Anne Gerritsen at the Times Literary Supplement:
In 1938, Japanese forces advanced inland from China’s coastal regions. Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Army had no defence against the Japanese bombers. The Chinese soldiers who had taken possession of the large residence of Liu Feng Shu, Huan Hsu’s great-great-grandfather, were more concerned with chopping up the house’s heavy door for fuel than defending the area. As the soldiers retreated and the local residents prepared to flee, Liu made the decision to hide his treasures. Over the course of several nights, together with his trusted servant and his eldest granddaughter, he dug a hole as large as a bedroom. They filled the vault with the family’s heirlooms: jades, bronzes, paintings and calligraphy, as well as his beloved collection of fine porcelain. A few days later, they stuffed the remaining jewellery and silver coins in their pockets, barricaded the door and fled. This story would accompany the members of Liu Feng Shu’s extended family as they scattered across the globe, some remaining in mainland China, some moving to Taiwan, and others settling in the United States.
Liu’s great-great-grandson, Huan Hsu, grew up an all-American kid, with little interest in the language or culture his parents had left behind. An encounter in the Seattle Art Museum with a piece of eighteenth-century porcelain changed all that. Because this red dish with a scalloped rim and decorated with characters in gold “might have once passed through my great-great-grandfather’s hands”, Hsu decided he wanted to dig for the buried treasures of his family. In The Porcelain Thief, he embarks on a three-year journey to try to reunite the story of the family’s treasure with the pieces of porcelain themselves. Along the way, he learns Mandarin, meets relatives, and slowly gains an understanding of the way things work (and don’t work) in China.