A Treasury from the East: What We Can Learn from Chinese Genealogy

As we Latter-day Saints strive to strengthen our own family history research skills, we can gain courage from the example of a people who have kept genealogies on a large scale for thousands of years. Faithfully maintaining records is not an easy task. But because of their vision and commitment, the Chinese have carried out the work for centuries.

“Ancestor-mindedness” has served as a central thread throughout China’s five thousand years of continuous civilization. Traditionally, the Chinese believe that successes or failures are the ultimate result of the acts of ancestors. Consequently, success and honor are “proof” of the greatness of one’s forebears and bring honor and respect to them. At the same time, personal successes and virtues ensure the same for descendants.

Thus, Chinese genealogies typically contain a great deal of information extolling the virtues and abilities of ancestors and giving straightforward advice from them to their descendants. The readers gain a feeling for what is expected of them, what role their heritage has played in their capabilities, and the importance of their own lives upon generations yet to come.

Chinese Genealogy through History

As early as 1122 B.C., the rulers of the Chou dynasty established a bureau to supervise the writing of royal genealogies. During the Wei-Chin dynasty in A.D. 221, the state also began encouraging the gentry, or landed classes, to maintain genealogies and to write clan histories.

Hundreds of years later, in the Sung dynasty (A.D. 960), a trend developed toward collecting and maintaining genealogies among the other three main classes of Chinese society—farmers, laborers, and merchants. They began to view genealogy as more than a handful of pedigree charts tracing official lines, and family genealogies began to include other information related to the family.

When tribesmen from the north invaded China and established the Manchu Ch’ing dynasty (A.D. 1644–1911), government attitudes toward the collection of genealogies changed. Because of the war between the previous Ming dynasty and the alien Ch’ing dynasty, anything interpreted as support of the Mings or criticism of the Manchus was persecuted severely. Because the earliest genealogies had emphasized native Chinese royal lines, Ch’ing leaders suspected that many family histories contained statements about the need to restore the Ming dynasty.

When many of the great classical records of China were revised and reproduced during this period, all mention of genealogies was deleted. The scholar class, which depended for its livelihood upon the ruling government, subsequently lessened their genealogical work. However, the common people, who had less contact with the government, continued with the work up to modern times.

Following the revolution of 1911, which overthrew the Manchus and discarded imperial rule in favor of more republican forms, scholars again began to compile genealogies and local histories with great fervor. Later, the Sino-Japanese War and the civil war between the Nationalist and Communist governments disrupted these endeavors somewhat.

Today, many Chinese families in Taiwan and Hong Kong have their own family histories, but there are many more who do not. Happily for these people, the Genealogical Society of Utah has for many years busily microfilmed Chinese clan genealogies and local histories in the major libraries and archives of the world. More recently, they have filmed individual genealogies loaned by families in Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia. They have also recently begun cooperative microfilming projects in mainland China to acquire genealogies and documents of historical value.

All of these records are being catalogued by the Church’s Family History Department and will be made available to researchers throughout the world. Because of the historical depth of Chinese genealogies, Chinese Latter-day Saints may find themselves among the first Latter-day Saints to trace their ancestry back more than a thousand years.

What Is a Chinese Genealogy Like?

Most genealogies include five basic types of information: (1) clan origin; (2) biographies of ancestors; (3) the pedigree itself; (4) information about clan tombs, ancestral halls, schools, and so forth; and (5) instructions from preceding generations to descendants. Usually the pedigree is the main item, with the other information appearing in a preface. In modern times, directories of living clan members have frequently been included.

Clan Origin Information. This section attempts to identify the earliest known ancestor, describe how the surname was adopted, and indicate the location of the initial family. It also traces the subsequent places to which the family members or the clan in general might have migrated.

Biographies of Ancestors. Because compilers of Chinese genealogies wished to encourage clan members to excel, they usually focused on the ancestors who had achieved greatness in education, medicine, business, government, the arts, philanthropy, or who had brought honor to the family and community by scoring well on civil service examinations. These biographies usually included poems and bibliographies of the more illustrious ancestors.

Information about the less famous or virtuous was typically restricted to one or two lines, including information on birth, death, name of wife and children, place of burial, and so on. Anciently, the names of female children were usually omitted. However, extremely virtuous women merited space in the genealogies. More recently, with the rise in the status of women generally, they have been included. Since a woman belonged to her husband’s clan after marriage, little subsequent information was supplied.

The Pedigree Itself. Although the Chinese have employed different styles of pedigree charts, the information portrayed is basically the same. Generations are linked vertically, and brothers are listed on the same row from right to left. To aid in the compilation of pedigrees, the Chinese provide a distinct personal name for each generation. If the same system were found among Western families, all children of the same generation within the extended family might share a common name, such as George John, George Albert, or even George Elizabeth. Likewise, their children, the next generation, would share another common name: Thomas Andrew, Thomas Mary, or Thomas Phillip.

Information about Clan Sites. Genealogies typically included maps of tomb locations along with diagrams detailing individual grave sites. Attention was also given to ancestral halls, family lands, and instructions on their use.

Normally, well-developed genealogies included long lists of rites to be performed and rules to be followed. In addition, they generally provided a great deal of detail on how to use family lands. For example, in 1841, the Chang family genealogy of Chekiang Province specified that profits from the land should provide for the worship of ancestors lacking direct descendants; help poor clan members when harvests were bad; aid poor elderly people, orphans, widows, and men over the age of thirty who could not afford to get married; purchase burial land and schools for the poor; and provide transportation costs for students to attend exams in faraway cities.

Instructions for Succeeding Generations. These guidelines were usually direct instructions for good behavior, along with poems and essays to help succeeding generations know what to do. For example, the 1928 Pi family genealogy from Shantung Province enjoined clan members to honor parents, love brothers, respect elders, befriend clansmen, teach womenfolk, work hard, selflessly serve, teach manners, disdain filthy language, abstain from arrogance, and avoid listlessness and wasteful or stingy actions. Genealogies sometimes also contain information about what should be taught to the students of the family and what rules the young people should obey.

What Can We Learn from Chinese Genealogy?

From the Chinese, we Latter-day Saints can better understand the importance of our own records for those who follow. The way in which Chinese genealogies have influenced behavior over the centuries is a historical testament to the wisdom of President Spencer W. Kimball’s suggestion: “What could you do better for your children and your children’s children than to record the story of your life, your triumphs over adversity, your recovery after a fall, your progress when all seemed black, your rejoicing when you had finally achieved?” (New Era, Oct. 1975, p. 5.)

As the Chinese have done, we can add to our life stories direct interpretations of what we have learned and what our descendants could do to benefit from our experiences. We recognize the wisdom in the gospel injunction, “Of him unto whom much is given much is required.” (D&C 82:3.) Chinese genealogies reflect this precept by making sure that succeeding generations realize what has gone before and what level of excellence is expected. Consequently, the genealogies not only convey hopes for what should be done, but also provide biographical vignettes of how correct principles have led to success in their ancestors’ lives.

The cohesiveness and discipline that exist in many Chinese families have developed in part because most Chinese have strong impressions of the debt they owe to their ancestors—and the responsibility they have to add to that heritage. Their genealogies have performed a valuable role in producing responsible family members. Similarly, our records may, in the hands of our descendants, help to teach correct principles and unite generations.

[photos] Photography by Steve Bunderson