- The Washington Times - Friday, September 20, 2002

BEIJING Beijing artist Shao Yinong is the first to concede his family is not unusual. But in a country where ancestors are revered, he has painstakingly pieced together a family archive destroyed, like thousands of others, in the Cultural Revolution.
The result is an extraordinary photographic family tree cataloging rediscovered relatives, put on display this year at a Beijing gallery.
Beyond one family's story, Mr. Shao's odyssey reflects how, after decades of turmoil, thousands of Chinese are trying to gather together their scattered roots. The process was far from simple for Mr. Shao, who spent a year tracking down family members across this vast country.
He knew 10 relatives when he started in 2000, but by the end of the process, he had met and photographed 103.
Mr. Shao, 41, said much was lost during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, when everything from the "old" society was considered bad.
"We felt so regretful because we didn't even know anything about our ancestors, where they came from and what they did," Mr. Shao said.
In traditional times, Chinese families kept a constantly updated record of members, jotting down names and birth dates of new additions and marking the date of deaths.
The family registries, which go back many generations, were usually placed in the care of the eldest son and passed down to his eldest son.
Chinese culture places strong emphasis on extended family and lineage, and family registries were an important way to stay connected.
But during the Cultural Revolution, family genealogy books known as "jia pu" were destroyed by rampaging Red Guards as part of the "Destroy the Four Olds" campaign, which aimed to crush old beliefs and habits and any remnants of "feudal" society.
Some families managed to hide their registries, but many books went up in flames.
Now, interest is resurfacing.
"Economic development and rising living standards have resulted in more people becoming interested in learning their family history nowadays," said a librarian at Shanghai Library in charge of collecting, restoring and preserving family registries.
The library holds the world's largest collection of such registries 100,000 books from about 12,000 families said the librarian, who gave his name as Chen.
Library staff, who realized the value of the books, took great risks to retrieve them from waste-paper centers and paper mills where Red Guards dumped them for recycling, he said.
Since the library opened its collection to the public in 1997, many people have visited in the hope of finding their own family registry, although only a small number have any success, he said.
Mr. Shao and his wife decided on their own research project when their son was born in 1999.
In choosing a name for him, they wanted to consult the family registry, but learned that four books painstakingly preserved for generations had disappeared most likely burned during the Cultural Revolution.
Mr. Shao had little to go on because his parents rarely discussed his extended family when he was growing up.
They were afraid of getting into trouble because some members came from suspect class backgrounds. One was a former soldier with the Kuomintang, who fought a bitter civil war with the communists, while others were landlords.
"When I became older, I had a strong desire to know. After I had my child, I wanted to understand my family even more, because I felt a stronger sense of family," Mr. Shao said.
One night, Mr. Shao's mother sat down and wrote the names of all surviving relatives she knew. The names filled two sheets of paper.
"I was in awe," Mr. Shao said.
With his mother's help, Mr. Shao and his wife travelled to Zhejiang province in east China, where many of his relatives still lived, to meet and photograph them.
He found they were farmers, employed and unemployed workers, soldiers, artists, intellectuals, nightclub hostesses, wealthy businessmen, landlords, revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries.
"We are a very average family. Our history is the history of China," Mr. Shao said.
Family secrets that were simply too sad to tell to younger generations also surfaced.
Mr. Shao learned that his mother's uncle committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution when he was threatened with public punishment for being a former Kuomintang court official and landlord.
He and his wife hope their project will encourage more Chinese people to understand their history.
"Everything that happens in China now is connected to the past," his wife, Mu Chen, said. "We realized our family's current situation is connected to the past, whether we like it or not."
"It's no coincidence that many of them remain poor farmers. Because of their background as landlords, [their children] couldn't go to school," Mrs. Mu said.
Mr. Shao's re-created registry covers six generations. Names written in calligraphy on a 33-foot scroll stretch across the walls of the Courtyard Gallery in central Beijing, alongside photos of relatives staring into the camera.
But many mysteries still remain. The original family registry, which dated back to the Song Dynasty, which ended in the 13th century, contained far more detail, relatives told Mr. Shao.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide