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Carving Family Trees


Text and photographs by Zhuang Yingchang

The venerable Lan Family Ancestral Temple appeared bereft yet grandiose, covered in the drizzle of the midsummer night. Wang Chaohui, 57, sat in its high and spacious hall busily sorting various traditional movable wooden printing blocks with the aid of thick glasses.

One of the largest families in Haikou Town, Qingtian County, Zhejiang Province, the Lan family invited Wang, the best known local genealogist, to update their family history and print a new copy. Local genealogists, colloquially called “genealogy masters,” compile and revise family trees before printing them in thread-bound books. Genealogists call the practice of compiling clan trees and printing them with traditional movable wooden blocks “ziji.”

Two ancient Chinese inventions - movable-type printing, invented by Bi Sheng from 1041 to 1048, and movable wooden type, invented in 1298 by Wang Zhen - are used in ziji. The process usually starts with cutting characters in relief on upper surfaces of small wooden blocks. Then the master will sort the characters he or she needs for the text before laying them on different pages to make the print. Today, ancient printing techniques are still used in Dongyuan Village, Rui’an City, Zhejiang Province.

Wang and Movable Wooden Type

The Cheng Clan Tree, which Wang Chaohui spent almost a year compiling and printing, is one of his favorite works.

In 2007, the Cheng clan of Yitou Village in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, came to Wang after hearing that he was a proficient master of compiling genealogy. Specifically, they asked him to help build a family tree for Cheng Zhiping, who immigrated to Gabon when he was young and married a local woman. His son ended up serving as Gabon’s finance minister, foreign minister, and eventually president of the 59th Session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Wang carefully collected and sorted documents related to the legendary family and completed the work in a year. The Cheng family invested more than 70,000 yuan in the project. Once the family tree was completed and bound in a book, the Chengs invited Wang as the guest of honor to a celebration just for the occasion.

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