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Family trees grow profitable business

Updated: 2011-02-04 10:46

By Yang Yang (China Daily USA)

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Genealogists make hay as more people starting to trace their Chinese roots

BEIJING - More people have been showing interest in their Chinese family trees over the past few decades, in turn fueling a lucrative business for "specialist trackers" of genealogy.

"My monthly income from building family trees surpasses 10,000 yuan ($1,500)," said Wang Geng, a popular genealogist in Nanjing, capital of East China's Jiangsu province. Wang meets about 20 clients from home and abroad every week.

The price of tracing a family tree is usually about 100,000 yuan, but a number of wealthy clients will pay much more to record their family's history as soon as possible, Wang said.

"A successful businessman once came to me and offered 1 million yuan to search for revered figures in his family history."

Family records play an important role in traditional Chinese culture. Compared with Westerners growing up in religious traditions, Chinese people stress more on their ancestors and family, said Mo Luo, a scholar at the Beijing-based Chinese National Academy of Arts.

"China has no dominant religion in history, but Chinese people have kept a primitive religion, that is, worshipping ancestors, " he said.

"Younger generations feel that they need to save the memory of their families for ancestors as well as descendants."

Shanghai Library, considered the largest public library in China, keeps about 17,000 original titled versions of family archives, making the collection one of the complete kinds in the world. The library started offering reference services in 1996 and receives thousands of readers flocking to its records or website for information on families every year.

"More than half of the readers are middle-aged or elderly people who want to learn about their family history," said Fan Zhaoming, director of the reference department of the library's historical documents center.

Yan Jinxiu, a genealogist who launched the Chengdu Pudie Culture Co in the capital of Southwest China's Sichuan province in 1993, said the business of building family trees has been rising in recent years with the growing recognition of the significance of building family records.

"I definitely expect to see more of the practice," he said.

Last month, a family tree society with more than 100 members was founded in Shaoxing, East China's Zhejiang province. The society aims to provide a platform for people interested in family trees to promote and standardize local genealogy-building work, said Guo Huanyu, secretary of the society.

According to Guo, a total of 300 family tree books have been revised in Shaoxing, with 100 books currently being edited.

Business people in Shaoxing, a wealthy city located in the east coast of Zhejiang, spend hundreds of thousands of yuan hiring genealogists to build their family trees. They consider it important to worship their ancestors after becoming financially successful.

"Tracing family trees also helps these businessmen to build a social network," said Wang Xiaohong, an amateur genealogist who also works as a reporter with the Qianjiang Evening News, a Zhejiang-based newspaper.

Many successful business people in Shaoxing have also donated money to their communities and want their contributions to charity recorded in their family records so that their descendants can learn from them, Wang said.

Overseas Chinese and their descendants also return to the mainland to trace their family history.

"Many of my clients are Chinese or their descendants are from the US, Singapore, Australia and other Asian areas outside the Chinese mainland," Wang Geng said.

Recording a family can be an occasion for celebration for a clan and it will increase its solidarity, Wang said.

Terry Gou, board chairman of Taiwan Honghai Group, was born in Taiwan but identifies himself as a "Shanxi man". He founded a high school for excellent but poor students in Taiyuan, capital of North China's Shanxi province. In 2008 alone, he donated 15 million yuan to the school, China News Agency reported.

Gou also invested $10 million in the movie Empire of Silver, a story about Shanxi businessmen at the end of 19th century, to popularize their spirit of benevolence and righteousness, the agency reported.

For Mo Luo, it is about a very common spiritual need. "People always want to know where they are from.

"Although a clan's tree is printed on paper, it actually represents the tablets of the clan's ancestors," Mo Luo said, citing the tradition in some rural areas where people kowtow to their family-tree books on the first day of the Chinese New Year.

Since the May 4th Movement, an anti-imperialist movement on May 4, 1919, and especially during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), there have been criticisms of family trees as a symbol of conservative thought that impeded the progress of Chinese society and culture until the 1990s, when the country was more open and many people resumed tracing their family trees.

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