Genealogy has been defined as the study of family origins and its subsequent history through the compilation of lineages and lists of ancestors. The word is derived from the Greek word for lineal descent. In some ancient civilisations like China, some family histories can reliably date back to more than 2500 years as in the case of its most renowned philosopher, Confucius, whose more than one million descendants are distributed not only in China, but also in South Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia and elsewhere. In ancient times, the recording of family history would be the preserve and past time of a nation’s monarchs. This practice was later emulated by its nobility and other prominent personages. In more recent centuries, when awareness and interest in the value of genealogy became more widespread internationally, more and more families began to see the needs to trace their family roots as part of their heritage. Be that as it may, to trace a family history from scratch is a complex process that requires painstaking and persevering efforts on the part of the various extended family members to work as a team and a leader to coordinate the data collected and to render them into an easy to digest format , especially when numerous families nowadays are spread in different parts of the world. It also requires changes in the family composition due to births, deaths and marriages to be brought up to date periodically. The unenviable tasks involved for such an undertaking have often discouraged the faint-hearted families from doing so. In the light of this, most families anywhere can, at best, trace their roots to no more than five or six generations.
Recognising that the keeping of genealogical records had become an established international practice, there had been several attempts aimed at reaching an international agreement on a common method of compiling it for universal application. This culminated in the first International Congress of Heraldry and Genealogy, held in Spain’s city of Barcelona in 1928, with only limited degree of success. However, it had aroused greater public awareness in this fascinating subject. A further boost to genealogy came from the well known African-American author, Alex Haley, when he published his novel Roots in 1957. Consequently, more and more people in his country and elsewhere, especially in immigrant societies like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, were moved to the need to finding their roots and cultural heritage. In this regard, it is fortunate that some overseas Chinese families still possess copies of their family’s genealogical records, which have been handed down to them by their ancestors. The more elaborate of these would not only record blood ties among them and their distant ancestors in China but also their migrations to other countries, as well as significant historical events and family achievements. The tremendous value of such a document will enable them to trace and locate their relatives whenever the need arises.
Because of the widespread destruction of family and clan genealogical records during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the Chinese Government in 1988 found it necessary to set up the Chinese Genealogical Research Centre in Taiyuan in Shanxi province in order to encourage the revival of this time-honoured practice, which is an integral part of China’s cultural tradition. The Guo Clan of Singapore was one of the overseas Chinese groups to appeal to them in 1991 for help to trace the clan’s common founding ancestor. After a year’s research work, the centre succeeded in confirming that this clan’s common founding ancestor was none other than Guo Zhiyi, a prince and hero of the Tang Dynasty (618-917), whose descendants then numbered more than 10-million in China alone and numerous others were scattered all over the world. The centre’s director, Pro Li Ji said: “Genealogy is an important part of the historical and cultural heritage of the country, as it records the blood relationships of human beings and relates to such areas as sociology, ethics, history, ethnology, folklore and economics.”
In recent months, two interesting media reports on family histories made international news: one concerns a Eurasian Singaporean, Kevin Shepherdson and the other Warren Buffett, an American billionaire and philanthropist and President Barack Obama of United States. At the launch of Mr Kevin Shepherdson’s book, Shepherdsons around the world, unite! , the writer disclosed that, after a decade of painstaking research at libraries, archives and history centres in this region and in Britain to ascertain his family roots, he finally succeeded in piecing together that all the Shepherdsons in Singapore and Malaysia are descendants of two English merchants, Captains Robert and Matthew, who had come to Singapore from Britain during the 19th century, married local women and raised their families there. He further discovered that their British ancestors had links to England’s 14th century King Edward III. Another surprise came when the media report revealed that through the study and research into the family trees of these two prominent Americans, an American genealogical research firm has established that both Buffett and President Obama are seventh cousins three times removed. The famous pair had a common ancestor in a 17th century Frenchman, Mareen Duvall, who had migrated from France to America in the 1650s. He is therefore President Obama’s ninth great-grandfather through his mother side , and the sixth great- grandfather of Mr Buffett. These findings must have stimulated even greater interest in genealogy worldwide. This is good for genealogical studies and should spur more people to take an enhanced personal interest in their own family origins.
This reminds me of an article on this subject that I wrote in 1996, which was published as an essay in Singapore’s national English language daily, the Straits Times under the caption “Tracing one’s roots through the family tree”. I now have much pleasure to share it with my readers immediately after this posting.
Lam Pin Foo