History is not the study of cold facts but the interpretation of the past through available evidence. This evidence may include records of events (like a newspaper's recitation of who, what, where and when) or interpretations and analysis of those events (how and why). Both of those are subject to mistakes and bias. Records may also be altered or made-up to more charitably reflect on one party or another. With the social and financial importance of genealogies in traditional Chinese society, it also would not be surprising for some people to claim a more favorable lineage than belongs to them.
The Chin family genealogy, which was given to me by my maternal grandmother, has the following note on page 8:
Mistakes in the Book:
According to the Book to avoid the Jin 金 chaos, the family's southern migration started with the move to Nanxiong 南雄 then to Gu Gang Zhou 古岡州. As the early migration was so long, there was no record of the exact time. According to legend, it was around 1266AD 咸淳二年. However, this was hearsay and not support by historical records. To find out the truth, the village elders were asked and they remembered the migration was about 1131 紹興元年. Between 1130 and 1266 is a difference of more than 140 years. Such a mistake! Therefore, the Book contains inaccurate information.
[Source: (穎川源記略 page 8, translation by Fonny Lau.]
These discrepancy may be attributed to poor record keeping or lost records during a time of war, chaos, and mass migration in Chinese history. But the self-acknowledge mistakes in the Chin book also points to the important aspect of historical records, which is that they may have conflicting facts and are not always reliable.
With the Chin genealogy [also known as a zupu 族譜 in Chinese], I am beginning with the assumption that the records have been compiled in good faith to the best of the knowledge of the people keeping the records, while acknowledging that this assumption may not be always be true.
The Chin Zupu that I have only covers the time from my grandfather's generation back to the arrival of his forefathers in Guangdong province at the time of the aforementioned mistakes. From there, it is easy to trace my grandfather's lineage from his father to Chen Feng Tai. To go back farther that him, I have had to rely on three distant Chen cousins for their extensive research into the Chen family's ancient history. They are all accomplished genealogists by avocation, but are not to my knowledge professional historians.
- The first is Hanson Chan 陳天璇 who has written extensively in Chinese and English on his family history. According to his City University of NY biography, Hanson Chan is a writer of Chinese novels and screenplays who has a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Maryland and his Master’s in Asian Studies from Seton Hall University. In addition to being a writer, Hanson has also been a professional journalist and editor. He has published many books and articles in Chinese. He has written several history books including: Chinese History Made Easy, An Interpretive History of the Valiant Chinese in America, and notably for our purposes Finding the Direct Bloodline of My 111 Ancestors in China. Most of his books are written in Chinese, but "Finding My 111 Ancestors" includes a chapter in English which lists all 111 Ancestors going back to Chen Hu Gong along with short biographical and geographical notes. Hanson is my seventh cousin and was born in my mother's ancestral village of Chazhou 槎州.
- Second is Al R. Chinn is a genealogical researcher, who created the excellent but recently shuttered website houseofchinn.com. The site included a section on researching Chinese roots, traveling to China, and offered services to help others with their Chinese genealogy research, including English interpretation of Chinese genealogies. It is unclear how far Al's Chinese language skills extend beyond interpreting this specific types of documents.
Another section includes his extensive research on the Chen family genealogy. He had self-published books on houseofchinn.com including: Migration South from Old Zhujixiang, which is a resource for doing genealogical research for people from Guangdong; Journey to Chen, Al's research into the Chen family tree; and You Are Royalty, A Guide to Your Chinese Ancestory. Journey to Chen is the culmination of 8 years of research including visits to historical sites in China. Our common ancestor is Chen Feng Tai.
- Third is Dr. Philip Tan 陳志仁 my 51st cousin, 7 times removed. He is a retired engineer from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who is descended from a Fijian branch of the Chens. He is a prolific consumer of Chinese Genealogies, and along with Al Chinn, Philip is a moderator on the English-language Chinese Genealogy forum. Like me, Philip is adept at deciphering Chinese genealogies, but has limited literacy in written Chinese. As of June 5, 2021, he has added a mind-boggling 52,570 profiles to the crowd-sourced world family tree at www.geni.com.
- Chen's are descended from the Yellow Emperor and one of his successors the Emperor Shundi.
- One of Shundi's descendants Chen Hu Gong 陳胡公 is the first of our ancestors to use the name Chen, after the fiefdom of Chen granted to him by the Zhou dynasty emperor Wu Wang 周武王.
- One of Hu Gong's descendants was Chen Shi 陳實, who was a well respected official at the end of the Han dynasty. Chen Shi found of the largest and well-known branch of the Chen family in Ying Chuan, Henan 河南省潁川.
- Chen Feng Tai 陳鳳臺 and his sons are considered to be the founders of the Chen family in the Guangdong.
In between those founding events, there are differences big and small. Small differences might include skipping a generation or using a different name or alias (remember Chinese were often given different names over the course of their lives from birth to attaining adulthood to death). However, there were two major differences in the Hanson, Al, and Philip's family narratives.
Are we descended from the 24th Marquis of the State of Chen or an earlier branch that fled to the State of Qi? Both Hanson and Al write that we are descended from Chen Wan 陳完 who was an 11th generation descendant of Hu Gong. Wan, who was the first cousin of the 11th Marquis, fled Qi and changed his name to Tian 田 because he feared reprisals after the Marquis' heir was killed. Generations later, Tian Wan's descendants returned to Henan, changed their name back to Chen and were the ancestors of Ying Chuan founder Chen Shi.
While Philip's research does note Chen Wan's self-exile to Qi, he believes we descended of the 11th Marquis through the 24th Marquis.
Are we descendants of emperors from the Southern Chen dynasty or did our branch take a detour to Fujian? According to Hanson Chan, we are descended from Chen Shi's 4th son Chen 諶 through his descendant Shi Kui 世逵 and Shi Kui's son Shang Zhi 尚之. Shi Kui's descendants started the Fujian branch of the Chen family.
Al and Philip show a different line of descent that sometimes overlaps with Hanson's version, but both of them include the Emperors of the Southern Chen Dynasty, which Hanson bypasses to follow Philip's Fujian line of ancestors then rejoin's Philip's Chen dynasty line of descent several generations before Chen Feng Tai.
Since I do not have access to primary or secondary sources, I have decided to use Hanson's version as the basis for my genealogy, while acknowledging the stories represented in Al and Philip's alternative lineages. While this choice may be somewhat arbitrary, Hanson does have the following advantages: 1.) Chinese literacy that allows him to read other sources in Chinese, 2.) he is the closest relative of the three, and 3.) we use the same primary source, the Chazhou Village Chin Family Zupu.
I'll be cleaning up my documents to reflect this change, and add sidebars or supplemental blog posts that present the alternative narratives presented by Philip and Al.