The Porcelain Thief by Huan Hsu

The Porcelain Thief by Huan HsuI don’t know why I am drawn to tales such as this one – an individual’s search for their family’s origins – when in actuality, i find the topic of family history rather dull. But The Porcelain Thief sounded truly intriguing to me: an American Born Chinese (ABC) goes back to China to try to find the treasure his great-great-great grandfather buried when the Japanese invaded in the early part of the 20th century.

Huan Hsu does a fabulous job of describing what it is like to be somewhat of a stranger in a strange land. So many of the complications he ran into reminded me of the run around I got as a researcher in India. The difference is, of course, that Hsu is an American of Chinese descent and people often assume he has a better understanding of the culture and the language than he does. And I loved the parts of the book documenting his present day experiences at work, with his family and trying to discover his family history.

A large portion of the book also set out to place Hsu’s family’s experiences within the larger context of Chinese history – the end of dynastic rule, rise of Communism and the Great Leap Forward. At first I found this both fascinating and enlightening, but by the end of the book I was bogged down in detail. I started to skim larger and larger sections depicting the experiences of various members of his family.

Who would like this book? The Porcelain Thief is a great primer on the history of 20th century China. It looks both at the past and the present in a illustrative way. I can see it being widely used as a university text for courses on Chinese history. In truth I wanted it to be more like The Juggler’s Children (review), another book in which a journals delves into her ancestry.

I received a copy of this book for review consideration from the publisher via NetGalley.


  1. I love books about a person trying to find out more about their family origins. It is something I myself think about doing – to find out where my family came from, and how long they have been in an area. Unfortunately, we don’t have a great records system in India. Need to check this book out – sounds pretty good.

    • This is going to sound weird coming from a Canadian white girl, but… depending on the family, there may be excellent records on your family, you just have to look in different places. Given your name, I’m going to assume you’re hindu. If your gotra has a hereditary priest in Rishikesh, Varanasi or some other holy city, they may have death records. Or at least records pertaining to cremations and scattering of ashes. These usually contain lineages. Similarly a family/ gotra jyotish will have family info. I spent 2 years in Varanasi researching community memory at a particular temple for my PhD was shocked at where I found information!

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