A question came in the other day from a friend who was intrigued by the fact that the Chang family jiapu, book of genealogy, covers 36 generations. She asked whether every Chinese family owned one.
My understanding is that many literate, wealthy clans kept a jia pu. It was the responsibility of the clan patriarch to update it every few generations. These volumes were printed using woodblocks carved by hand.
This meant hiring a calligrapher skilled at writing characters in reverse, to inscribe the latest record of our lineage onto wood blocks. Then it was the turn of artisan wood carvers, printmakers really, who carefully chiseled around the characters. Finally, a printing press would be set up to produce a new edition of the jia pu for distribution to the various branches of the clan. Talk about a limited edition print run!
It was a labour intensive process and the cost to print each new edition was horrendous. By the time my father was born, the family was struggling to feed three generations, never mind document their birth. Thus our jia pu records our lineage, beginning with the Song Dynasty general Zhang Jun (1097-1164) and ending 36 generations later with my great-grandfather, Zhang Paizhen.
Was it out of reverence for ancestors that families kept a jia pu? Was it out of vanity, to give ourselves a more noble pedigree? How trustworthy were those records anyway? Where are they now?
Sadly, many jia pu were destroyed during the years of the Cultural Revolution. It’s a minor miracle that my uncle was able to hide and preserve ours, to give a copy to my father when at last they met again after 40 years. Read about this in The Legacy of Lost Heirlooms.
The other event that inspired me to write this blog post? I recently got some news about our jia pu -- it might be gaining some additional pages soon – laser printed pages, not woodblock. My cousin who lives in Shanghai retired last year; inspired by my efforts to write down our family stories he has been making trips to our ancestral town of Pinghu and doing some research of his own.
Family tradition has it that our first notable ancestor was Zhang Jiuling (673–740) a poet and minister of the Tang Dynasty. If this is true, then there is a gap of 300 years between our first recorded ancestor Zhang Jun and Zhang Jiuling, and my cousin is trying to fill in the gap.
I believe that all family histories are precious, whether they go back two generations or 20. I began writing down our family stories because oral tradition is no longer enough to keep us all connected, in this day and age of mobility. I have siblings, nephews, nieces, and cousins across four continents.
If I can encourage even one visitor to write down what they know of their family, to interview their elders before it's too late -- then the effort and cost of this website have been worth it.
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