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Rooting out one's family history online

Updated: 2011-04-05 07:38

By Lin Qi and Guo Shuhan (China Daily)

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Rooting out one's family history online

A family tree drawn up by Zhao Jiaxin, a primary school pupil in Beijing's Chaoyang district. It traces her family roots to Central China's Henan province., an online resource for family histories, launched an art program entitled "Family in Children's Eyes" in 2009, inviting primary school pupils in Beijing to draw up their own family trees. Provided to China Daily

Rooting out one's family history online

Internet proves popular with those searching for details of their ancestry

BEIJING - Han Kelai, 24, has long been curious about the roots of his family. The native of Yangzhou, in Jiangsu province, is interested in finding out about his origins, his ancestors' names and professions and their migration routes.

Han wants to discover whether his position in life and living conditions are similar to his ancestors. He believes that the thoughts and living experiences of later generations are affected by their forefathers.

He also wonders whether there were any people who achieved eminence among his forebears.

However, he hasn't drawn up a genealogy. Nor is he patient enough to scan through materials written in the obscure ancient Chinese style at a public library.

Instead, he has gone online. The website is a genealogy portal co-established by the National Library of China (NLC) on March 5. It provides an opportunity for Han and many other people who want to learn about their family histories.

Users can search the site, which is based on NLC's trove of ancient books, for information about 500 surnames in different locations, including genealogical documents and charts, lists of well-known people in history and relationships with other families in the same place. The latest records that can be found were written during the Republic period (1911-1949). People can browse the full content of some genealogies if the manuscripts are available at the NLC and have been digitalized.

Registered users can also create their own family trees by filling in a template. They can contact other users with the same surnames, both at home and abroad, via the website's interior e-mail system.

"Family is the basic unit of a nation. The history of each family consists of the fundamental elements of a nation's historical picture," said Xie Dongrong, vice-director of the NLC Ancient Books Library, who is tasked with the website project.

He said an increasing number of readers have come to his library's genealogy reading room over the past few years, most of them elderly. He explained that part of the reason behind the launch of the website was to attract younger generations familiar with the digital world.

The website drew 120,000 visitors on the day it went live and total page views exceeded 2.5 million within three weeks.

"China boasts a long-standing history of keeping family records. Genealogy was seen as a family bibliography from the very beginning. Today, it provides a cultural identity and a sense of belonging, because big families have disintegrated into nuclear families and the concept of family is fading in the modern society," said Xiao Fang, an ethnography professor at Beijing Normal University.

"People today live under huge pressure from study and work. They migrate to places that are far way from their hometowns and they can't be with their families much of the time. Therefore, the Internet has become a bonding tool for separated family members and is better than many other communication tools," said Shi Aiwu, business development manager at

Launched in 2008, is arguably the largest online resource for Chinese family histories. It provides subscribers with an extensive collection of digital historical records, based on cooperation between Shanghai Library, Hunan Library and Shanxi Academy of Social Sciences. Also, it serves as a family network where people can build family trees and generate their own content, such as photos and written stories, to continue the genealogy.

Its registered users worldwide have created nearly 20 million family trees containing more than 2 billion profiles. The pool of user-contributed photos, documents and stories has grown to 45 million.

"We not only want to satisfy people's curiosity about the lives of their ancestors; we also encourage them to preserve and share their current lives with their families and relatives via the Internet. And the records people are keeping now will become a source of inspiration for their descendants decades and hundreds of years later," Shi said.

Han did not find any genealogies rooted in Yangzhou at NLC's website. He said it came as no surprise because he believes genealogies should only be written and passed down by families that contained high officials or noted intellectuals.

Shi said some people paid little attention to their genealogy because they didn't have noteworthy ancestors. However, she believes that every person can be the center of his or her family if he or she started to keep a genealogy. And knowing that what he or she is writing will affect descendants years later will turn the author into a better person today.

Lu, a subscriber of in Hengyang, in Hunan province, who declined to reveal his full name, said he started to be interested in genealogy after his mother was diagnosed with lung cancer at the end of last year.

"My father passed away years ago. My mother lives in Qinghai province, quite a distance from me. It occurred to me that when my mom dies, the ties of blood between my parents and me will become even weaker. I can't help but ask myself, 'Where did I come from and where am I going?'," Lu said.

It took him two days to find his family genealogy, which he had put aside and forgotten about for years. He was nevertheless baffled by the strange names of ancestors and found it rather dull.

He conducted online research and discovered Out of curiosity he downloaded from the website a mobile application program for family trees. He created a family tree and texted it to his relatives. A few minutes later, they were making their own additions to the genealogy.

"It is not material abundance but family love that can dispel loneliness. Life will disappear, yet the blood linkage will endure," Lu said. launched another mobile application called "Relative Circles" on March 31, enabling users to extend their family relationships and communicate en masse.

NLC's website plans to complete migration routes for all provided surnames, along with relevant documents such as the geography of the places where the family once lived and information about family memorial halls.


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