Monday, March 16, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE PORCELAIN THIEF” by Huan Hsu (Fourth Estate / Harper-Collins, $NZ34:99)
Huan Hsu is what he himself calls an “ABC”, an American-born Chinese. His parents and grandparents were middle-class Chinese who supported the Kuomintang (Chang Kai-Shek) Nationalist side in the Chinese civil war, and so fled the country after the Communist victory in 1949. Some branches of the family settled in Taiwan and some, like Huan Hsu’s parents, in America. One consequence of this is that Huan Hsu still uses the old Wade-Giles system of Romanising his Chinese name, rather than the Pinyin system that has now been adopted on mainland China; although he accepts Pinyin versions of most of the names he deploys in his narrative.
As he tells it, growing up in Utah and going to an American high-school, Huan Hsu was often indifferent to, and sometimes even embarrassed by, his Chinese heritage. He writes and often thinks in an American idiom. He interprets the world according to Western categories. He views democracy and civil society as much to be desired.
But he knew always that he was irrevocably Chinese. His parents spoke Mandarin at home, even if he himself lost the language as a child and had difficulty re-learning it as an adult. “I could barely speak Chinese”, he says (p.12). However, there was one story from his background that greatly intrigued him. His great-great-grandfather Liu Feng Shu was a wealthy landowner, for whom many sharecroppers worked on a large estate. Liu Feng Shu owned a very large and very valuable collection of classical porcelain. In 1938, as the invading Japanese armies approached his part of China, Liu Feng Shu decided that the only way could preserve his priceless collection was to bury it. Huan Hsu explains how Liu did just this with the help of a servant:
“When the [Chinese Nationalist] soldiers moved on, Liu and Old Yang waited for the sun to set and went into the garden with shovels and picks. Over the next few nights, they removed a patch of flax and dug a large hole, deeper than a man was tall, and as wide as a bedroom, and lined the walls with bamboo shelving. Working by moonlight after the village had gone to sleep, they filled a vault with the family’s heirlooms: intricately carved antique furniture, jades, bronzes, paintings, scrolls of calligraphy and finally, Liu’s beloved porcelain collection. Vases of every shape and size; painted tiles of Chinese landscapes; hat stands; figurines of the Fu Lou Shou, the trio of Buddhist gods that represented good fortune, longevity and prosperity; decorative jars, plates and bowls; tea sets; the dowries for his granddaughters. Liu and Old Yang packed the porcelain into woven baskets lined with straw, and once the vault could hold no more, they sealed it with boards, covered it with soil, and replanted the flax.” (p.4)
As one who had chosen journalism as his trade, Huan Hsu decided to make it his mission to find out what had become of this collection, whether it was still buried where his great-great-grandfather had buried it, whether it had been looted and dispersed during the various upheavals in China’s later history…. or whether the whole story of this valuable hole was just a family legend.
Huan Hsu’s uncle is a multi-millionaire industrialist, who has established a large electronics firm in the state-controlled capitalism of modern “Communist” China. Huan Hsu was able to get a position in his uncle’s firm in Shanghai, and use this as a base for his investigations into the missing porcelain collection.
Let me make it clear that The Porcelain Thief does not cheat on this aspect of the story. It really does deliver the narrative of a treasure hunt as Huan Hsu travels to various parts of mainland China, and to Taiwan, interviewing and questioning officials and elderly relatives about his great-great-grandfather and his estate, although telling very few people the story of the hidden treasure (lest – in a society notorious for bribery and corruption – some other enterprising person immediately should head for the putative site of the loot and dig it up). One grandmother proves to be a particular comic turn in this long narrative, with her switching between remembering intriguing details and then evasively “forgetting” the important things.
At one point (Chapter Eleven, called “City of Fire”), Huan Hsu stops to give an overall account of the importance of porcelain, ceramics and pottery in China’s ancient culture (including the fact that it was a misreading of a place name stamped on the bottom of elegant Chinese pottery that led Westerners to call the Middle Kingdom “China” in the first place, and also led Westerners to call its porcelain “china”). As he writes:
“Porcelain soon became China’s most famous, most enduring invention. As early as the Tang dynasty, cargo ships loaded with porcelain sailed west for he Middle East, where middlemen would transfer the wares to Europe. For the Chinese, porcelain wasn’t just a sanitary material, dinnerware, or a hobby. Porcelain was as central to the Chinese identity as the Yangtze River, the bones to the Yangtze’s blood, and it was no accident that the material became eponymous with its country of origin. Porcelain touched every member of Chinese society, from peasants’ rice bowls to the imperial family’s massive collection. Porcelain formed the basis of China’s mythology and morality tales and fuelled its economy, including the golden age of the Ming dynasty, which boasted the world’s largest economy. There was simply no Western analogue to the breadth and depth of porcelain’ infiltration of Chinese art, industry and culture, though the automobile in America comes somewhat close.” (p.181-182)
Huan Hsu also brings his story to a clear dramatic close, writing in Chapter Fourteen (“Xingang Marks the Spot”), as he returned to the site of his ancestor’s estate:
“After three years of searching for my great-great-grandfather’s buried porcelain collection, I found myself squeezed into a black Mazda with distant relatives, cruising along the Yangtze River. We headed for Xingang, where my ancestors had lived for more than six hundred years, where twelve generations of them were interred in the family cemetery, and where we hoped to find my great-great-grandfather’s former estate and see if Tang Hou Cun [an elderly relative] could remember where the porcelain had been hidden.” (p.318)
I will not tell you what the outcome of this quixotic quest was – read the book – though the last forty pages are breathless with anticipation.
Having established all this, however, another fact about The Porcelain Thief is also glaringly obvious. While Huan Hsu does not cheat the reader, the book is as much a primer on recent Chinese history, and a travelogue giving an expatriate Chinese’s view of present-day China, as it is a treasure hunt. Indeed, for much of its length, the treasure hunt is a mere pretext for an account of how an “ABC” sees China.
Early in the piece, Huan Hsu remarks:
“When I moved to China, I knew it would be mean. I expected chaos, overcrowding, pollution, the absence of Western manners and sanitation, inefficiency, and stomach problems. While China was known for rigid control, everything outside the political sphere appeared to be a free-for-all, and daily life in China hardly resembled the regimented totalitarian image that foreigners held. The short – and cynical – explanation was that the government had an unspoken agreement with its citizens: as long as they stayed out of politics, they were free to enjoy the fruits of capitalism and consumerism….” (p.29)
Thus, among other things, the government doesn’t mind that the author’s wealthy uncle, who is a devout Methodist, sets up two Christian churches next to his factory (one English-language and one Chinese-language) and encourages workers to attend services there – which of course the more ambitious employees do. The impression here is very similar to the impression given of Vladimir Putin’s Russia in a book I recently reviewed for the NZ Listener, Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. China’s central government (like Putin’s) controls tightly anything that threatens its hold on power, but otherwise gives its citizens (or subjects) the illusion of freedom. State control of ideas does bring huge problems. As Huan Hsu reads it, the culture of bribery and nepotism and routine exam-cheating in China’s institutes of higher learning collaborate with state controls to ensure that there is little real innovation in Chinese industry. The Chinese are excellent at replicating (usually plagiarising) technology which has originated elsewhere, but hardly ever come up with a new idea.
Huan Hsu takes a very long time to adjust to the public manners of modern China – the commonplace spitting (and urinating and defecating) in the streets. The fact that in many quarters of any Chinese city, the garbage piles up uncollected. The national inability to conceive of such a thing as an orderly queue – when goods are for sale or when trains are being boarded there is an every-man-for-himself free-for-all rush and scrum. The indifference to basic safety in driving. (Inter alia he tells an anecdote of his own fierce altercation with a driver after he had nearly been run down on a crossing). And of course the choking, sky-blotting, thick, poisonous atmospheric pollution that blights every modern Chinese city.
He narrates his first encounter with Beijing thus:
“ My initial impression of Beijing was that all the Olympic investment had paid off. The 2008 Summer Olympics had been touted as the capstone of China’s ascension, when it would finally demonstrate that its software had caught up with its hardware. The effort put toward up grading Beijing’s culture was impressive as the construction of the Bird’s Nest Stadium or the shuttering of nearby factories to ensure blue skies and clean air. Citywide etiquette lessons were initiated: signs discouraged spitting, driving violations were aggressively ticketed, and the eleventh of every month was “queue up” day, the number a pictorial representation of two people standing in line. But now that the world wasn’t paying attention anymore, China didn’t seem to be either, and its finely crafted façade had been succeeded by its old habits. The monumental sport and hospitality venues erected for the games had already acquired the patina of dust that eventually claimed everything in China. Smog obscured the sky, the opening of subway doors sparked a feeding frenzy, and trash was someone else’s problem.” (pp.258-259)
Despite boasting about thousands of years of culture and civilisation (longer than any continuous civilization in the West), thoughtful Chinese themselves wonder why there is now so little civil society, so much public rudeness and confrontation, so much indifference to the common good. One answer offered to Huan Hsu by a Chinese woman (p.102) is that those thousands of years of culture, Confucianism, public politeness etc. were really swept away by the revolutions of the last one hundred years.
This has a certain plausibility, although the modern history lessons that Huan Hsu interpolates could also suggest other reasons. Certainly, as the author tells it, China was plagued by problems that arose from foreign intervention – Britain’s forcing of opium on the Chinese Empire in the Opium Wars; the unequal “treaties” and concessions which European powers wrested from China in the era of Western imperialism; the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. But Huan Hsu sees most of China’s woes as being self-inflicted. The corruption of the late imperial court. The failure of the Nationalist Republic really to unify the country after the promise of Sun Yat Sen’s revolution. The rival (and – in Huan Hsu’s account) equal rapacity of Nationalist and Communist forces in the civil war. And, for Huan Hsu, most disastrous of all – more destructive of traditional Chinese civility than anything that had gone before – the malign folly of Mao’s imperial reign in the pointless “Great Leap Forward”, the great famine and the “Cultural Revolution”, which really meant an orgy of violence, persecution of educated people, and concerted cultural vandalism.
For Huan Hsu, there has been no comparable civilising force in China since the old imperial civil service exams (open to all, though requiring huge mental ability) were abolished.
Summarised as I have summarised them here, Huan Hsu’s views might sound like the nostalgia of somebody from a Kuomintang background whose ancestors were wealthy landowners. I am sure that somewhere, an apologist for modern China is waiting to caricature them this way. But this would be a gross misrepresentation. Huan Hsu is as unsparing of the Nationalist side of the historical equation as he is of the Communist side. (When he visits Taiwan, he enjoys the courtesies of the Chinese population – so unlike the free-for-all of public behaviour on the mainland. But he also sees a society comparatively tatty and run-down). What he is lamenting is the failure of a real civil society to develop. His nostalgia is for the July the 4th movement of the early 1920s. It envisaged a republican, democratic system in which intellectuals and others would enjoy freedom of speech on all matters and into which the best of Western thought would be incorporated. His lament is that such a state never developed.