Searching For Buried Treasure In China, A Writer Discovers Himself

Mar 29, 2015
Originally published on May 1, 2015 4:06 pm

Writer Huan Hsu's great-great-grandfather Liu Feng Shu was a scholar in China's Qing dynasty during the late 1800s and early 1900s. As a patron of the arts, he built up an immense porcelain collection.

During the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese landed near his village on the Yangtze River. As the army approached, Liu and one of his workmen dug a giant hole in their garden, to keep the collection safe.

"It was described to me as deeper than a man was tall and about the size of a bedroom," Hsu tells NPR's Arun Rath. "They lined that hole with bamboo shelving, they filled this vault to the brim and they put a false floor over it and replanted the garden."

Then his great-great-grandfather took his family and fled, leaving the porcelain behind.

That was back in 1938. In his new book, The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China — which is part travelogue, part cultural history, part memoir — Hsu recounts his search for that buried treasure 70 years later.

It was not a journey he ever expected to make. When he was growing up, he wasn't even familiar with, or interested in, this part of his family history. He was an "ABC" — American-born Chinese — living in Utah and trying to fit in.

"I think I was somewhat typical of a child of immigrants, in the sense that I was not really interested in being Chinese at all and was much more interested in assimilating," he says. "I just thought like my parents were from another planet and had come there solely to embarrass me."

Hsu tells Rath about how he came to explore and love his family roots — without giving away what he did or didn't find when he finally went digging for treasure.


Interview Highlights

On becoming interested in his great-great-grandfather's porcelain collection

Although I wasn't really interested in my family history, I always liked to dig, literally — like I dug lots of holes in my mom's backyard looking for dinosaur bones or arrowheads or, you know, anything a little kid thinks he's gonna find. And I think that compulsion manifested itself as a writer and as a journalist wanting to dig for stories.

So, while I was working for a newspaper in Seattle, I had to go to the Seattle Art Museum for a story, and when I was there I stumbled into their porcelain room and I saw this little red porcelain dish in the shape of a chrysanthemum with gold lettering on it. And the museum couldn't tell me what the gold lettering said, so I called my dad to help me translate it and as we were getting off the phone he said, "Well, you know, if you're actually interested in porcelain you should talk to your mom, because her family had some porcelain."

So I talked to my mom and she told me the story of my great-great grandfather's buried porcelain and she knew pretty much that — that my great-great-grandfather was a porcelain collector and had buried his porcelain and couldn't answer any questions that I had in terms of how much there was — How much was it worth? When was it buried? Where was it buried? Had anyone ever gone to look for it?

And she said, "Well, you know, the person who would know this is your grandmother, who grew up at that house." Eventually my grandmother said to my mom, "Well, if he really wants to hear this story, he should just come here." And so I did.

On being an "ABC" — American-born Chinese — in China

When I think of myself, I don't think of myself as Chinese, I guess. And so when I got to China, I found myself really perturbed that I didn't get that knowing glance from other expats when I passed them on the street. And I found myself trying to project my American-ness as much as possible. When they were in earshot I would speak my English much louder than I needed to. I would look for like any excuse to be like, "Hey! Hey! I'm American, too." ...

The local Chinese love to ask, "Do you feel Chinese or American?" And I guess in America, I feel kinda Chinese and in China I feel really American. I think the younger generation gets it, but the older generation just — they don't accept it because they just want you to say, "Oh yeah, I have Chinese blood and I love China and I'm really happy to be back in the motherland," and things like that.

On what he learned from his years in China

The whole experience just kind of made me more OK with me. I was always really envious of Americans who could trace their lineage really far back — who could kind of place themselves in a tradition. And so I think going to China and understanding more about where I came from — I mean, this sounds a little cliché — but that kind of gave me a better sense of who I am. And just about everybody's family history is interesting and I think they're really precious things that should be remembered.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Unless you've got Long John Silver in your family tree, you wouldn't expect researching family history to involve a search for buried treasure. But that's just part of the wild story Huan Hsu tells in his book "The Porcelain Thief." Hsu's great-great-grandfather was a scholar during China's last Imperial Dynasty. He built up an immense collection of extremely valuable porcelain. But the family was forced to flee in 1938 as the invading Japanese army approached.

HUAN HSU: In order to keep his collection safe, he and one of his workmen dug a giant hole in their garden. And it was described to me as deeper than a man was tall and about the size of a bedroom. And they lined that hole with bamboo shelving. They filled this vault to the brim, and then they put a false floor over it and re-planted the garden.

RATH: Huan Hsu knew nothing about this part of his family history when he was growing up. He was an ABC - an American-born Chinese living in Salt Lake City, Utah.

HSU: I think I was somewhat typical of a child of immigrants in the sense that I was not really interested in being Chinese at all and was much more interested in assimilating. I just thought, like, my parents were from another planet and had come there solely to embarrass me.

RATH: I think a lot of the people feel like that.

(LAUGHTER)

HSU: Yeah, that might not be unique to being Chinese-American. Yeah.

RATH: Well, so how did you get from where you were, which was kind of not wanting to embrace your Chinese heritage to this trip that you describe in this book, where you actually go to China to find out what happened to this buried porcelain collection?

HSU: Although I wasn't really interested in my family history, I always liked to dig - literally. Like, I dug lots of holes in my mom's backyard looking for dinosaur bones or arrowheads or, you know, anything a little kid thinks he's going to find. And I think that compulsion manifested itself as a writer and as a journalist wanting to dig for stories.

So while I was working for a newspaper in Seattle, I had to go to the Seattle Art Museum for a story. And when I was there, I stumbled into their porcelain room, and I saw this little red porcelain dish in the shape of a chrysanthemum with gold lettering on it. And the museum couldn't tell me what that gold lettering said, so I called my dad to help me translate it. And as we were getting off the phone, he said, well, you know, if you're actually interested in porcelain, you should talk to your mom, because her family had some porcelain.

So I talked to my mom, and she had told me the story of my great-great-grandfather's buried porcelain. And she knew pretty much just that - that my great-great-grandfather was a porcelain collector and had buried his porcelain and couldn't answer any questions that I had in terms of how much there was? How much was it worth? When was it buried? Where was it buried? Had anybody ever gone to look for it? So she said, well, you know, the person who would know this is your grandmother who grew up at that house. Eventually, my grandmother said to my mom, well, you know, if he really wants to hear the story, he should just come here. So I did.

RATH: And you go to China. And I got to tell you, I can't get over how much your experience about being an ABC in China reminded me about my experience of being - I don't know if you've heard this term - ABCD. It's American-born confused Desi. It's for like people of South Asian extraction.

HSU: Oh, no.

RATH: The first thing that deeply messed with my head when I was in India - white ex-pats in India, when they see each other in the street, they kind of nod at each other. They're like - this acknowledgement. And I was kind of surprised they didn't do that with me. And then I realized - wait, no, I'm not white. Why would they do that with me? And you described exactly the same thing in China.

HSU: (Laughter) So, like, when I think of myself, I don't think of myself as Chinese, I guess. And so, yeah, when I got to China, I found myself really perturbed that I didn't get that knowing glance from other ex-pats when I passed them on the street. And I found myself, like, trying to project my American-ness as much as possible when they were like within earshot. Like, I would speak my English much louder than I needed to. Yeah, I would look for like any excuse to be like, hey, hey, I'm American, too.

RATH: And how did Chinese people regard you as an American-born Chinese - as an ABC?

HSU: The local Chinese love to ask, like, do you feel Chinese or American? And I guess in America I feel kind of Chinese, and in China I feel really American. I think the younger generation gets it, but the older generation just - they don't accept it, because they just want you to say, oh, yeah, I have Chinese blood. And I love China. And I'm really happy to be back in the motherland and things like that.

And I had one guy at a dinner just really push me on whether or not I felt Chinese or American. He just wouldn't accept, you know, my equivocations. And finally he said, OK, let's say China and America went to war. Which side would you pick up a gun for? And I was like, well, in that case, I'd just run to Canada. Like, I just...

RATH: (Laughter) So this story is about your quest for buried treasure. You're trying to find this collection of porcelain that was buried at your family's ancestral home. I'll tease people by saying that you do get there, and you do some digging, literally. But clearly, you're more engrossed in this book by what you unearth about your family - its history and its secrets and how that's wrapped up in China's history. So at the end of this, what do you come away learning about yourself?

HSU: Yeah, I think the whole experience just kind of made me more OK with me. I was always really envious of Americans who could trace their lineage really far back, who could kind of place themselves in a tradition. And so I think going to China and understanding more about where I came from - I mean, this sounds a little cliche - but that kind of gave me a better sense of who I am. And just about everybody's family history is interesting. And I think they're really precious things that should be remembered.

RATH: Huan Hsu is the author of "The Porcelain Thief: Searching The Middle Kingdom For Buried China." Thanks for your time, Huan.

HSU: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.