In China, clans or kinship ties are based patrilineal groups of related people with a common surname sharing a common ancestor. In southern China, these ties were often strengthened by a common ancestral village or home, where clans had common property and a common spoken patois that was unintelligible to outsiders. Following Confucian tradition, each family maintained a registry, called a Zupu 族譜 in Mandarin, that contained the clan's origin stories and its male lineage.
The background image for this website is a composite of three pages from the Hong and Chin family registries. The left and center pages were hand copied by my paternal grandfather, Hong Hock How, from our ancestral village registry in Dong On 東安, China (Taishan County, Guangdong). Hock How used a booklet made of thin, translucent paper with a hand-stitched, stab binding. The page on the right is from the introduction to my mother's Chin family registry for our ancestral village Chazhou 槎州 (Taishan County, Guangdong). My copy appears to have been photocopied several times. It also had a hand-stitched, stab binding, which I removed in order to digitize the book, then re-stitched myself. It was given to us by my grandmother, but its author is unknown.
In Chinese tradition, the eldest person in the clan was giving the very important task of maintaining the clan's registry. When families settled in a new area, they would take a copy of the registry from their old village to use as the starting registry for their new branch of the family. As a result, family lineages in China can be traced back dozens of generations and thousands of years, at a minimum going back a clan's first ancestor to settle in a county or province, and often going all the way back to a China's mythical past.
Hock How was following in this tradition when he made a copy of of the Zeng Family Registry prior to his voyage to the United States in 1915. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, many family registries were destroyed as relics of China's feudal past. Since China opened up in the 1980's, there has been a renewed interest in family genealogies as both local and overseas Chinese try to reconnect with their past. In some cases, family registries have been recreated from copies secretly hidden by village elders or preserved by the Chinese diaspora.
The individual entries in both the Hong and Chin registries have a fairly standard format listing the generation number, given name, aliases, the last names of wives, and the names of sons. Some entries also have the dates of birth and death using the Chinese calendar. Other entries will note where the person is buried.
Significant ancestors, including the ones who established new branches of the family, will have short biographical notes. All sections are written in Classical Chinese, which makes the commentaries, morale lessons, or historical notes hard to read and translate for people who only know vernacular Chinese (ie. modern spoken and written Chinese).
According to Wikipedia Classical Chinese:
"...appears extremely concise and compact to modern Chinese speakers, and to some extent [may] use of different lexical items (vocabulary). An essay in Classical Chinese, for example, might use half as many Chinese characters as in vernacular Chinese to relate the same content.
"In terms of conciseness and compactness, Classical Chinese rarely uses words composed of two Chinese characters; nearly all words are of one syllable only....polysyllabic words [having] evolved in [vernacular] Chinese to disambiguate homophones that result from sound changes."
Classical Chinese also frequently drops subjects and objects that are understood and uses literary and cultural allusions that further contribution to its brevity and opacity to modern readers.
Introduction to 1915 Zeng Family Genealogy
武城曾氏重修族譜 - Revised Wu Cheng Zeng Clan Registry
[Thoughts on trying to capture images of the past.]