On January 8, 2019, Sannie Lewis, a Malaysian American from American Fork, Utah, slipped and slid as she climbed a muddy path up a tree-covered hill in rural Guangxi Province, China. At the top of the hill, a Chinese family—her Chinese family—welcomed her. Although she had never met them before, she had already come to know and love them from more than 7,000 miles away. 

At an ancient ancestral cottage still used by her family, relatives were gathered from throughout the village and surrounding countryside to greet her.

 “Because they were so welcoming, I felt like I
had an instant connection with them,” Sannie said.

After a series of introductions and stories, a distant cousin presented Sannie with a 1,000-page book—a jiapu, or a Chinese compiled genealogy. The jiapu covered 77 generations of her family reaching back to her first known ancestor, Lu Tong, who was born in northern China during the fourth century B.C.

This unlikely family reunion would have seemed impossible just a year earlier. 

The Clues

Sannie
was born in Malaysia to Chinese parents who immigrated there before the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Sannie’s
journey to find her family began in September 2017 when she went to Malaysia after
her mother’s death to gather her belongings. Among her mother’s things, Sannie discovered
a Chinese booklet of her family genealogy.

Because
Sannie had attended an English school, she could not read the faded, nearly
illegible characters. Although she had learned to speak Cantonese, she could
neither read nor write Chinese. She nearly disposed of the book, but decided
instead to take it home to the United States.

the village where sannie met her family

Help with the Language

Earlier,
Sannie’s mother had told a friend, Danielle Leach, of the genealogy book she
had. When Sannie returned home from Malaysia, Danielle’s husband, Eric Leach, approached
her about the book. Eric is an IT specialist with FamilySearch . He spent
two years in Taiwan, where he learned Chinese. After returning home, he earned
a master’s degree in Chinese and Chinese history. He was willing to help her
translate the book.

According to Sannie, Eric went the full distance to assist her. He translated the entire genealogy of her mother’s line. Much information was ancient, but Eric was up to the task. He interpreted the Chinese Lunar calendar dates and traced ancient names to their modern versions. He wrote to the provinces and cities to get help in finding Sannie’s maternal family, the Loke family, and they responded.

“He was wonderful. What he found strikes deep into my heart.
I owe much to my ancestors, and they are waiting for me to do their genealogy
work,” Sannie said.

The possibility of finding her ancestors had seemed remote. Sannie
knew neither of her grandfathers. Her parents, who divorced, knew little about
their ancestry. Her grandmothers had passed away, and no one had kept
documents.

 Information and
connection were completely cut off, Sannie explained. Although she was
interested, she saw no way to find her ancestry. She glossed over it and
thought, “Someday I’ll do my genealogy. Nobody has any information. I don’t
even know where to begin.”

But the call to find her past beckoned to her. “When Eric
asked me for the genealogy book, I thought, ‘It will know where to go.’ He
translated the story from where the family began—back to 300–400 B.C.” Eric
also gathered background on the family story from being able to read the
language.

Relatives in China

Sannie’s son, anticipating a two-week winter break from
school, wanted to visit his ancestral land. Sannie was hesitant to go. However,
she introduced him to Eric, who mentored him.

Eric knew other Chinese dialects, so he accompanied Sannie
and her son to China and interpreted for them. To Sannie’s delight, some of her
relatives spoke Cantonese so she could speak with them herself.

Sannie learned that during the Cultural Revolution, several jiapu,
including the jiapu of Sannie’s maternal Loke family, were destroyed. However, the
family quickly rerecorded the genealogy before it was forgotten.

a closeup of a jiapu

 Sannie was deeply
moved by her cousins’ generosity in giving her a copy of their book. As she tearfully
thanked them, they kept repeating the words “Yang gai de,” a phrase referring
to an inner drive to share with family. “It’s what we owe to each other, what
we owe to our family, what we owe to our ancestors,” Sannie explained. 

The jiapu Sannie’s family gave her was an update of her
mother’s book. It included a little information about her maternal grandfather
and two sons. Sannie supplied additional information that she knew. Eric wrote it
and sent it to Sannie’s family so they could add it to the next jiapu update, a
task repeated about every 10 years.

Finding Your Chinese
Roots

Tracing genealogy back into China is difficult, Sannie says. “It’s so hard for us. We are so scattered. Most of us don’t have records of where we come from. We are immigrant Chinese. The Cultural Revolution destroyed some of our history. But the Loke family gave me a copy of the only book they had in their family, and I brought it back.”

Sannie continues, “We as people read a lot of stories that
intrigue us, but the coolest stories are about us. Our family. Real people, not
fictitious characters. We share the same blood. Our families are calling to be
recognized and rediscovered through family research. Finding that past is
almost an archeological find. Go dig, go find. 
Find your living relatives. Then go find the people who are waiting for
you to find them—people who share your same blood.”  

FamilySearch has several resources for those seeking their Chinese heritage. Learn more about jiapu, Chinese genealogy research, Chinese last names, and much more—and how this information can help you search for your own family.

Source: New on FamilySearch