When Legacy Lore and Research Collide
Surprise! Not everything our family tells us is true
This morning I received an email that torpedoed one of my family’s central myths. My father and his siblings always told the rest of us that their grandfather was “the Viceroy of Canton.” Naturally, our extended family took that as gospel— even if we could never identify the specific viceroy whose dates in Guangzhou (Canton) lined up with my grandfather’s birth date there in 1876. Since my grandfather was just a boy when his father died, we had little first-hand information to go on, but I finally deduced that “our” viceroy had to be Liu Changyou, whose name resembled my grandfather’s, Liu Chengyu, and who had been Viceroy of Canton in the early 1870s.
Today, though, I received the first bit of research from My China Roots, the genealogical service I recently hired to look into my family’s Chinese history. Our supposed viceroy was the first casualty of this project:
It turns out that Liu Changyou 劉長佑 on the doc you shared with us was not your great grandfather.
Liu Chengyu's father was called Liu Zhaolin 劉兆霖 whose literary name 號 was Yuchen 雨臣. His ancestral place was Jiangxia, Hubei Province 湖北江夏(Google map).
He was a 拔貢(" a student plucked up and offered as tribute"), which means he was an outstanding graduate of the local Confucian School and admitted to the National University. Then he worked as an employee in Grand Secretariat 內閣 of Qing Government, later became a magistrate in Guangzhou Prefecture 廣州府 and Chaozhou Prefecture 潮州府. We found he was the county magistrate 知縣 of Renhua County 仁化縣 in 1861, and was the county magistrate of Sunning County 新寧縣 (aka Toisan 台山 now, ancestral place for many American Chinese) from 1872-1874.
After retirement, he went back to Wuchang 武昌 and taught at home. He was strict with his children. He died in 1888 when Liu Chengyu was 13 years old, and your grandfather was raised by his mother Ms.Fang 方.
Now, there’s no shame in this news. A magistrate in old China held a civil rank of distinction. But not on a par with that of a viceroy, or provincial governor. How, then, did this myth of exalted rank develop?
The making of a family myth
I can’t be sure, but I suspect my grandmother, an American who always played fast and loose with my Chinese grandfather’s identity. When they met, he was a young scholar revolutionary, studying at UC Berkeley, who needed her tutorial help with his English. After he rescued her from her burning boarding house during the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, she expected him to make her his “American princess.”
They took off on an odyssey across the western U.S. to find a pastor who would marry them. The headlines that chased them to Wyoming relayed all sorts of outlandish claims about who they were and where they came from:
And because she anticipated the bigotry that would continue to hound them when they tried to lease an apartment or settle in white neighborhoods, my grandmother twisted her new husband’s Chinese name Liu into one that could pass for English or Spanish — Luis.
It would make perfect sense, then, for her to unilaterally “promote” her late father-in-law from magistrate to viceroy in order to impress and subdue their American critics. Perhaps that elevation amused the newly anointed Don Luis. Or perhaps he never even knew what she was doing.
Although my grandparents had four children together and never divorced, the truth is that they never really shared the same world. After the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, they left San Francisco for China, where my grandmother stayed for the next two decades. But after a brief spell in Beijing, she refused to live anywhere but Shanghai, despite the fact that my grandfather’s work with the new Republican government kept moving him from capital to capital. For nearly ten years, my grandfather was based in Nanjing, but my grandmother stayed in the foreign settlements of Shanghai until she permanently returned to America in 1936. After which she burned almost all documents related to her life in China.
A family divided
“She always, always viewed China as an alien place,” my father’s eldest sister once said of their mother. And if you feel this alienated, what difference does it make if your husband’s father was a magistrate or a viceroy? Just pick the one that sounds most prestigious and eliminate all evidence to the contrary.
The result was the kind of genealogical puzzle that, I suspect, is common in mixed-race families of immigrants. My grandmother never learned to speak or read Chinese, and she discouraged her children from speaking anything but English. None of her grandchildren, myself included, can read any but the most rudimentary Chinese characters. Not even the names of our own ancestors. So the myth of the viceroy grandfather lingered and took root. Until it got yanked out today.
I now must recalibrate much of what I’ve written about the family. My real great grandfather, it would seem, is both less intimidating and less surreal than I imagined. But The Magistrate, as I’ll now think of him, is also a more approriate parent for the revolutionary firebrand that his son became. I’d always wondered how my grandfather could work so tirelesly to overthrow the imperial system that had enriched and promoted his own father. It makes much more sense for the son of a judge to become enthralled with justice and democracy.
This kind of research boomerang is an occupational hazard for any serious memoirist. I share this story along with the warning to never take family lore at face value. If you ask a genealogical question, you’d best be prepared for the answer you least expect. Our families are often the least reliable narrators of our family histories!
I first learned about My China Roots through the documentary Found.
Read more about that HERE.
And if you’d like to know more about working with My China Roots, please leave a comment for me on this newsletter!