Journalist Huan Hsu has one of the most original reasons for going to China that I’ve ever heard – to find buried treasure. Or, more specifically, buried porcelain.
A visit to the porcelain collection at the Seattle Art Museum leads him to a conversation with his mother, who explains that Huan’s great-great grandfather Liu left a cache of highly valuable china buried deep in the ground decades ago in Xingang, Jiangxi. That ultimately inspires Huan to journey to China to discover more about this buried treasure by talking to family there. Starting with his grandmother in Shanghai, Huan meets more relatives and sees more of China than he ever expected – and in the process, collects valuable family stories and learns more about himself. Read all about it in his new memoir The Porcelain Thief.
The Porcelain Thief deftly combines Huan Hsu’s personal experiences, the family stories (which span the late Qing Dynasty up through the Chairman Mao era), and his quest for buried porcelain into one incredibly enlightening book. You’ll learn about Chinese history and culture, porcelain, and what it’s like to be Chinese American in China (one of my favorite quotes is “ABCs [American Born Chinese] got the Chinese treatment at foreigner prices.”), making this an exceptional and much-needed entry among China books.
I’m honored to feature Huan Hsu and The Porcelain Thief on Speaking of China through this interview.
HUAN HSU, born in the Bay Area and raised in Salt Lake City, is a former staff writer for the Washington City Paper in Washington, DC, and the Seattle Weekly. He is the recipient of two Society of Professional Journalists awards and has received recognition from the Casey Foundation for Meritorious Journalism. His essays and fiction have also appeared in Slate, The Literary Review, and Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts. He currently lives in Amsterdam and teaches creative writing at Amsterdam University College.
I asked Huan about what it takes to gather family stories, his experiences as a Chinese American in China, why there are so few Chinese Americans (and other overseas Chinese) writing about China, and more about The Porcelain Thief.
Your search for buried treasure ends up taking you not only to Shanghai, but also Taiwan as well as Beijing, Shandong and Jiangxi. Did you ever expect to cover so much territory in a quest for family stories and porcelain?
I did and I didn’t. I was extremely naïve about what my so-called quest would entail, but that was also somewhat by design, so that it could remain open-ended. I wanted to be able to indulge curiosities and get sidetracked and wander around and experience an authentic sense of discovery. When I first arrived in Shanghai, I didn’t even have a grasp of how many members of my grandmother’s generation there were, who was still alive, or where they lived. So other than Shanghai and Jiangxi, I had no idea where I would be going. And of course once I began to find my footing in China, I wanted to go everywhere. As I like to tell people, there is nothing not interesting about China. Every place in China seemed to promise a fascinating local history or connection to my family or porcelain. This was both reassuring, in that once I got a basic understanding of Chinese history and my family history, it provided an entry point into me to orient myself and contextualize new places (as well as a way of interacting with both the place and its people–I could just play the curious, amateur historian American-born Chinese, which is a pretty unimpeachable character for local Chinese), and also extremely frustrating. As an obsessive collector and a maximalist, I still feel that not being able to go everywhere, talk to everyone, and learn everything is something of a failure on my part. Anyway, I’m glad I was able to cover as much territory as I did, which offered a glimpse of China that, while terribly incomplete, was still more thorough and more unalloyed than many people get, even those who do visit China.
While you’re ostensibly searching for the family’s porcelain in your book, some of the greatest treasures you uncover are your family’s stories, which span the Qing Dynasty, Republican-era China, and Chairman Mao’s reign. I was impressed by how you managed to get so many of the family elders to share their experiences with you; I haven’t had much success coaxing my husband’s relatives to speak about the past and I speak fluent Chinese myself! Besides learning the language, what do you think was the key to getting family members to talk to you?
Haha, well, I’m pretty sure your Chinese is better than mine ever was. I’d like to think that my family members spoke freely with me (well, most of them–my grandmother remained reticent to the end) thanks to my skills as an interviewer. But it was probably mostly timing, both where they were in their lives and also where China was in its history. For example, my father helped transcribe most of my interviews with Fang Zhen Zhi. Though they had met in Beijing in the early 1990s, and despite being a fellow physicist and materials scientist, my father and Fang Zhen Zhi had never spoken about Fang’s work on the nuclear program or his persecution during the Cultural Revolution. My father remarked to me that even if he had asked, he doubted Fang would have talked about it because of the cultural and political climate in China at the time.
It also probably helped that I was often the first of my generation to pay them a visit, a demonstration of filial piety that was probably appreciated by these relatives. Of course, I couldn’t just show up and immediately ask them about the porcelain right away, so I naturally had to first get to know them. Once they got going about their lives, I often got so wrapped up in those stories that the porcelain seemed kind of inconsequential, and there wasn’t always a convenient way to slip questions about it into the conversation. But I did always ask, and made sure to bring it more than once to see what I might elicit.
Other than felicitous timing and a degree of persistence, I don’t know if there was any trick to getting family members to talk. I showed up for the porcelain, so learning about their experiences was already somewhat ancillary, and maybe that created an atmosphere where those ancillary experiences could be shared. And as I said, much of the family history was just part of the warm-up–my priority wasn’t what they talked about, just that they kept talking and got comfortable with me listening. And maybe because I was ostensibly pursuing the porcelain and also my grandmother’s story, who was a well-respected figure in the family, they felt that their stories weren’t the center of the conversation and those things could come up more naturally and by the time I pressed them about those stories it would have felt odd not to share. But in the end, they were the ones who had to decide they wanted to talk, and I don’t know their motivations. Maybe because they were all well advanced in age, and no one in the family had ever tried to get these family stories, they felt an urge to have them recorded. As Fang Zhen Zhi said, they had suffered but had lived honorable lives. They had little more to strive for, nothing to fear, and had accepted their histories. They were content. So why hold back?
One of the fascinating things about your story is it offers readers insight into the experience of being Chinese American in China. What surprised you most about your own experience as an American-born Chinese in China?
Probably how angry it could make me! I think of myself as a pretty relaxed person, and I think most people who meet me perceive me that way, but there was something about China that could just get under my skin so quickly. China can be confrontational no matter where you’re from, but with overseas Chinese it can feel very personal. Intellectually, I knew that it wasn’t personal, but it wasn’t until the end of my stay in China that I really accepted it. Until then, I found myself acting far more pugnacious than I ever thought I could be.
Maybe this is just how we deal with the dysphoria of being in a place that is at once very familiar and extremely foreign, hostile even. I think for me, I had spent basically my entire life establishing my American-ness and assimilating to a degree that my parents never did. I didn’t just think of myself as American, or feel American, I was American, plain and simple. And to my frustration, that was completely unacknowledged in China because of the way I looked–the Chinese still think of American as an ethnicity, not a nationality. That double standard drove me crazy. For a while, I seemed to be trying to civilize China one pedestrian or driver at a time and would almost go out of my way to create these confrontations.
I expended so much psychic energy trying not to get swallowed up or lost in the sea of other black-haired people. I didn’t even realize how much of a burden that was on me until I didn’t have to deal with it anymore. Many of my ABC friends have also since returned to the States, and I think they leave China with a similar sense of relief.
I guess there aren’t a lot of analogues for this situation in the United States. Maybe children of overseas missionaries who move back after many years abroad? I got to know an older guy in Shanghai who was born in China to missionary parents, then grew up in Taiwan after the civil war. He went back to the States as an adolescent and found it bizarre. He went to college in America, but for the past few decades has been back in China. That might not be an accident.
There was a soccer player here in the Netherlands recently, his parents are Dutch but he was born in Japan and grew up there. He’s a Japanese citizen, his friends are all Japanese, he plays for the Japanese national team. Dutch is his third language. His mannerisms are completely Japanese. He prefers Japanese food and Japanese women; his wife is Japanese. He even looks Japanese. You get the idea. After spending his whole life in Japan, he was signed by a Dutch team in 2011, when he was 24. Most of the news stories around that time covered the culture shock he experienced: how disrespectful and brash Dutch players were to coaches and each other, things like that. He recalled thinking these people–technically his people–were all crazy. He lasted three seasons in the Netherlands before going to a team in Portugal, where, I suppose, he could just be a regular expat.
(I’ve since heard from other expats that I was not the only one who used his umbrella as an excuse to “accidentally” hit people in China.)
I loved that one of your great-great-grandfather’s best legacies is educating women in the family (starting with his granddaughters, who he sent to Western schools) and ultimately being ahead of the times. One of your relatives in Jiangxi even owed their good fortune (they always received the latest appliances before everyone else) to this legacy, passed down to them through Si Yi Po, one of these educated granddaughters of Liu Fengshu. How did it feel to discover this about your family?
My great-great-grandfather sending his youngest daugther and then my grandmother’s generation to Western schools really resonated with me. But I think much of that resonance stemmed from some latent chong yang mei wai on my part. It initially mattered to me that my grandmother attended a sister school of Smith College not because it meant she was the rare Chinese woman with a college education, but because she had an American college education supervised by Americans, which, of course, meant she was properly schooled and civilized. I probably would not felt the same way if she had attended an all-Chinese institution. I know I was more impressed with my great grand uncle who graduated from St. John’s University in Shanghai than his brothers who graduated from some Chinese railroad school in Jiangxi.
Once I had a little distance, I appreciated my great-great-grandfather’s progressivism more on its own terms. It served to bridge the past in a way that made it feel much closer and comprehensible. But I’m not sure how progressive my great-great-grandfather really was about educating women at the moment my grandmother was going to school. I feel like that iconoclasm is largely appended in hindsight, a narrative propagated by my living relatives. My sense is that it was actually my great grandfather, Liu Ting Zan, who felt strongly about educating women, and that my great-great-grandfather was mostly an agnostic. It probably wasn’t until the war, during which he and his family depended on my grandmother and San Gu for financial and material support, that he gained an appreciation for educated women and women in general. But this might also be a narrative of my creation.
(Not that it matters, but the relative who talked about getting the latest appliances was in Shandong.)
You’ve written that few China books are authored by Chinese Americans. Why do you think this is the case? And what do you think it will take to get more books published about China from Chinese American (or other Overseas Chinese) authors?
I’m not sure, but it continues to puzzle me. You might have seen this story in the Washington Post recently. My first reaction was: yes, so true. My second reaction was: why didn’t a Chinese American write this? Why is China still usually interpreted through a white guy’s perspective (and it’s usually a guy)?
I should probably point out that there are Chinese Americans and overseas Chinese writing about China. If you look at the acknowledgments page of Evan Osnos’ new book, for example, you see plenty of overseas Chinese writers that he thanks. But of course these names are vastly outnumbered by non-Chinese writers. Much of it is probably due to raw numbers–Chinese Americans are still a fairly small minority, after all. It’s also hard to speculate on possible reasons without trafficking in stereotypes, but Chinese parents tend not to encourage their kids to pursue writing. (Chinese parents are not the only ones.)
Most of the ABCs I know are the children of the wave of immigration from Taiwan in the 60s and 70s, often with Kuomintang family ties and often with Christian backgrounds. So the parents already had an estrangement with the mainland, and while I think they valued staying connected to Chinese culture, that didn’t necessarily mean staying connected to China the country. The way da lu ren was used around me made me think the term referred to some lower caste of Chinese people, and it must have been somewhat bewildering when my generation of ABCs told our parents that we were moving to China. Like, wait a minute, we spent our whole lives working and saving and eating bitter so you wouldn’t have to live there! The religiosity might also mean they’re too preoccupied with the afterlife to give much weight to earthly pursuits like writing. Plus, America’s a big place and China’s far away and it’s probably natural that Chinese Americans are more concerned with issues closer to home.
Even without the religious component, it takes a certain degree of individualism (and narcissism, and probably stupidity) to believe you have something to say about something and to want to share it with strangers. And this is not a very Chinese impulse, nor is it in line with the expectations put on model minorities in America. My mother has a Chinese friend who married a Jewish guy, and this friend often ponders her identity vis a vis her husband’s and their son’s. After she read The Porcelain Thief, she remarked to my mother that the book highlighted just how American her son will be, because she could not fathom writing about family members with such honesty for public consumption. And China as a subject for writing might be considered familiar enough be be influenced by that cultural attitude.
I also have to acknowledge my own disinterest in China before starting on The Porcelain Thief. I know that for a long time, I would have aggressively rejected any insinuations to write about China. I would have thought, why should I write about China any more than any other person? There’s a certain level of denial that comes with believing in (or wanting to believe in) a post-racial world.
I have no idea what it will take to get more Chinese American voices in books about China. A friend of mine in the foreign service pointed out to me that the absence applies to foreign policy, too. The discussion of Chinese geopolitics is almost always the same cast of white guys commenting, and he thinks it’s a major reason why U.S. foreign policy towards China tends to be confrontational–there remains an inability to view China as a collection of individuals with varying motivations. The lack of empathy creates a simplistic understanding of “the other”–classic Ed Said-style Orientalism. And I think that strain of Orientalism is to some degree present in many stories about China that don’t come from people with Chinese ancestry, however enlightened and well-intentioned they might be. Maybe more Chinese Americans have to first come to see, as I did, that their hyphenated identity is a privilege rather than a burden.
What do you hope people come away with from reading The Porcelain Thief?
In general, probably the same thing that I hope to come away with when I read a book: some combination of being informed, entertained, and transported. Specifically, maybe to have gained a better understanding of a country that everyone knows about but remains something of a mystery for many, and the diversity of its people and history. China is a huge, complex, and real place made up of real individuals who all have his and her own desires and dreams and beliefs. I also hope readers laugh at the funny parts. And that they don’t fixate too much on the treasure. From the beginning, I intended this book to be a journey, so I hope people find a way to enjoy that part of it, too.
Thank you so much to Huan Hsu for this interview! You can find The Porcelain Thief on Amazon.com, where your purchase helps support this blog.