I just finished reading “Factory Girls” by Leslie Chang. She is a Chinese-American author who lived in China for 10 years while working for the Wall St. Journal. The book is about the lives of the migrant factory population in China, told mainly through two women in their twenties. While the author was interviewing these young ladies and following their lives, she also worked on her own genealogy.
Try to imagine how genealogy works in a country that is 5,000 years old, where ancestors are venerated, and family connections studied and treasured!
Ms. Chang visited her ancestral village, met cousins and made her share of discoveries. She somewhat summarizes her conclusions on Page 322 of the first edition of the book (Spiegel & Grau, 2008).
First of all, she says “In traditional Chinese genealogies, a family traces its lineage back to the ‘first migrating ancestor’”. I find that this applies me, a South American, since the first name in my database is our first migrating ancestor, in this case from a drought-striken village in Northern Italy. She explains this point of departure very well, by saying “Migration fixes a person and place and time”. It should be said the first traces of a migrating person may not appear for a considerable time in the new location. On the other hand, if one comes from a village since the beginning of time, from their standpoint, there may have been no reason to record genealogy. It was simply understood.
Again and again, she stresses: “The history of a family begins when a person leaves home”. Wow! Of course, I knew that … but I had never thought of it in those terms. All of a sudden, it seemed an incredible bittersweet paradox, since in my heart a family is always at home (even though my mind knows better).
Ms. Chang finds the usual serendipities that we all stumble upon when we work on our family’s history. In her case, she determines that her first migrating ancestor had lived in Beijing, and her grandfather, father and she had all left traces there, three hundred years apart. In my case, one of my husband’s ancestors fought and died 202 years ago on my native ground, an ocean across from his.
But then Chang makes an interesting observation. She says that members of the family who may commit certain offenses (“violating ancestral graves, marrying in disregard of social classes, violent rampaging, etc”) are often excluded from the pages of a genealogy. She explains this as reflecting the “traditional Chinese view that the purpose of history was not to relate facts or record stories, but to establish a moral standard to guide the living”. In this she and I are different, since I tend to consider the more colorful members of the family as the leaves that give different texture and interest to the tree.
Finally, Ms. Chang’s theory on why genealogy is an endlessly fascinating and ultimately important activity: “It impose(s) order and harmony on human existence. It (keeps) at bay the realities of a world that was not behaving as it should and perhaps never had. The sense of continuity was amazing …”
See elsewhere on this site a Korean cut at the concept of Genealogy.