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AUS Blog

AUS professor studies genealogies of Chinese families

Posted by AUS blog on Nov 13, 2013 11:00:00 AM

By Teresa Crompton

Geneology_1Clément Vincent, Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Design, CAAD, who was awarded a Faculty Research (Travel) Grant for 2012-2013, discusses his research on the printing of Chinese genealogies.

How did you use the Travel Grant?

I study genealogies of Chinese families (家譜 jia pu) and clans (族譜 zu pu, or 宗譜 zong pu). My research focuses exclusively on genealogies printed with wooden mobile characters, (木活字本mu huo zi ben), printed on xuan paper (rice paper).

The FRG Travel Grant enabled me to make a field trip in November 2012 to carry out research in Dongyuan, a village in Rui’an township in Zhejiang province, mainland China. I have consulted genealogy editions from 1616 (Ming Dynasty) to 2009, and during my visit I observed the fabrication of a new edition. I also interviewed Wang Chaohui, Wang Zhiren and Lin Chuyin - three of only eleven representative bearers of wooden movable type. Mr. Wang Chaohui learned his profession from his father in the early seventies, perpetuating a long family tradition which, according to Unesco.org (2010) began in the early 14th century. He demonstrated his ability in compiling and composing forms, and printing and carving wooden print characters.

What are ‘genealogies’?

They are the records of a family or a clan lineage. The names of male members, and their wives and sons, are recorded, with dates of birth and death. Daughters are mentioned only if they marry, and then their husbands’ names and places of origin are also given. Any prestigious members of the family may also be mentioned, including professors, high-ranking civil servants, or individuals who passed imperial exams. Wooden characters are still produced today. For example, Wang Chaohui carves fifty characters a day on average to maintain his collection of thirty thousand. The wood used is from the birchleaf pear tree Genus Pyrus, clean-cut in small smooth blocks. A finished genealogy looks like a traditional Chinese printed book - it reads from top to bottom and from right to left. As the traditional Chinese bookbinding method is used, the books are stored flat and not vertically.

Why is this tradition so resilient?

Perhaps the most important purpose is the role in ancestral worship. The ancestor cult is still important for some families and genealogy production responds to the duty to remember and honor ancestors. This is often expressed in the genealogies via statements such as ‘Our ancestors define our origin while the clan indicates a common origin for its members…When the genealogy exists, the will to search the origin exists, the act of filial piety exists. This is why the genealogy is created, to build benevolence and virtue within the family.’ Labor, care and the use of durable materials materialize family sentiments into tangible and legible memorial objects.

The undertaking of a new edition - a long and costly task - requires exchange of information and financial participation between living members of a family. All generations are aware of the project, and younger members, becoming conscious of the tradition, are more likely to volunteer and take over responsibility for future editions. Interestingly, the model and process from compilation to layout, printing and binding has changed little over the centuries, and considering the changes the world has seen in most human activities over the past centuries, this coherence is very striking.

Chinese_2Did anything surprise you?

One of the most interesting experiences was observing the making of the new edition. My interpreter and I went to a family temple and saw four men living and working together - working for 12 hours a day because there were only two weeks to go till the ceremony that takes place in the temple when the edition is complete. Two tables, each ten meters long, were covered with trays of mobile characters; each man had a copy of the last edition and the manuscript of the new one. They composed the text by placing one character at a time in the composition form. They printed a double page at a time, proofread it, and when it was correct made final copies.

In the temple I was able to see the team organization and sense the atmosphere of the work. Seeing the client interaction with the workers was also something I had never read about because historical documentation is usually about the printers’ food and accommodation. While I knew that one of the family’s tasks is to collect the data and finance the new edition, I had no idea how long it took. Altogether this process and the manuscript preparation took two years.

The final ceremony is attended by family members and printers, and includes prayer and offerings to the ancestors. The head master printer traces in red lines which symbolically link the different generations gathered in the genealogy. This is the last step in the production process. The ceremony ends with the distribution of the edition to selected family members representing each branch. Some copies are also stored in the family temple.

What is the value of the tradition?

As a designer interested in the history of my discipline I need to understand the context and process associated with the production of a piece. The final form of a work, be it a poem or a building, can satisfy or repel according to taste, but emotional responses rarely help us understand the reasons or process behind the realization. In this case the making of a genealogy book, its format, paper, layout, and kind of characters used, cannot be understood without an appreciation of the cultural, social, historical and religious traditions associated with it. The longevity of the materials and the ritual attached to the genealogy as an object are qualities that cannot easily integrate into today’s digital and industrial workflows.

For clan members, the experience of composing and printing the genealogy in the family temple is more meaningful than using computer and offset printing press. There is probably a pride in knowing that one’s family genealogy is still produced in the traditional way, because it is not a common practice even in the Zhejiang and Fujian provinces.

How does this transfer into the classroom?

Students learn to adapt and integrate techniques from the past that are still relevant. They can see that today’s practitioners can be informed by the rich history of graphic design, just as philosophy and painting are still influenced by and connected with their pasts. On a more theoretical level, case studies such as those involving Chinese genealogies demonstrate Martin Heidegger’s argument that ‘Technology is a way of revealing.’ The technology of the genealogies may ‘bring forward into appearance’ in the community the essence of identity, filiation and continuity. In other words, the materialization of the legible memorial object that these genealogies represent aids the understanding of the concept of family or clan.

Teresa Compton is a Grants Writer at the Office of Research and Graduate Studies at American University of Sharjah.



Topics: American University of Sharjah, American University of Sharjah (AUS), AUS, American University, Research, American Univesrity of Sharjah, Chinese Genealogies

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