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THE PORCELAIN THIEF

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PR OL OG U E

he first sign of trouble came in the spring of 1938.


On the tails of the snow cranes leaving their wintering grounds
in the Poyang Lake estuary, Japanese planes appeared in the sky,
tracing confused circles as if they had lost their flock. It soon became
clear that these reconnaissance planes were not stragglers but the vanguard for another kind of migration. After taking Beijing, Shanghai,
and Nanjing, the Japanese army advanced through China not like a
spreading pool of water but like a gloved hand, and in the summer of
1938 its middle finger traced up the Yangtze River toward my greatgreat-grandfather Liu Feng Shus village of Xingang.
Liu presided over one of the most prominent families in Xingang,
situated on a spit separating the Yangtze River and Poyang Lake, Chinas largest freshwater body, like a valve. His estate included most of
the arable land along the river, worked by a small army of sharecroppers, and a number of residences at the western edge of the village,
the largest being his own. Guarded by a trio of stately pine trees, the
sprawling stone abode fronted the road heading into the nearby city
of Jiujiang, a major trading and customs port. There lived a coterie
of daughters-in-law, grandchildren, and servants; the eldest of Lius
three sons, my great-grandfather, died of tuberculosis in his thirties, and his school-aged children, as well as those of Lius surviving
sons, lived with him while their fathers worked elsewhere in the

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HUAN HSU

province, a common arrangement in Chinese families. My greatgreat-grandfather filled the rooms with objets dart befitting a scholar
who had passed the imperial civil service exam, including his prized
collection of antique porcelain. Accumulated by the crate, some of the
items dated back hundreds of years to the Ming dynasty and had once
belonged to emperors, and for all my great-great-grandfathers other
forms of wealth, these heirlooms, as enduring as they were exquisite,
best represented the apogee of both family and country. Across the
road, beyond the communal fishpond, dug into a hill that gathered
the setting sun, was the cemetery where eleven generations of his ancestors kept watch over his prosperity.
As the summer went on, phalanxes of Japanese bombers soared
over Lius fields to drop ordnance on westerly cities, unencumbered
by a Chinese army with pitiful air defenses. According to the newspapers that Liu picked up in the mornings from the general store down
the road, Republic of China president Chiang Kai-shek was prepared
to stage a vicious defense of Jiujiang and had nearly one million troops
dug in along the Yangtze. The presence of Chinese soldiers became a
regular sight in Xingang, if not a welcome one, given the Nationalist
armys reputation for incompetence and venality.
And now Chinese soldiers had taken up residence in Lius house.
Despite outnumbering the Japanese three to one, the Chinese resistance lasted mere days. Xingang stood in the path of the retreat, and
the army had no qualms about demanding food and board from the
local gentry. The rice and firewood that Liu had set out for them was
not enough, the soldiers said. They eyed the houses heavy door bar
and prepared to hack it apart for fuel. You cant use that for kindling, Liu protested. We need it to lock our door.
The argument turned physical, and a pair of soldiers began to beat
Liu with a stick. Three of his granddaughters had been herded into a
back room out of sight of the soldiers and watched the commotion
from a window, horrified, until they couldnt bear it anymore. Pei
Fu, the oldest one still at home, newly graduated from a Methodist

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boarding school, instructed Pei Yu, not yet a teenager, to run into
the village and fetch the elders. Then she and Pei Sheng, the second
youngest but the boldest, sprinted into the fray, jumping on the soldiers backs and thrashing them while they tried to pull their grandfather away. You guys fought so poorly, ran away from the battle,
and you still dare to hit an old man? Pei Sheng shouted. No wonder
youre losing the war!
Pei Yu found the elders, who alerted the commanding officers,
and all parties converged on the house. The girls explained what they
had witnessed, and the elders vouched for the girls. The chagrined
commanders forced the offending soldiers onto their knees before Liu
and offered to execute them. Oh, dont kill anyone, Liu said. Thats
not right, either. You come here and we give you food, a place to stay,
and you act badly. As long as you understand what you did wrong,
thats enough. He made them kowtow and apologize, and for the
rest of their stay, the soldiers didnt even dare to touch the firewood
left out for them without first asking. Were afraid of what the three
tigresses might do, they said.
My great-great-grandfather was not nave about war. In midlife he
had witnessed the end of dynastic China and the birth of a republic
when revolutionaries overthrew the Qing monarchy in 1911, ending
more than two thousand years of imperial rule. Ten years before the
Japanese encroached, Chiang Kai-sheks campaign against local warlords had swept through the area, followed by sporadic skirmishes
between Chiangs Nationalists and the upstart Communists. Each
time feng liu yun san, the winds flowed and the clouds scattered;
the crisis passed. Lius wealth and land holdings continued to grow.
Still, his blood curdled from the reports of Japanese soldiers sha ren
ru ma, killing people like scything grass, in occupied cities. He especially feared for the granddaughters still living with him at home.
Most of the village men of fighting age had already left home, eager to
avoid death by the Japanese or, worse, conscription into the Chinese
army. Liu was a widower in his seventies and could hardly be counted

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upon to protect his family. As he debated whether to flee everything


he had spent a lifetime achieving, he must have wondered if perhaps
this time things would not return to normal.
His eldest granddaughtermy grandmotherwas safe, ensconced
in neutral Macau as a high school chemistry teacher at a missionary
school. He allowed Pei Fu, the second oldest and my grandmothers
middle sister, to marry into a family he despised, figuring a woman
wedded to a good-for-nothing was still safer than remaining unmarried during wartime. He had already sent away his one grandson, the
sole heir to the family fortune, with his youngest daughter, another
science teacher whose local missionary school had relocated to the
Chinese interior. That left my grandmothers youngest sister, two
of her cousins, a daughter-in-law, and a long-serving footman, Old
Yang.
When the 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 the vault with the familys heirlooms: intricately carved antique furniture, jades, bronzes, paintings, scrolls of
calligraphy, and finally, Lius beloved porcelain collection. Vases of
every shape and size; painted tiles of Chinese landscapes; hat stands;
figurines of the Fu Lu 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 in 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.
A few nights after the burial was completed, Liu heard a knock on
his door. He opened it to find a raggedy Chinese soldier, who asked
if he could spare something to eat. Liu took him in and fed him. The
soldier ate as if it were his first meal in weeks. When he finished, he

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looked up from his bowl. Mister, is your family still here? the soldier asked.
Yes, they are, Liu said.
Why have you not left yet? the soldier said. The city has fallen.
The Japanese are here.
The next morning the family packed as much jewelry and silver
coins as they could fit into their pockets and bundled their clothes
in knapsacks. They stuffed winter and summer clothing for five people into a woven basket that Old Yang, who had no family but for
the Lius, carried on a bamboo shoulder pole. The thousands of extra
silver dollars that were too heavy to carry were thrown into jars and
buried in a hastily dug hole in the floor of the living room. Then my
great-great-grandfather barricaded the heavy front doors and joined
the Chinese retreat.
Seventy years later I went to China to find what he buried.

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