grandmother Liu Pei Jin who following the civil war while living in Taiwan, had to start over again. Pie Jin sent her children to the US to be educated. Her sons, Richard and Lewis, (Hsu’s uncles) along with Lewis’s son Andrew, became Hsu’s mainland family connections during Hsu’s adventure to relocate his family’s porcelain. Lewis graduated from UGA with a veterinary degree and is portrayed as a free wheeling type. The contrasting characteristics between the two uncles is entertainingly developed through Hsu’s quest. Hsu’s grandmother Liu was educated at the Rulison-Fish Memorial School for girls, set up in 1872 by Gertrude Howe, a missionary and University of Michigan graduate. Following Rulison, Liu got into and desired to attend Xiangya Medical School (Yale affiliated). She also was accepted to Ginling Women’s College (sister to Smith College), but her strict grandfather would only help pay if she did not attend a coeducational institution. With a long lasting grudge, according to Hsu, his grandmother attended Ginling. The historical link between China and Western missionaries plays out to a degree in the book, bringing back memories of Pearl S. Buck’s story who grew up in the Greenbrier Valley in W.Va.
            Hsu discusses the expat environment in Shanghai, the country’s struggle with environmental issues, the continuing lack of hygiene in many areas, the difficulty of learning the language (which Hsu did through courses while working at SMIC), and weaving one’s way through its many varying dialects, and the apathy prevalent in some areas. There are countless humorous tid bits throughout the work. Hsu alludes to Mao’s having been an avid smoker which evidently still endures to this day as part of the Chinese persona. The exchanges with the cabbies are humorous. The discussion with the cotton factory foreman in the book’s latter stage is of interest. The typical Chinese opaqueness, bureaucratic entanglement and labyrinth like atmosphere plays out as Hsu desperately seeks permission to dig below what was once his family’s garden. The historical nature of many of the communities, including Lushan and Nanjing are well covered. Hsu discusses his family’s political activities during the civil war period and how matters developed in Taiwan. Hsu’s family’s intellectual background is discussed (one member a scientist who worked on China’s equivalent to the Manhatten Project in the States). Hsu’s work is both entertaining and informative. The Porcelain Thief made for a nice weekend read.

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