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Sam Wilcox / Staff Illustrator

My fingers run along the rice paper pages as my eyes trace the inked lines for three characters: Yan Ji Ci.

I imagine the description to be short and basic, something along the lines of “youngest of three, born on a winter’s night in 1900 in the city of Dongyang.” This volume was published in 1920, when my great-grandfather would have only been twenty years old. He was born on the outskirts of Dongyang to a farming family that earned barely enough money to send him to school. I’m skeptical as to whether his family would have even been included in such a pretty and formal-looking genealogy book. But if my great-grandfather were included in a printed genealogy, I figure that Columbia University would have it. At 20,000 volumes, Columbia’s C.V. Starr East Asian Library (formerly known as the Chinese Studies Library) boasts the largest collection of Chinese genealogical records in North America.

Dr. Wang Chengzhi, a bespectacled Chinese studies librarian, seems confident that I will find the genealogy of my great-grandfather here. We sit in a windowless, musty room in the basement of the East Asian Library. A librarian at Columbia for 16 years, Dr. Wang knows the East Asian Library’s archives like the back of his hand. His optimistic energy is infectious, and we eagerly begin combing through Columbia’s online cataloging database for Yan family genealogies.

As we crack open volume after volume, these jia pu—genealogy records—become a kaleidoscope into everyday life, each transforming into a new world that sprawls out in front of me. The precious legacy of Chinese culture and history, these jia pu, are invaluable treasures for scholarship and collective memory. More than 90 years ago, a handful of librarians and scholars risked their lives to save these jia pu during the devastating Sino-Japanese War by sending them to Columbia.

Decades later, these same genealogical records were used by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (colloquially known as the Mormons) to perform proxy baptism, a ritual in which full immersion baptism is performed in a temple by a living person on behalf of someone who is dead, and in this case, on deceased Chinese ancestors. Columbia, in owning these genealogies, assumes the role of a gatekeeper. The institution not only has ownership over these records, but also has the power to grant access to those who seek them. Though jia pu are ancient, today they still live within the local cultures of communities in China and throughout the Chinese diaspora.

I’ve come to the library looking for something more fulfilling than standard family trees and ethnic percentages—I want short anecdotes and colorful pictures that narrate how my great-grandfather lived day-to-day. In my hunt to find the narrative of my ancestors, unexpected and intriguing stories leap off each page of the genealogies.


When John Fairbank stepped onto the soil of Chongqing, China in 1942, he was assistant to the American ambassador to China by day and special agent for Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency) by night. Armed with a Nikon camera and rolls of film, the young Chinese studies scholar’s initial task was to set about compiling books and resources about the Imperial Japanese Army to assist the American war effort. Fairbank found himself befriending a number of Chinese alumni of the now-defunct Columbia University School of Library Service.

Fairbank’s crucial partner was Yuan Tung-li. Completing a fellowship at Columbia and later receiving Columbia’s University Medal for Excellence in 1935, Yuan had returned to Beijing the following year to serve as the inaugural Vice President of the National Library of China.

Portrait of Yuan Tung-li. Taken from the Historical Photograph Collection at Columbia University Libraries.

In 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army bombed and surrounded the Beijing proper. Universities across the country found themselves struggling to feed their faculty and students and tensions ran high as the country braced itself for a gruesome war. Yuan had sent hundreds of cartons of rare books from Beijing to Shanghai in 1937. Not long thereafter, Yuan commenced urgent preparation with Fairbank and Yoh Peter Liang-Mu, Columbia School of Library Service alum and librarian at the Shanghai Library, to keep these rare records safe from the destruction of war.

Dr. Wang recounts this improbable story with an excited mix of English and Chinese, sprinkled with animated hand gestures. As I examine another Yan family jia pu, I ask the energetic librarian how Columbia came to own these genealogies. Immediately, Dr. Wang’s eyes light up, and he brandishes a grin so wide and boyishly mischievous that I feel I am glimpsing into the most exciting secret adventure in all the world.

In 1942, Fairbank, Yuan and Yoh began entreating the American Library Association in hopes of asking the United States Department of State to purchase Chinese rare books and manuscripts in bulk; these documents would all serve the Sino-American war effort. The State Department eventually allocated $100,000 (equivalent to $1,300,000 today) to buy select collections of rare Chinese books and manuscripts. The three men spent months curating the collection and devising ways to circumvent Japanese detection by air and by water and ship them to the United States.

An original letter Fairbank sent to Columbia in 1943. Provided by Dr. Wang Cheng Zhi of Columbia University Libraries.

According to Dr. Wang, many of the genealogies in the library arrived at Columbia during these first exchanges. The University was among the first to purchase Confucian classics, contemporary manuscripts, and other rare books from China in 1944. Since Yuan and Yoh were both alumni of the university (Dr. Wang comments with a hint of pride), the president of Columbia Library Services gave them full rein of the transactions and the funds necessary to safely transport the chosen rare books and manuscripts to the shores of New York City.

Unbeknownst to Yuan, Yoh, and Fairbank, however, a few decades later, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints trained their sights on these shipments of genealogies. The Chinese jia pu that these three men worked hard to secure would be repurposed for something far different from what they envisioned.

As I search for any trace of my great-grandfather in the archives, I notice something peculiar: Many of the genealogies are labeled “microfilmed for the Genealogical Society of Salt Lake City, Utah.” The Society (now known as FamilySearch) is the genealogy arm of The Church of Latter-day Saints, and has a Granite Vault tucked 700 feet deep into the side of a canyon in Utah. For over a century, Family History Centers, a branch of the Church, have actively collected millions of family records.

One of the main tenets of the faith of The Church of Latter-day Saints is proxy baptism—baptism for the dead. The Church justifies this practice with quotes from scripture (“Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all?”), claiming that the deceased possess free agency to convert to the Church. The Church has compiled the International Genealogical Index, a list of 400 million names who have been baptized or are cleared for the rite.

Microfilmed genealogy file showing reproduction for Genealogy Society of Salt Lake City, Utah. Taken from Offsite Collections at Columbia University Libraries.

The biographical information found in Chinese jia pu allows proxy baptisms to be performed for the deceased ancestors recorded in the genealogies. Collecting these jia pu, then, became a part of the Church’s expansive proselytizing campaign. While I comb through the school’s collection of microfilmed jia pu, I find copies reproduced for the Family History Center as early as 1975. Columbia professor of anthropology Myron Cohen jokes that “[the Church of Latter-day Saints] has probably baptized all of the Chinese people in the genealogies they own by now.”

But recent outcry generated by this practice has not stopped the Church’s momentum. In 2008, the Vatican sent a letter directing Catholic dioceses all over the world to prohibit Mormons from accessing records contained in parish registers. But as of 2012, the Genealogical Society of Utah has established a partnership with the Shanghai Library, which holds the largest collection of Chinese genealogy in the world.

The FamilySearch and the Family History Centers provide a colossal reservoir of records for researchers and amateurs alike. As a research organization, FamilySearch has access to Columbia’s Chinese jia pu collection (FamilySearch explicitly lists many other research institutions across the country as its partners) to photocopy and duplicate volumes of these rare records for their own uses.

Each record, I realize, may still be the source of pride and joy for a living family in China today. “A written genealogy… represents human behavior,” Cohen offers. In China, renewing one’s family genealogy calls for a seven-day celebration that involves the entire family and a refurbishment of the family’s ancestral halls. Cohen reminds me that genealogies are just as much about forming a community with people in the present day as they are about reaching an ancient ancestor. “Even here in Chinatown, you have these family associations—the Li family association, the Wang family association— [but] they're not family associations, they focus on a common ancestor that unites lots and lots of families. … There’s a huge genealogical imagination built into local culture,” Cohen muses.

It’s in this moment I feel the full force of how much these jia pu records have come to mean to me, and how invested I now am in the stories and characters living in them. My great-grandfather passed away in 1996 after a long life as a celebrated educator, physicist, and father of six. It wasn’t a lack of information about him that drove me to search for him in the genealogies; my great-grandfather left memoirs and momentos and I have a clamorous band of great-aunts and great-uncles who are eager to share their memories of him. Ever since I was a waddling toddler, I’ve heard stories from my mother about his legacy modernizing physics research in China and his help in founding the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

But I wanted to get to know my great-grandfather beyond all of the accolades and public recognition. This is what drove me to look for him in the tradition of Chinese jia pu: my desire to understand him as a part of a living culture, as one individual embedded in a much larger narrative to which I can also belong.

Yuan, Yoh, and Fairbank, too, saw these records as invaluable documents which should be kept safe and made available to future generations. I ultimately could not find my great-grandfather’s genealogy in the archives of the East Asian Library, but I now recognize how important it may be for someone who’s looking to learn about their ancestors by accessing this collection.

In my last conversation with Dr. Wang, he admits that there is much more work to be done to create a database that can be used to intelligently navigate these records. Currently, the vast genealogical collection at Columbia has not been digitized and is not easily available to the public. There is a scarcity of comprehensive digital databases—private or public—that provide access to Chinese genealogies. Dr. Wang implied that anyone looking to recover their genealogies would have to visit a major library like Shanghai Library or Columbia’s East Asian Library. While nascent genealogy companies like My China Roots are beginning to form, the herculean task of digitizing the genealogies of billions of people remains largely untackled.

Perhaps the next step for the East Asian Library is to bring these records into the 21st century by dedicating resources to digitizing them, and serving as a more vigilant and proactive gatekeeper. Regardless, it is undeniable that the library bore witness to and quietly held these memories for more than a century. In 2013, on the 110th anniversary of the East Asian Library, Dr. Wang acknowledged its mission. He writes, “ quietly guard history is the duty of the librarian. We are not looking for fanfare, but we will use simple words to record the salient actions of the celebrated Fairbank and Yuan, and Yoh, who passed away in relative anonymity.”

Editor’s note: Interviews with Dr. Wang were conducted partially in Mandarin. Documents from the C.V. Starr East Asian Library, which all lacked official English translations, were originally written in Classical Chinese. All translations were made by the author, who is fluent in both Mandarin and English and has studied Classical Chinese.

Enjoy leafing through our sixth issue!

China Columbia Imperialism World War 2 LDS ancestry genealogy Kent East Asian Studies Library