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We are one big family tree

(China Daily)

16:06, August 09, 2011

Tu Jincan talks about helping people trace their family roots at his bookstore in Beijing on Wednesday. (Photo/ China Daily)

BEIJING - There's a saying in China that people with the same family name were brothers and sisters 500 years ago.

Since no one has a memory, or a lifespan, that long, Tu Jincan has stepped in to help.

Tu, 48, runs a business tracking people's family histories.

"People say Chinese people do not have religious beliefs. But for me, we have one: ancestral worship. As a result, the market potential is as large as the Chinese population who have this faith," Tu said.

He has written genealogies for more than 50 clients.

"I had clients from Fujian, Guizhou, Yunnan, Zhejiang and Hainan, but most are nostalgic senior citizens in Beijing who left their hometowns decades ago," Tu said.

The charge varies from thousands of yuan to 200,000 yuan ($31,000), depending on the amount of research needed.

Keeping a record of their genealogy became popular among common families in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and lasted until the land reform process in the 1940s. Since the late 1980s, the tradition has revived.

"But we have to recuperate much more than the 40 years of missed history, because many ancient records were also damaged over the decades," Tu said.

A further challenge comes from the fact that the country has witnessed unprecedented migration since the reform and opening-up in the late 1970s, which made it tougher to find a certain member or trace the history of a family, Tu added.

Tu started to take an interest in genealogy when he took part in the rebuilding of his own family tree in 1988.

He was then a teacher at a middle school in his hometown in Xiaogan, Central China's Hubei province.

"It was a big event for the whole village and every clan member contributed. But we still couldn't reach some family members," Tu recalled. "It was the first time that I realized the importance of genealogy. I found some outstanding people who were related to me by blood. They became the icons of our family clan, whom I felt proud of and wanted to follow."

So Tu quit his teaching job, opened a bookstore and used his spare time to study. He interviewed elders in rural areas to learn about different clans' history, culture, customs and music.

"I think genealogy can also be used to educate children, and could even be developed into various products, including publications, educational products and souvenirs," he said.

Stepping into Tu's store in Haidian Book City, the shelves are filled with books dedicated to the history of certain family clans and autobiographies of common people.

The primary job of Tu and his 60-person team is to help their clients edit existing information on their family history, trace the missing parts and complete the pedigree.

In some cases, he traces the route that the family migrated by consulting historical materials and clan elders.

A complete genealogy often includes chapters such as the origin of a surname, members and relations of the members in the family (which usually consists of 2,000 to 3,000 people), stories on celebrities of the family and brief biographies of important family members.

His toughest job came from a client from Tianjin, also surnamed Tu. All the client knew about his family was that his great-grandfather migrated to Zhengding county, Hebei province, from somewhere else in East China.

The client could not even remember the name of his great-grandfather, but was sure he had been a county magistrate of Zhengding.

"Most places still keep their county annals in the archives office or public library. And for someone who had been a county magistrate, his name would definitely appear in the county annals," Tu said.

As expected, the team found the county magistrate's name in the local library, traced to his birthplace in Jiangxi province and found more documents of the family.

"We were lucky in this case because the surname Tu forms a small clan and few county magistrates had this surname," Tu said. "If our client had a common surname, the chance to identify his ancestors would be smaller."

Now he is working on building a genealogy network.

"The advantage of the Internet is that more people can participate and share information," Tu said.

"Different families could be related hundreds of years ago, and online interaction may enable people to link the missing parts together. One day, you might see with your own eyes that we were actually one big family 500 years ago."


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