Archives in China

An archive means many things to many different people.  For many Westerners, it is the image of the family tree and a store of related documents that is conjured at the prompt of the word “archive”.  Large centres that house thousands of documents for research and personal interest are all over the world, such as the vast National Archives of India in Delhi, with over 40 kilometres of boxed material.  Such archives are preserves to provide evidence of people’s lives and communities’ evolution or devolution.  

The Chinese archive has a similar purpose but a very different method.  The Chinese do not traditionally keep archives as Westerners would recognise them.  In China, many of the small villages are associated with a particular family such as the Tang, and through that they are associated with a particular clan or group such as the Hakka (a large sub-group of the Han).  In their individual villages is kept a book that records all the key events relating to the males of that village, and subsequently, to that clan.  

Jia Pu

Ancestry and family are subjects revered in Chinese culture, manifesting in ancestor worship and iron-clad familial bonds.  Traditionally, males are more important culturally and economically and so keeping a record of the family’s genealogy through the male lines is very important.  Not only is it a record of the clan’s lineage but it also details its history such as an ancestral biography including social evolution and migration.  This is a Chinese archive, called a Jia Pu (or Zu Pu), and is contained in a single book that is kept within the village.  The book is kept in the ancestor’s house (an old family home used to conduct official family business within the village) and is mostly compiled of events featuring males.  Women were never marked into the book except to mark marriages.  Only recently could a woman be listed, and this must be petitioned for.  When a male infant is born, the family takes him to the ancestor’s house, lights a red lantern and marks his name in the book.  Within are also details of travels and deaths as well as other events which means that a member of the village would be able to trace their family back genealogically as well as geographically.  The detail and vastness of the archive enables a clan to trace its family back hundreds of years with much ease.  

Chinese communities were committing their genealogy to paper, scroll or stone as far back as the Pre-Qin Dynasty (pre-221 BCE).  Before that, families kept the knowledge of their family histories through word of mouth.  No doubt many aspects were embellished or lost, during these periods, such as when it became illegal to talk of your family tree during the start of Communist China.

Of course, not every village is solely habited by a single family and so in some cases you will find a Jia Pu that serves a whole village and records a few different family names.  According to The Hundred Family Names (a physical record of Chinese surnames compiled in the 10th century CE, during the Song Dynasty, known as Bai Jia Xing), there are 438 commonly used Chinese family names.  There is thought to be over 5,000 surnames in total; 1,000 of which are in use today.  When a Jia Pu does serve a single family, it is very easily searched as it will follow a strict hierarchical order.  It will start at the top with a progenitor, usually an unknown ancestor, and branch out from there.  Each branch of the clan will list the head of that branch, the first then second then third etc son, and then the description of each generation’s happenings and achievements then other branches off of that branch.  The end result is a highly structured, vastly detailed family tree and a source of pride to the family or village.

Confucius’ Genealogy

The oldest family history in the world is that of the Kong family, a prestigious member of which was Confucius (or Kong Zi or Zhong Ni as he is also known in China).  The Kong family can easily be traced back over 80 generations (over a thousand years) to the present day.  Confucius himself is estimated to have at least two million descendents as recorded by the Confucius Genealogy Compilation Committee, and due to the events surrounding anti-Confucian sentiment in 20th century China inspired by Chairman Mao and its subsequent loss of family record books, it is thought that many more people are of Confucian descent.

Changing Genealogy

Events such as these often have a powerful, direct impact on what gets recorded in your genealogy.  Within the last couple of hundred years people have been moving about more frequently and further away, making record keeping of your family’s history much harder.  Wars, conflicts and other political changes can have an effect on what is kept and what is destroyed or thought of as irrelevant.  Something similar has had a resounding impact on Chinese genealogy.  With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, there came campaigns against the “Four Olds” (ancient habits, customs, ideas and culture) of which keeping records of your genealogy was considered derivative of those.  People were to stop talking about family trees as such a custom was seen as archaic and a throw-back to feudalism.  With family trees came family legends, class delineations and titles.  Communism sought to up-root all this thought and destroyed many written family trees.  Those that survived were hidden by the families.  Many genealogies became lost, destoryed or halted such as Confucius’.  This policy has only been lifted recently, in the 1980s.