Chinese Genealogy

There are many good resources about Chinese Genealogy that one can use. Most of them will provide background information about when, where, how, and why Chinese immigrated to the various parts of the world. However, the one important aspect of researching Chinese Genealogy requires that you are able to read and write Chinese or find a friend who can help translate Chinese to English and vice versa. There are also translation software and services available on-line. Google Translate is fairly good at translating between Chinese and English. A favorite is www.nciku.com which allows you to write the Chinese character, possible variations, and definitions.

Compounding this need to be able to read and write Chinese, there are many colloquial dialects of Chinese that is spoken throughout China. Mandarin is the official national language in China, but there are many regional dialects such as Cantonese, Hoisanese (also pronounced Toisanese), Shanghaiese, Fuzhou, Hakka, Nam Long, and many others. Fortunately, the written Chinese script is identical throughout China, which means people can always communicate by writing. The primary emphasis for this Lew Genealogy website is to capture as much of the Hoisanese (台 山 話) dialect as possible. The presence of dialects can complicate a roots search but at the same time it can also lend a clue to the place of origin of a surname based on its Romanization.

The Hoisan (台 山) term is based on the localized pronunciation, although it is generally not used in published literature. The terms Toishan, Toisan and Toisaan are all based on Standard Cantonese pronunciation, and are also frequently found in linguistic and non-linguistic literature. These terms have also been anglicized with the suffix -ese: Taishanese, Toishanese, and Toisanese. Of the previous three terms, Taishanese is most commonly used in academic literature, to about the same extent as the term Taishan dialect. The term Hoisanese is not used in print literature, although it appears on the internet.

Hoisanese (台 山 話) is a Chinese dialect, but it is pure peasant-speak. Historically and probably because of poverty, the vast majority of immigrants outside of China prior to the 1960's were from the Hoisan region, thus the majority of the older generations of Chinese in America speak Hoisanese. Hoisan is one of four counties (also known as Slee Yip (四 邑)) in the Pearl River Delta outside the provincial capital of Gong Jew (known before as Canton and now known as Guangzhou (廣 州), in Gong Oong (now known as Guangdong (廣 東)) province. The four counties of Slee Yip (also Romanized as Siyi, Seiyap, or Szeyup) are Hoisan (台 山), Slenwei (新 會), Hoyping (開 平), and Yinping (恩 平). In the mid to late 19th century, a significant number of Chinese emigrating to North America originated from this area, making Hoisanese the dominant variety of the Chinese language spoken in North American Chinatowns. Once, 95 percent of the Chinese in the United States, from former Washington Governor Gary Locke to Sunnyvale, CA Councilman Dean Chu, traced back to Slee Yip. Up to the 1970s, you could speak Hoisanese to almost any Chinese-American from New York to Mississippi to Hawaii and be understood. Try to find "Hoisan or Toisan," on the map, however, and you will only find "Taishan," which is the word in Mandarin. It is said that one can tell from what village or town a person is from, based on his pronunciation of words and manner of speaking. Since I am frightfully illiterate in linguistics, the Hoisanese (台 山 話) words depicted in this website's Hoisan dictionary is based on my Romanization as used in my ancestral village's of Slen War Lee (新 和 里) and Oong War (東 和).

There will be many obstacles in researching ones genealogy. A common problem will be the recording of names. Like other ethnicities entering a foreign country, Chinese immigrants often had their names anglicized by immigration officials. The different traditions regarding name order (surname followed by given name vs. the other way around) also confused matters.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the only law in American history to deny citizenship or entry based upon a specific nationality. The only immigrants allowed into the US were merchants, students, diplomats, and sons of citizens. Hence, Chinese sought ways that would allow them to stay/come to America. This led to the use of paper son/daughters. A "paper son/daughter " is a term used for young Chinese immigrants coming to the United States prior to 1944 who claimed to be a son of a citizen but were, in fact, sons/daughters on paper only. Thus, the paper “surname “ was not necessarily the true surname of the “ paper “ son/daughter. "I always wondered why a cousin's surname was a Wong but our parents would tell us youngster's that they are really from the Lew family clan." Now you know why one's surname name on government documents is different from your Chinese surname.

The appearance of the word "ah" in Chinese North American names is one example of Western misunderstanding. “ah” is not a name but a form of addressing someone by adding the prefix “ah” to his or her first name. If an ancestor’s first name appears in genealogical records as “Ahlew”, for example, it means that the first name of the ancestor was “Lew”. The actual name of the ancestor in this case would probably be lost.

Your genealogy search begins by tracking down the following two items:

  1. The proper Chinese name of your ancestor.
  2. The name of the village in China where your ancestor came from.

Chinese Names

Unlike English names, a Chinese name is like a poem with meaning. Creating a Chinese name requires considerable thought and discussion to get it just right. A complete Chinese name can consist of two or three characters. Unlike English names, the first character is the family/clan name known as the (sìngsee 姓氏) surname in English while the personal name may contain a middle and last character. Making the first character the surname shows respect to the ancestors.

China originally had two types of surnames, called sìng (姓) and see (氏). Although the two terms are now used interchangeably, they were originally different things. sing were originally tribal names, and see were clan names within each tribe. sing generally had the word for woman (女) within it, e.g. Gee (姬) and Geung (姜). Heui (許) is an example of a clan name within the Geung tribe. One's family name is his/her sing, and everyone who has that family name belongs in the same see. Basically, a see is an organization consisting of families with the same sing.

The next two characters after the surname represent the personal name. However, one of these characters in the personal name is often referred to as the family hierarchy name, also called the generation name. Men (siblings and cousins) belonging to the same generation within a clan will share a common name, which can be positioned either in the middle or at the end of the personal name. Normally its position is consistent for the associated lineage. However some lineages alternate its position from generation to generation. This generation name serves as a classifier to the hierarchical order for the generations in that particular clan. Everyone in the same generation has exactly the same middle name. The usage of this generation name is to ensure that when two people with the same surname meet, they can immediately know how they should address each other. The following is an example of how the generational name is used. Two brothers names are Lew Hee Pork (劉 希 樸) and Lew Hee Leung (劉 希 樑) and their uncles son's names are Lew Hee Toon (劉 希 榛) and Lew Hee Kuen (劉 希 坤). They all have the generational name Hee (希) in their names. The presence and use of generation names is one key to help unravel the hierarchy of the generations within a family clan. Unfortunately, many Chinese that had emigrated overseas no longer adhere to assigning a generation name to Chinese men when they got married.

Today, most Chinese have only one name, but in feudal China, it was not uncommon for women to have two and for men to have at least three different names; Sun Yat-Sen had four in addition to his surname and one added after his death (姓孫、 名文、 字德明、逸仙、 號中山樵、 諡國父). The practice was condemned as outmoded by the May 4th movement of 1919, but it is important for anyone studying Chinese history to realize that the same person may be called different names by different people. Perhaps, because the words that are used in Chinese names are often also words that may be used in everyday language. The Chinese have an obsession with names that is entirely alien to the Western mind. Another way of understanding this is the use of nicknames commonly created in Western society.

A child's True Name or Formal Name (mearng ) is usually chosen by the head of the family (not necessarily the child's parents). This was then his or her True Name, i.e. the name that was entered into the family or clan records and which will eventually go on the gravestone. Men did not use this name in everyday life, but women were usually called by their True Names. Most women had only a True Name. Most modern Chinese have only a True Name and no other name. Sun Yat-Sen's True Name was ('cultured').

A child is sometimes given a name at birth (literally a 'milk name') (gnui mearng 乳名) which was what he or she would be known as within the family. This name would not be used when the child reached adulthood except perhaps in private among close family. It is considered rude to call an adult by his or her Infant Name.

Familiar Name (do 字) is the name that a Chinese man would use in everyday life. When being introduced, this is the name that he would offer. It is the name used by his friends and by his family. Sun Yat-Sen had two Familiar Names, Ock Míng (德明) and Yeit Slen (逸仙). The second of these is pronounced 'Yat-Sen' in Cantonese.

Courtesy or Married Name (ho ) is difficult to translate into English: it is like an English nickname in that it is often selected in the same way that English nicknames are, yet it is often used when the situation demands a little more formality. A Courtesy Name may be chosen by a man's friends, but may equally be chosen by the man himself and it may have a self-deprecating flavour. Sun Yat-Sen's Courtesy Name was 'The Woodcutter of the Middle Mountain' (Jung Saan Dew 中山樵) and this is why in mainland China he is usually known as Sleurn Jung Saan (孫中山).

Generation Names

Generation names were usually given only to males, although this does vary from lineage to lineage and has changed over time. The generation name is a single character and is typically prescribed from a Generational Poem (bon-pie 班 派) specific to each lineage. These poems can vary in length from around a dozen characters to hundreds of characters. Generally, it follows the traditional Chinese poem structures of grouping in 4's, 5's or 7's. The correct grouping will lend meaning to the poem. Each successive character becomes the generation name for successive generations. After the last character of the poem is reached, the poem is usually recycled, although occasionally it may be extended or a new poem is composed. Generational poems were usually composed by a committee of family elders whenever a new lineage was established through geographical emigration or social elevation. Families sharing a common generational poem are considered to also share a common ancestor and have originated from a common geographical location. Most genealogists estimate that a generation to be a 30 year period. The Chinese character "sai" (世) for "generation" is also a shorthand for 30 years.

"A man's life begins with his ancestors and is continued in his descendants." Dr. Han Suyin.

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