Searching for roots in China


Play episode:

This week, Kaiser chats with Huihan Lie, founder of the genealogical research startup MyChinaRoots, and with two of his colleagues, Clotilde Yap and Chrislyn Choo. The three have fascinating things to say about why a growing number of people are taking a new interest in their ancestry in China, how their company goes about finding information on the family histories of people even several generations removed from China, and some of the surprising and occasionally scandalous things they unearth when they start digging.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

5:17: While working as a consultant, Huihan began to research his own family history on the side. He describes the meaning of the experience to him: “I went to some ancestral villages on my father’s and my mother’s side, and I had never felt such a deep impact, such a personal connection to myself, to history, also to my parents, my family, and my grandfather. And as I started speaking to other people about my experience, I noticed the effect that it had on them.”

21:57: What are some of the methods that the team at MyChinaRoots uses to investigate undocumented family lines? Clotilde says that there are sometimes extraordinary clues written on tombstones, where ancestors “would have transcribed their names depending on the dialect that they spoke, but also the language that they spoke in the country of arrival.” She adds that some Chinese graves include not only the names of ancestors but also their hometowns back in China.

24:54: What remained of Confucian-rooted family records, or 族谱 zúpǔ, which one could assume were destroyed, after the Cultural Revolution? Huihan explains that their success rate of finding these records are quite high, roughly 80 percent. “A lot of it, of course, has [been destroyed]. But very importantly, in the south, there was a big resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s of clans getting back together and, basically, elderly villagers doing a collective brain dump and reestablishing and republishing their collective family records.”

51:14: In a race against time, the team at MyChinaRoots is making efforts to preserve family histories as well as investigate them. They are in the process of creating an online database for customers to interact and connect with relatives. Huihan tells Kaiser that there is “nothing left” of his own mother’s ancestral village, stating, “What we feel strongly about is preserving these cultural treasures because we wouldn’t want to stop economic development, even if we could. But what we can do is preserve cultural heritage online, and let it live on virtually.”


Clotilde: A food blog on modern Chinese cooking, The Omnivore’s Cookbook, complete with starter kits and a guide to essential Chinese spices and ingredients.

Chrislyn: The one-stop shop for pop culture television, TV Tropes.

Huihan: “Haitian Fight Song,” by Charles Mingus — in Huihan’s words, the “most intense, greasy, fat, ugly, in-your-face music” available.

Kaiser: A Richmond, Virginia-based band named Collin Phils, which Kaiser saw live in Chapel Hill. Soon to be headed to tour throughout China — check out the tour dates on the website.

This podcast was edited and produced by Kaiser Kuo and Jason MacRonald.