Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Porcelain Thief - Huan Hsu

Summary: A journalist travels throughout mainland China and Taiwan in search of his family’s hidden treasure and comes to understand his ancestry as he never has before.

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. Mastering the language enough to venture into the countryside, Hsu sets out to separate the layers of fact and fiction that have obscured both China and his heritage and finally complete his family’s long march back home.

Melding memoir, travelogue, and social and political history, The Porcelain Thief offers an intimate and unforgettable way to understand the complicated events that have defined China over the past two hundred years and provides a revealing, lively perspective on contemporary Chinese society from the point of view of a Chinese American coming to terms with his hyphenated identity.
 (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: I don't know what this book is.  It puzzled me as I read it, it puzzled me as I finished, and as I sit down to write this review, I'm frankly puzzled.  Part Chinese history, part cathartic exercise, part memoir, it has made it more difficult for me to not only understand which threads I should tug, but how overall I should digest this book.

Let me say this.  Huan Hsu is an excellent writer.  He knows how to engage an audience, how to bring a scene to life, how to paint realistic characters.  He warns readers periodically that trying to understand Chinese history, or even his family's history, is like trying to drink from a firehose.  Oh, my was it.  There were so many side characters--family, extended family, friends, acquaintances, random strangers, officials (both minor and major)--my head was swimming trying to keep track of who belonged to whom, where their stories intersected with Hsu's, and how they were necessary to the storyline.  Frankly, there were many times I didn't feel up to the task, and it was disheartening.  It made me feel better, however, to read Hsu's same feelings of overwhelming ancestry when dealing with all these people. 

Huan Hsu is Chinese-American.  Paraphrased from him, that means he's too Chinese to be American, and too American to be Chinese.  I can't imagine how difficult that would be on any child.  He was raised hearing about recent Chinese history, learning the ins and outs of a world he didn't identify with while trying to find an identity in a world he was unsure of.  Unfortunately, I felt that there was a lot of bitterness that leaked through because of it.  It was difficult to read someone's writing who is so clearly angry at his heritage.  Hsu doesn't like China.  He doesn't like the people, the culture that's developed, he doesn't like really anything about it but the food.  That was really, really hard for me to identify with.

I also had a difficult time with the sheer amount of Chinese history thrown so haphazardly and furiously at the reader.  Don't get me wrong.  I want to study Chinese history.  I want to understand the ins and outs, but it very much felt like I'm sure I would sound if I were to give a Chinese casual reader a brief rundown of American history.  I was utterly baffled and perplexed as names, dates, events, and battles that I had either never heard of or had only been given a cursory once-over in my AP World History classes were referenced.  I understood why it would be -- this is Hsu's history, as surely as American history is mine.  But it made me feel like I didn't belong to the book - like somehow, I wasn't allowed into the club because I haven't heard of this history my whole life.  That was frustrating, and I worry it soured my opinion of the book.  No one wants to feel locked out of a book they're reading - and I felt sometimes as though I could nearly hear "Tick, tock, the book is locked, and you're too DUMB TO PLAY!!"

However.  I took a History of Ceramics class in college (oh, dear), and I felt like I learned more from this book about Chinese ceramic and porcelain development than I did in that semester of college.  The ceramic history was fascinating!  The details he was able to uncover, the legends surrounding the creation of the porcelain, they were beautiful! They made me want to hunt down a museum with book in hand so I could pour over the history while seeing the actual pieces.  I wish there had been more of that thread.

Rating: Three stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Lots and lots of swear words.  Hsu likes them.  He's also colloquialized  his Chinese conversations to include as many as he could. 

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