The history of family history: Professor explores Chinese genealogies

When Xin Yu’s grandfather passed away, he left his grandson an interesting heirloom: A family genealogy, written in classical Chinese. Yu was intrigued. “There were a lot of stories, a lot of legends. I wanted to figure out which parts were facts and which parts were fictional, which parts were reliable,” he said.

What started as a personal quest turned into an entire academic pursuit. Yu, who is from China and just completed his PhD studies at Washington University in St. Louis, is a visiting assistant professor at UWM. His research centers on the history of Chinese genealogies, just like the one his grandfather gave him.

His work has revealed some fascinating facts about not only Chinese genealogies, but the course of world history. Here are the facts you need to know.

1. Chinese genealogy looks much different from western genealogy.

Yu studies genealogies that were produced between 1450 and 1644. These genealogies were printed books made through a careful process of compilation and editing. They resembled personal history books as much as they did family trees.

But these aren’t the family trees that most people might be familiar with.

“In America and Europe, the genealogy is self-centered. That means, if you want to write a genealogy, you start with yourself, then your father and mother, and then your four grandparents,” Yu observed. “But in China it was totally different.”

That’s because the Chinese genealogies that Yu studies are ancestor-centered. They focused on one particular ancestor and then traced that person’s descendants, often for centuries.

Unsurprisingly, these genealogies were sweeping histories, recording the lives of hundreds or even thousands of descendants.

“For example, in my family, the genealogy was centered on a figure living about 600 years ago,” Yu said. “If the genealogy in the United States and Europe resembles a tree with yourself at the bottom … in Chinese genealogy, the ancestor was at the top and all else would be on the bottom branches.”

2. The genealogies developed because people wanted to know their family.

Before the 15th and 16th centuries, Chinese genealogies looked similar to today’s. But in the 1400s, a new development changed the landscape: the emergence of large-scale social organizations that included kinsmen living in the same villages or communities.

“They not only identified with the same ancestor, but also, they had a lot of connections in their real life. They have shares in common property,” Yu said.

“It was because of the emergence of this type of kinship organization that people wanted to know who the other members were in that group. It was a community-building effort that led people to have a new type of record that would help them keep track of everybody in that community and to specify a relationship with their ancestors.”

In fact, Yu said, entire villages where many people shared the same surname were involved in searching for a common ancestor so that they could establish familial bonds. These books were hugely important for their makers; Yu noted that even people who could not read still worked with the books and spent large sums of money to fund their creation.

“Genealogies were ritual objects. They were put in ancestral temples to be revered by everyone, and oftentimes people were able to see it once a year during a very important festival devoted to ancestor worship,” Yu said.

By the 19th and 20th centuries, almost every family, on down to Chinese peasants, had their own genealogies.

3. Some of the stories are made up.

Of course, the people who recorded these genealogies relied on memory that usually spanned only three or four generations – about 100 years. Some families were lucky and had documentation that detailed their histories up to 300-400 years in the past.

“For ancestors who are really far back, they had to rely on fiction. They just fabricated a lot of (these stories) to show that they knew a lot about their ancestry,” Yu said.

Stories followed common themes, chief among them migration: Many genealogies claimed an ancestor had migrated from the north of China to the south. In premodern China, the northern region of the nation was seen as a desirable place to live, but pressure from occupying Mongols and other groups pushed many Chinese people southward, where they established new regimes and ruling classes.

“On the local level, many people wanted to incorporate that kind of narrative into their own history. They wanted to … show that they were descendants of the northerners instead of the southerners,” Yu said. In the same way that Americans or Europeans may try to search for family connections to distant royalty, “People would try to connect their own history to the imperial history or the history of those who really had power,” Yu added.

4. They were made long ago, but these genealogies are still in use today.

In almost every Chinese village, you can find these elaborate genealogies, though the form of the text has changed as language and writing have evolved. As a consequence of the Chinese Revolution in the twentieth century, however, many ancestral temples have been demolished and printed genealogies no longer have the impact they once had.

Even so, people today are still interested in genealogy. Services like 23andMe and Ancestry DNA have opened up new avenues for genealogical research–though they do present a problem.

“In the Chinese context, adoption happens a lot,” Yu said. “Even though people lived in the same village and claimed that they descended from the same ancestor, actually, their genetic connection was not always strong. Many people wanted to erase traces of adoption from their genealogy.”

Instead, Chinese genealogy relies much more on a common narrative rather than actual genetics.

5. This work is important because it shows how historical events impacted actual people.

The elaborate printed books of genealogies that Yu studies would not have been possible without the adoption of printing technology. That’s important, he says, because it shows another avenue of history that the west often ignores.

“Because of the invention of printing, everything changed. … Printing enabled the circulation of knowledge and individualism in Europe,” Yu said. “But in the Chinese case, it’s totally the opposite. Printing helped consolidate the dominance of kinship organizations over individuals. Individualism was not a natural outcome of printing.”

“Printing itself would not bring about democracy or individualism. It is the use of printing by groups of people that generate its meaning,” he added.

Genealogies are also important because they give a glimpse at the human impact of historical events – like wars, famines, or pandemics. In his family’s personal genealogy, Yu noticed the deaths of many of his ancestors in the 1860s.

“It was the almost-destruction of the entire lineage during the Taiping Rebellion, which is a very important civil war in China. Almost everyone was killed,” Yu said. “In southern China, over 50 percent of the population was killed during that civil war, and I saw it in (my own) genealogy.”

Yu is the David and Diane Buck Visiting Professor in Chinese History in UWM’s History Department. David Buck, a professor emeritus of history at UWM, and his wife created the professorship years ago in hopes of making the study of Chinese and Asian history a permanent fixture at UWM.