Rooting out one's family history online

BEIJING - Han Kelai, 24, has long been curious about the roots of his family. The native of Yangzhou, in Jiangsu province, is interested in finding out about his origins, his ancestors' names and professions and their migration routes.

Han wants to discover whether his position in life and living conditions are similar to his ancestors. He believes that the thoughts and living experiences of later generations are affected by their forefathers.

He also wonders whether there were any people who achieved eminence among his forebears.

However, he hasn't drawn up a genealogy. Nor is he patient enough to scan through materials written in the obscure ancient Chinese style at a public library.

Instead, he has gone online. The website http://ourroots.nlc.gov.cn is a genealogy portal co-established by the National Library of China (NLC) on March 5. It provides an opportunity for Han and many other people who want to learn about their family histories.

Users can search the site, which is based on NLC's trove of ancient books, for information about 500 surnames in different locations, including genealogical documents and charts, lists of well-known people in history and relationships with other families in the same place. The latest records that can be found were written during the Republic period (1911-1949). People can browse the full content of some genealogies if the manuscripts are available at the NLC and have been digitalized.

Registered users can also create their own family trees by filling in a template. They can contact other users with the same surnames, both at home and abroad, via the website's interior e-mail system.

"Family is the basic unit of a nation. The history of each family consists of the fundamental elements of a nation's historical picture," said Xie Dongrong, vice-director of the NLC Ancient Books Library, who is tasked with the website project.

He said an increasing number of readers have come to his library's genealogy reading room over the past few years, most of them elderly. He explained that part of the reason behind the launch of the website was to attract younger generations familiar with the digital world.

The website drew 120,000 visitors on the day it went live and total page views exceeded 2.5 million within three weeks.

"China boasts a long-standing history of keeping family records. Genealogy was seen as a family bibliography from the very beginning. Today, it provides a cultural identity and a sense of belonging, because big families have disintegrated into nuclear families and the concept of family is fading in the modern society," said Xiao Fang, an ethnography professor at Beijing Normal University.

"People today live under huge pressure from study and work. They migrate to places that are far way from their hometowns and they can't be with their families much of the time. Therefore, the Internet has become a bonding tool for separated family members and is better than many other communication tools," said Shi Aiwu, business development manager at Jiapu.com.

Launched in 2008, Jiapu.com is arguably the largest online resource for Chinese family histories. It provides subscribers with an extensive collection of digital historical records, based on cooperation between Shanghai Library, Hunan Library and Shanxi Academy of Social Sciences. Also, it serves as a family network where people can build family trees and generate their own content, such as photos and written stories, to continue the genealogy.

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