Researching and building Chinese family history and genealogy in curriculum.

Author:Chao, Sheau-yueh J.

Historians, sociologists, ethnologists, and even non-specialists have long been interested in the study of people's past human behavior on social and historical evidence relating to a family or clan. Historically speaking, a central part of Chinese family tradition has been to revere ancestors, and this tradition is still observed today by many Chinese families. Chinese American families have generally kept their genealogical records, thereby certifying their pedigrees. The preservation of other evidence relating to their past, such as photos, videos, diaries, awards, property records, obituaries, birth certificates, immigration records, marriage licenses, military records, household registries, and so on has also been important to these families. Chinese families have a strong sense of their origins and have carried on their genealogical traditions for centuries. Respect for the elders and ancestors is considered one of the outstanding virtues of Chinese culture. The importance of this trait is recognized in the record-keeping traditions and clan genealogies fostered for centuries within the context of Confucian philosophy.

While searching for their cultural identities, Chinese Americans have also striven for achievement in the United States. (1) The country has become home to some 500,000 people each year, claiming them as legal immigrants since the 1960s, and the number has increased dramatically each year. (2) A large percentage of these immigrants are ethnic Chinese in origin. Chinese immigrants first came as laborers, merchants, preachers, diplomats, and scholars, and worked in industry, business, religion, politics, and education, as well as in many other fields. These immigrants, who came from a culture that traditionally put great emphasis on family rules and traditions, were at first reluctant to reveal their personal histories. Many of them were facing the problems of struggling to survive, fear of political persecution, and, most importantly, the inquiries of immigration authorities that led them to shun exposure to media and the public. (3) Although some personal histories have been lost over the years to assimilation by interracial marriages, as well as through the loss of ethnic culture, language, and memory, younger generations have a renewed interest in the past. More politically involved than their ancestors, new generations of Chinese Americans have become conscious of finding their origins and reviving their histories.

Perceptions regarding the importance of Chinese family history and genealogical research have changed tremendously, especially in recent years. Scholars are now studying Chinese genealogies to supplement their research in areas such as history, geography, economics, social science, demography, religion, migration, ethnology, and the history of Overseas Chinese. Aside from contributions to the academic field, Chinese immigrants and their descendants find this research extremely fascinating and rewarding. For some of them, researching family history and records often uncovers prominent ancestors in their own families, leading to increased pride in their clan origin. Books, newspaper articles, workshops, conferences, and family visits to China or other foreign countries are the logical results of this heightened heritage awareness. They want to trace their family histories and openly discuss their historical backgrounds through active participation in family history associations, genealogical societies, conferences, blogs, and online forums relating to Chinese genealogies or jiapu.


There has been a revival of interest in the study of family history and ethnic genealogy since the 1970s. The revival first began in the United States with "the quest for personal origins" and later became extremely popular as "a social phenomenon." (4) A catalyst for this genealogical revolution was Alex Haley's best seller Roots, which burst upon the national consciousness and signaled the emergence of a new cultural context as a potentially important benchmark in U.S. race relations. Haley's book embodied a major transformation in the American culture of genealogy, promoting new interests in cultural diversity. Over time, the use of family history assignments in teaching evolved, becoming integrated in curricula among college institutions and high schools. Unlike other fields of American history, Asian American history presents challenges to the teaching and building of courses in curriculum. There are fewer records in archives devoted to Asian American history than there are for other ethnic genealogies because the primary sources used for historical research are either scattered across the United States or simply do not exist. Additionally, other materials collected by research institutions have restricted use or are in foreign holdings. Studies have also found that many undergraduates are not interested in historiography or Asian American history. (5) Instead, they are more interested in learning and gaining a broader understanding of their personal or family histories. Instructors have to make more creative use of their students' time in the classroom by applying various approaches, including family history questionnaires about immigration experiences, history of settlements for their parents and grandparents, and their adjustments to American life, as well as detailed family history projects using census materials and original genealogical sources found in family history libraries and genealogical centers.

A review of current literature in this field shows that there are case studies and examples of teaching methods or experiences that could make an impact on students, instructors, and readers interested in teaching and building the Asian American history, genealogy, or immigration studies into the curriculum.

A college professor in Massachusetts explored his teaching methods through blending the history of migration with students' personal experiences by having them conduct oral history interviews with their immediate family members in order to make connections between their personal lives. (6) He also encouraged students to concentrate on themselves and write about their lives as Asian Americans. For the non-Asian American students, the assignment required that they interview an Asian American and record and reflect upon this other person's life.

At a public school in Maryland, a new history course was introduced to the students that consisted of three interesting exercises for the study of immigration history, especially for the period between 1870 and 1920. (7) The first exercise involved having the students either visit a cemetery where relatives were buried or select some grave sites that they found unusual or interesting, and then having them record their findings, such as compiling family charts, tables, drawings, and photographs, or any pertinent information found on the gravestones. In the second exercise, students were...

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