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Families dig into the past to expose their roots
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-12-10 08:40

Hou Pengxiao started his penmanship 16 years ago after retiring.

Hou said he simply wanted to write something in memory of his parents.

It never occurred to him that he would still be writing today and in the process, be helping to revive a tradition that had almost died out.

Hou, 75, recently finished the fourth revision of his family's genealogy - one that spans 14 generations and incorporates almost 10,000 people in 13 volumes.

"When I started, I tried to remember what I had been told about my and my relatives' parents and grandparents," Hou said last week at his home in Anshan, a city in Northeast China's Liaoning Province.

"Gradually I became so interested in the family's history that I decided to compile a genealogy."

But it was a difficult task.

"I visited more than 10 villages in Anshan alone and interviewed more than 120 people surnamed Hou."

The past 16 years also saw inflated telephone bills at Hou's home. "I make hundreds of long distance calls each year to confirm if a Hou belongs to my family tree," he said.

As members of the Hou family learned of his ambitious goal, they started to help. Even distant relatives, whom he never met, readily supported him.

Hou Chengkuan, an 86-year-old relative in Taiwan Province, chipped 15,000 yuan (US$1,807) into the cause and mailed Hou everything he knew about the Taiwan-based descendants.

"According to the documents he provided, four lines of the Hou family are living on the other side of the Taiwan Straits," he said.

"I felt all my hard work had paid off when I finally found out all about the generations of Hous before me. I felt that I had saved the historical records of my clan."

At the top of the family tree is Hou Huayou, who moved in 1651 from his ancestral home in Leling County, East China's Shandong Province, to Anshan.

To his delight, Hou says many people around him are also interested in finding out their own roots.

"Many people come to me for help when they want to work out their family trees," he said.

A recent exhibition of genealogies drew a large number of visitors of different age groups, said Chang Huaide, vice-director of the Anshan Pedigree Culture Research Institute, a newly established organization dedicated to preserving the ancient tradition of tracing family lines.

"More than 100 family trees were on display, all compiled by citizens in recent years."

Among them was the Shang family, compiled by an 11th generation descendant of Shang Kexi, a famous general who helped found the Qing Dynasty, China's last imperial dynasty that lasted from 1644 to 1911.

A family tree, or jiapu in Chinese, is a book that records names and stories of members in the same clan as well as the clan's origin, relations, migration patterns, distribution, occupations, educational backgrounds, economic conditions and social status.

A family tree is usually revised every 30 or 60 years. The practice thrived during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties, but was halted after the founding of New China in 1949 as it was seen as a feudal vestige.

But today, like Hou, a lot of people want to know more about their ancestors. The fact that a special edition album of stamps illustrating 128 of the most popular family names in China has become a best seller is testimony to the growing interest in genealogy.

The album was released on November 18 in Beijing. The first batch hit the bookstors over the weekend in Changsha, capital of Central China's Hunan Province and sold for 3,800 yuan (US$459). The album has family totems and tells of the first ancestry homes, among other information, according to the local Changsha Evening News.

During the weekend, the Yuanjialing Xinhua Book store sold about 50 copies of the two-volume set. Last Saturday, hundreds of people gathered at the Xialiu Culture Centre in Changle city, East China's Fujian Province, for a big family party.

All participants were surnamed Liu. They were celebrating the 1,100th anniversary of the family's presence in Fujian.

Liu Chuanjian, honourary chairman of Liu Family Committee - a branch of the Fujian Provincial Society for the Genealogy Studies, told the Dongnan Bulletin he and his committee members had browsed numerous archives, history annals and family trees to find out which Liu family first arrived in Fujian.

They discovered a 70-year-old man named Liu Cun took his three sons and three nephews from Central China's Henan to Fujian in 904. Liu Cun's family was the first to settle in Fenggang, or what is now known as Liuzhai Village, in Fuzhou's Cangshan County.

In fact, the best preserved genealogy is entitled "Liu at Phoenix Hill" (Fenggang Liu), having been passed down from Liu Cun and his descendants.

By the end of last year, there were about 1.4 million Lius living in the province. In Fuzhou, the provincial capital, there are nearly 200 big or small Liu family halls, where ancestors are worshipped.

Other families that immigrated to Fujian from Henan around the 10th century included the Wang, Chen, Lin, Huang, Zhang, Yan, Guo, Tang, Zheng and Song families.

Li Ji, a researcher of Chinese genealogy, told the Jiangnan Evening News he was very surprised to see about 120 old family halls still in existence in Huishan town in Wuxi, East China's Jiangsu Province, where people can search the origins and development of families with more than 100 surnames.

"It is a Chinese tradition to look for family roots and pay respect to family ancestors," Li said.

Experts say the tradition has been making a comeback in China over the past two decades, but the present-day genealogies are far removed from the more original ones.

"They now include women alongside men and pay equal respect to the prominent and ordinary members of a family," said Cai Ziming, vice-director of the culture research institute in Anshan.

Women were not traditionally recorded in family trees, he explained.

Cai said even children were interested in finding out the history of their families.

"The Hou family tree, for example, includes copies of calligraphic work, paintings and even theses of some members. Youngsters are particularly interested in the thesis of one member who studied in the United States in the early 20th century."

In this sense, a family tree is also a textbook for future generations, he said.

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