Tracing One’s Roots Through the Family Tree

This article first appeared in the Singapore Straits Times on 19 October 1996. It is reproduced here with an update that follows.

It is a well-known fact that China is among the most family and history conscious of nations. Every dynasty compiled its own dynastic history documenting major events and outstanding achievements for posterity. In addition, all district governments also recorded important aspects of local histories that will be of interest to their inhabitants.

As family has always been of supreme importance in Chinese culture, hand written genealogical records of individual families and clans were produced painstakingly and methodically, and periodically updated, to keep track of their origins and subsequent development. These were preserved reverently and handed down from one generation to another.

These efforts ensured that, in China’s 5000 years of history, there were no “Dark Ages” in the evolution of its society, as there were in Europe and elsewhere.

While every country has its own method of genealogy, the Chinese have developed theirs into a fine art, with distinctive characteristics and a flavour all its own. It is possible for many Chinese families, including those who have migrated overseas, to trace not only their roots, but also the fortunes of other family and clan members, wherever they might be.

The Chinese tradition of maintaining genealogy percolated to the other East Asian countries and to overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.

To produce a continuous and updated family history requires good organisation and consistent management. It is much more difficult drawing up a clan history (Zong Pu) – those with same surname and descended from the common founding ancestor. Consequently, only prominent families and clans would have the resources to embark on such a project.

It is not surprising that most Chinese, like their counterparts elsewhere, would only be familiar with their immediate forebears.Those with incomplete genealogy are often only able to trace their family-tree for no more than 200 to 300 years. Professor Wolfram Eberhard, a sinologist of international repute, once observed that, in many countries in Asia, if a person could enumerate the siblings of his grandparents and their in-laws, he belongs invariably to the upper-class of that society. Ordinary people rarely know beyond the names of the brothers and sisters of their parents, their spouses and the names of their grandparents.

The tie of kinship is a hallmark of the Chinese social structure. The bond which binds its members is thicker than water and will remain with them for life. This is evident from the regular gathering of Chinese clans in Singapore or elsewhere, which is attended by their clansmen from all over the world, to renew ties and to discuss matters of common interest.

My ancestral home in China

The genesis of the Zong Pu goes back to Zhou dynasty (1050-221 BC), with refinements by subsequent dynasties. Its scope and function is wider than the mere devising of tables of descent of its clan members. It aims to glorify successful clan members, to instil pride in one’s ancestors and, ultimately, to exhort future generations to emulate their worthy forebears.

In old China, the village ancestral hall was the focal point for all clan activities, including that of ancestor veneration, and where all decisions affecting the clan would be taken.

In its more than 3000 years’ history, genealogy has dominated the traditional Chinese society. It reached its full flowering from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) to the earlier part of the Republic era (1911-1949).

What then are the main ingredients of the Zong Pu? Its format and manifold contents have undergone changes under different dynasties, but they became quite uniform from the Song dynasty (960-1276) onwards.

The family-tree would begin with the primogenitor who first settled in a particular location and started to raise his family there; and would end with the contemporary generation updating the genealogy, with all in-between ancestors duly recorded.

My family genealogy in multiple volumes!

No margin of error was allowed in the compilation of the clan genealogy. All families within the clan were required to submit all births, deaths and marriages. Only brief bio-data were recorded: the person’s name, his parents’ names, his date of birth and death, names of his children and, finally, his burial place.

The place of entombment was of utmost importance. Often a detailed account of its selection in accordance with the time-honoured principles of fengshui, the Chinese art of geomancy, would be documented. Good fengshui would bring good fortunes to the family members. It would be the duty of the descendents to perform ancestor-worship rites at appropriate times and to keep the grave in good repair.

Frank Ching, author of 900 years in the life of a Chinese family, gives a fascinating account of how he, armed with his Zong Pu, succeeded in finding his founding ancestor’s long forgotten 900 year-old grave on Mount Hui in Wuxi.

Clansmen who achieved distinctions in life would earn honourable mention in the clan genealogy. In addition, their portraits would also be displayed in the clan hall. In old China, Confucian scholars were held in high esteem and often became top government officials through successes in imperial examinations. This would bring vicarious glory to their families and clans.

Today, this tradition is still being followed in some overseas Chinese communities. The Khoo clan of Penang, for example, still displays plaques of all members who hold university or professional qualifications, or have otherwise distinguished themselves in public life, in their clan hall of fame.

The inclusion of a clansman in the Zong Pu was generally regarded as testimony of his good character and acceptability. Conversely, one who became notorious or was deemed to have disgraced the clan, would have his name expunged.

Events of local and national importance, which affected the clan, would also be included. This would include wars, social upheavals, natural calamities and other significant occurences.

Another feature was the movements of clan people through migration to seek better life away from home. A case in point concerned the southward migration of the Hakkas, originally from North China, when their homelands were occupied by warlike nomadic tribes. They underwent five arduous trans-China migrations, the first of which predated Mao Zedong’s famous Long March by more than 1600 years.

The writing of Zong Pu would be entrusted to a committee of scholars, with necessary information given by individual families. It would be revised at regular intervals to take account of the changes that had occurred during the interim. Each family would receive a copy, and the remainder would be kept in the village clan hall.

The importance accorded the clan genealogy reflected the Chinese people’s immense pride in their civilisation and their abiding love for their family and clan. As the latter grew in number, more and more such genealogies were produced and reached their peak during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

This pride was shattered during the 19th century when Chinese sovereignty was repeatedly violated by aggressive foreign powers who, for selfish reasons, brought the country to its heels under the threat of gunboat diplomacy.

Revulsion against China’s military backwardness set in, as reform-minded Chinese began to reject traditional values and turned to Western science and democracy as a panacea for China’s ills. The keeping of genealogical records was seen as a reflection of China’s feudal past and frowned upon. It was eradicated completely with the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

The preservation of genealogy suffered its severest blow during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a period of senseless destruction of cultural heritage, unprecedented in Chinese history. In response to the call “to sweep away all remnants of old habits, old customs, old culture and old ideas”, the fanatical Red Guards raided homes all over the country mindlessly, making bonfire of any genealogical records they could uncover as these were considered the symbols of the decadent rich. At the same time, many Chinese families, fearful of persecution, had to destroy these invaluable heirlooms which had been passed down from generation to generation.

The losses suffered, both on a personal and national scale, were incalculable and irreplaceable. Professor Luo Hsiang Lin, one of the foremost authorities on Chinese genealogy, lamented that the cultural accumulation of China in the past several thousand years was reduced to ruins in a few months of unmitigated absolute madness.

The writer’s clan and family genealogical histories kept in the ancestral hall in China did not escape the ravages of the Red Guards. Fortunately, copies of these had been handed down by his grandfather in Singapore to remind him of his origins, which date back more than two millenia.

Despite the above outrage, a fair number of old Chinese genealogical records, both family and clan, have been preserved in libraries in China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, United States and in private collections elsewhere.

The oldest Chinese genealogical works extant are of Tang vintage (618-906), one is in China and and another two are abroad. One of the latter, along with many other Chinese national treasures, were removed from the world-renowned Dunhuang grottes by Sir Aurel Stein, a British archaeologist, and it is now kept in the British Museum in London.

Works of Song, Yuan (1276-1368) and Ming vintage are now rarities. Fortunately, a small number of these can still be found in Chinese institutions and elsewhere.

The Qing and the Republic genealogy are available in large numbers, especially in Taiwan, Hong Kong and among overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. However, most of these are from South and Central China, where most Chinese first emigrated overseas.

One of the most complete clan histories belongs to the Kung clan, whose famous founding ancestor was none other than Confucius (551-479 BC) himself. His descendents, who number more than one million, now live in China, Taiwan, South Korea and in other countries.

The practice of compiling and updating Zong Pu, though long past its heyday, is still being carried on in Taiwan and, to a lesser degree, in Hong Kong. It is hoped that, before long, it will be revived in China itself.

How would one evaluate the contributions of Chinese genealogy? Historians and scholars generally share the view that it is a useful vehicle for the studying and understanding of the evolution of the Chinese society. It often complements historical records by filling up gaps or by elaborating on details omitted by history. It is also an extremely valuable resource for researching aspects of social and political developments which had helped shape China and its people.

Moreover, scholars and researchers have convincing evidence that China’s earliest histories were derived from its genealogical sources.

Finally, because Chinese genealogies also provide detailed information on migration, they enable us to follow the fortunes of a given family over a considerable length of time, sometimes for as long as a millenium or more.

The increasing pride in one’s cultural heritage has made roots-tracing a worldwide phenomenon. This palpable fervour is felt especially in immigrant societies such as the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore.

A renewed interest in genealogy is also discernible among the more homogeneous communities which are, once again, devoting greater effort and resources to this important field of human endeavour, both for their own benefit and that of mankind.

Alex Haley, author of “Roots” (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Updating of This Article

As stated in the above article, an increasing interest in tracing one’s roots and heritage has sprung up not only in in the immigrant communities but also in the more homogeneous countries. This must have inspired the subsequent publication of the book Roots in 1976 by Alex Haley, an African American writer. He writes historical novels depicting generations of African American lives. Apart from his well received book Roots, which was adapted by ABC television network into a television series that attracted 130 millions viewers in United States, he also wrote the famous book, The autobiography of Malcom X.

In the ensuing years, 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 business tycoon and philanthropist and President Barack Obama of United States.

At the launch of Mr Kevin Shepherdson’s book, Shepherdson’s around the world, unite!, this Singaporean Eurasian writer disclosed that, after a decade of painstaking research at libraries, archives and history centres in this region and in Britain to ascertain his mixed 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.

President Barack Obama (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Warren Buffet (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This article was first published in the newspaper in 1996 and was subsequently included in my blog in 2007 after I became a blogger. Since then it was seldom logged in by my viewers. Hence the need to update it with new inputs in order to stir up more interest among my about 275,000 viewers internationally.

Lam Pin Foo

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