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Compiled Records: Episode 203 <<

Sheila's Story: A 4000 Year Family Tradition

Sheila Sheila remembered as a little girl of six or seven in her native China seeing a book with a red cover. Her father reverently told her that the book recorded the names of their Tseng ancestors and that it should be handled with great care. She kept that memory with her when she left China in 1949.

Because of events in China, it was difficult to communicate with her family for many years, but in 1979 Sheila was finally able to visit her mother, brothers and sisters. During this journey she hoped to see the red book, but was very disappointed when her mother told her that it had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

Two years later, in 1981, Sheila returned to China to celebrate her mother's 80th birthday. At the banquet, she asked her siblings if any of them could help find the record. She knew what her mother had told her, but wasn't willing to accept defeat quite so easily. Her younger brother Shao-qiang agreed to go to Jiang-Xi province, where their grandfather had lived, and ask around.

In 1982, he wrote that there was, in fact, a distant cousin named Chi-ng in a neighboring village, who owned a set of ancient records. They had been carefully preserved by a relative, who had buried the records to save them from destruction.

To learn more about the incredible survival of the records through the Cultural Revolution, please see Sheila's story in In Search of Our Ancestors.

In the winter of 1982, Shao-qiang visited Chi-ng and asked if he could see the books. Chi-ng said that he would bring the books after Shao- qiang prepared a three-day feast. Sheila's brother did as he was bid and Chi-ng kept his end of the bargain. He arrived at the gala riding high on a tractor with a large package covered with a red cloth. A band of musicians led the way, a group of villagers followed, and the whole group enjoyed eating and drinking for three days and nights. At the end of the third evening, Shao-qiang was finally permitted to lift the red cloth and hold the nine books in his hands for the first time. They were indeed the Tseng clan compiled genealogical records. He quickly copied 12 generations of names and dates and transferred the names to a pedigree chart, which he sent to his sister.

Sheila jumped with joy when she saw it, but knew that their job was not yet finished. She wrote back saying that she wanted a photocopy of the records, no matter what the price, so Shao-qiang invited Chi-ng for a three-day visit. To ensure the safety of the books, he also invited several escorts. He promised to reward the escorts by helping them start a business back in their home village and by giving each one a watch. They finally handed over the books and let Shao-qiang copy them.

But their endeavor was not yet over. Shao-qiang airmailed the first book to Sheila, who was then living in Singapore. It arrived safely, as did the second, third, and fourth! Just when they were becoming confident, though, they hit a snag. The fifth and sixth were sea-mailed together, but were stopped at Customs with the explanation that they were not allowed out of the country. Sheila had four books and her brother had the other five. What to do? Slowly, through a two-year process of sending a few pages at a time in airmail letters, Sheila finally assembled a complete set in 1985.

Chinese Tradition

Was it worth all this effort? When reviewed, the records contained 172 generations of thousands of names, with detailed dates and places going back to 1950 B.C. And they included the startling but appropriate insight that Confucius was very fond of one of Sheila's ancestors, Tsan. Many know that Confucius compiled five books as standard works for Chinese culture. It was her ancestor Tsan who compiled the sixth book on honoring one's parents and ancestors. This revelation made it clear that Sheila and her brother had indeed done the right thing.


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