Pioneering in China’s Family Tree Business – ‘My China Roots’ Founder Huihan Lie
My China Roots is a Beijing-based company specialized in Chinese genealogy. Founded by the Dutch Huihan Lie, it is the first company of its kind that helps overseas born Chinese or people of mixed descent to find out more about their roots in China.
The research of genealogy —tracing one’s ancestors— was often perceived as either an aristocratic practice or the classic old man hobby, but the increasing prevalence of genealogy websites and TV series such as Finding Your Roots or Who Do You Think You Are? shows the growing popularity of genealogy in the West.[^1] It has made the online genealogy industry lucrative; big players such as Ancestry.com or MyHeritage have a membership base of approximately 80 million. They use their online platforms to secure family records and collect historical information (Ungerleider 2015).
My China Roots fills a gap in this industry with its focus on Chinese ancestry. Since the company started in 2012, Huihan Lie and his team of researchers have taken on dozens of projects and are never out of work: many foreigners of Chinese descent have a strong urge to find out more about their family history. Over the past years, Lie has learned much about the possibilities and obstacles in investigating people’s Chinese roots. What’s on Weibo sat down with him in the courtyard of his Beijing office to ask about his work, and how it all began.
FROM THE DUTCH COUNTRYSIDE TO MY CHINA ROOTS
“It is all about identity in the end – it is a search for who they are.”
“I have always been interested in family history,” says Lie, who was born and raised in the Dutch countryside to Indonesian parents from Chinese descent. “As a young boy, I loved listening to my grandpa’s stories. They were mainly about the family history from 1850-1950 in Indonesia, where I’ve been many times. I only started to become more curious about my Chinese roots after coming to Beijing to study Chinese. I knew my ancestors originally were from China, so I began to look for more information about them.”
It has been over a decade since Huihan Lie started the search for his Chinese roots. Throughout the years, he has visited four different villages of distant relatives and is planning to travel to a fifth one this year: “The search never really ends – every new trail leads to the next.” Lie’s personal journey also led to the launch of his own company to help other people find their Chinese roots.
“Everyone has different personal reasons for wanting to know about their Chinese descent,” Lie says: “What really drives me is the more you find out about your roots, the more you discover how similar we all actually are. We all come from different places and cultures, but in the end, we have a lot in common. Going on this journey has made me more open and tolerant. But there are also people who want to know if they are connected to the Emperor in some way – for them, searching their roots is a prestige thing.”
Lie says that the incentives for genealogy research also vary per age group: “For people in their twenties, finding one’s genealogical roots is often part of their journey of self-discovery. Those who come to us who are in their thirties or forties often have children or are in mixed marriages, and they want to know what family history to pass on to their children. For the older generations, it is often about unanswered questions and self-reflection. No matter the reason, it is all about identity in the end – a search for who they are.”
TRACING DOWN CHINESE ROOTS
“How do you find someone’s ancestors in a country of 1.3 billion people?”
What once started as a one-man company has now grown into a strong team that travels to places connected to the ancestry of their clients, who come from all corners of the world: from Europe to South-east Asia, from the USA to the Caribbean. For the majority of these people, the birthplaces of their ancestors can be found in the south of China. Around 90% of Lie’s clients’ ancestry lies in the provinces Fujian and Guangdong.
Although waves of Chinese migration have occurred throughout history, there was a huge surge of Chinese laborers leaving for the Americas, Australia, South Africa and South-east Asia from the middle of the 19th century up to 1949. The first flow of Chinese immigrants to the USA departed from Guangdong, which was an international trading port. In 1848, news of gold in California spread like wildfire throughout the south of China and many people emigrated. There were also other early Chinese migrants with a variety of professions, from seamen to diplomats (Chao 2008, 74).
Even when people already have strong clues about their family lineage or possess important documentation, they often still do not know what to do with it; the majority of Lie’s client base does not read or speak Chinese at all. Language is a major hurdle in their personal search for family in China, as well as their limited understanding of Chinese culture and society. “They often simply do not know where to start,” Lie says: “That’s where we come in.”
But how do you find someone’s ancestors in a country of 1.3 billion people? It seems like a daunting task, but Huihan Lie has a clear vision when it comes to the genealogy research process. He explains their services always start with whatever information a prospective client can provide them. From there, him and his team can begin unraveling a family history through a step-by-step plan of various stages.
“The first step is to simply collect as much information as we can from the people who contact us,” Lie says: “What is the name we are focusing on? What information do they still have? Where did their great-grandfathers come from? When we know more, we ask our contacts at Chinese local government level to help us determine the right village to go to. Our on-site researchers then collect materials in the relevant places.”
100 FAMILY NAMES
“It hardly ever happens that we do not find anything at all – there is always some trace.”
In China, there are hundreds of different surnames, but the 100 most common Chinese surnames (f.e. Wang, Li, Zhang, Liu, etc) account for over 85% of the population. The 200 most common ones even account for 95% (Jonkers 2010). How do you find a specific family when millions of people all carry the same name?
“It actually makes it easier for us,” Lie smilingly says: “If a name is very common, local governments will know more about where these families originally came from. The hierarchy of China’s administrative divisions works in such a way that we can ask our contacts at the county level about the history of family names in that county. Some small towns will have a prominent population of the Chen or Li surname, for example. Historically, all villages basically were extended families. In Guangdong or Fujian, you’ll still find places where 60-70% of inhabitants belong to the same family.”
China’s administrative system is divided into provinces, cities, counties, townships and villages. When a prospective client can provide the name of the county of their great-grandparents, Lie and his team will typically be able to pinpoint the right area and village.
Pivotal for the research process are the genealogical books called jiapu (家谱 – family tree) and zupu (族谱 – clan genealogy), which contain records of generational relationships, clan history, origins, renowned members, etc. These books are commonly not stored in archives but within family homes in the villages, where Lie and his team also look for clan temples and ancestral graves.
There are much bigger obstacles for genealogical research than China’s common names, Lie points out. Because of fires, natural disasters, or the massive destruction during the Cultural Revolution, some family records have simply vanished.
“We do try to find ways to work around that. There are often copies of these records that have been passed on from elders to their children and we will still find a way to access them. What is more complicated is people who have taken on a different surname when fleeing, for example, political prosecution. But in 9 out of 10 cases we are able to find the right places and sources. It hardly ever happens that we do not find anything at all – there is always some trace.”
CRAZY ABOUT ROOTS
“If I tell Chinese people what I do, they immediately understand what it is that I am doing and how valuable it is.”
The fact that the majority of Lie’s clients have their roots in the south of China benefits research in multiple ways, Lie explains: “Generally speaking, genealogical research has fewer obstacles in the south of China than in the north. The great destruction of old documents during the Cultural Revolution was less severe in the south than in north, simply because it was much further away from the political center in Beijing.”
“In the 1980s and 1990s there was also a revival of genealogical research. People started coming together to preserve their local heritage and update their family records, something which they especially actively did in the south of China. It led to new editions of old genealogical records – a result of collective village efforts to restore their family history. Somehow this is stronger in the south than in the north.”
But Lie emphasizes that ancestry is overall much more alive in China than it is in the West: “Honoring one’s ancestry is deeply rooted in Confucianism. There is a revival of Confucianism that has been going on for a long time. It is ingrained in Chinese culture. This also shows in the fact that there are currently more and more ‘clan name’ organizations popping up everywhere and they can easily be found on Baidu.”
Chinese media recently reported about the “popular craze” of these ‘clan name’ foundations or ‘family tree clubs’ where, for example, people of the Wang or Chen family names within a certain region have annual gatherings and collaborate on restoring and completing genealogical records.
“If I tell Chinese people what I do, they immediately understand what it is that I am doing and how valuable it is. It is more natural to most Chinese. The family is the cornerstone of Chinese society, and knowing who your ancestors are is an important part of it.”
“It feels good knowing that we can help establish these valuable cross-cultural connections.”
For Lie, it is clear that there is still a long future ahead for the company. He enjoys every project and the research he does together with his team. “Every project is like another expedition. I found out that generally, it is not so much the answers that people get that matter the most to them, but the journey of discovering itself.”
Lie stresses that they give their clients much more than names and dates: “It is all about contextualizing history and make it come alive. Giving people a better picture of how their ancestors lived and what bigger cultural movements they were part of.”
As part of this contextualizing of people’s ancestry, Lie will focus more on its online platform this year. “Our services are tailor-made and completely focused on our clients,” Lie says: “Up until now, most of it was offline and high-end. But in the near future, we want to expand and will set up an online database where people can start their family history journey by looking up their family name or the place where their (great) grandparents came from. We will provide these online information services for free, and for a more personalized analysis, people can contact us to take the research to the next level.”
Besides the fact that My China Roots itself is going more digital, online channels are also relevant in genealogical research. Sina Weibo is sometimes used to search for people with certain last names from specific regions, or occasionally to ask help from Chinese netizens. WeChat has also become an important tool to communicate with local authorities and families.
Watch: Huihan Lie tells about My China Roots.
Lie enthusiastically tells: “I like how My China Roots can really serve as a bridge between people and their Chinese lineage. Sometimes it really gives me a kick, like when our clients build long-lasting friendships with relatives we found in China. It feels good knowing that we can help establish these valuable cross-cultural connections.”
“Finding out more about one’s roots seems to give people peace of mind. No matter the outcome of the research, people’s reaction always is that they have a sense of contentment about knowing where they come from. They come to us with a search for identity – it is the peace of simply knowing that they gain in the end.”
This interview was conducted and condensed by Manya Koetse in Beijing
Featured image: two men doing business in Beijing around 1917 (http://www.ntdtv.com/xtr/gb/2017/04/14/a1320285.html).
[^1]: Who Do You Think You Are? is a UK show that was first aired by the BBC in 2004. Every episode investigates the family tree of a celebrity, often discovering things about their ancestry they never knew about. The UK show often drew audiences of over 6 million viewers per episode, and now has more than 10 international adaptations. Huihan Lie and his team contributed to the show in the episode with Julie Chen; they brought her to Fujian in a search for her Chinese roots. Finding Your Roots is another popular American series that also uses genealogical research to discover the family history of well-known Americans.
Chao, Sheau-yueh J. 2008. “Tracing Their Roots: Genealogical Sources for Chinese Immigrants to the United States.” Collection Building 27(2): 74–88.
Jonkers, Koen. 2010. Mobility, Migration and the Chinese Scientific Research System. New York: Routledge.
Ungerleider, Neal. 2015. “Ancestors, Inc.: Inside the Remarkable Rise Of The Genealogy Industry.” Fast Company, July 15 https://www.fastcompany.com/3048513/ancestors-inc-inside-the-remarkable-rise-of-the-genealogy-industry [2.5.17].
* Jiapu from the Ming dynasty: http://www.lzsx.org.cn/index_Article_Content.asp?fID_ArticleContent=365
* Get together of Li family members: http://www.xingpaojihua.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/DSC_0706.jpg
* Old Guangdong: http://www.360doc.com/content/16/0404/19/11548039_547832131.shtml
* Chinese family around 1900: http://history.sohu.com/20161108/n472615999.shtml
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