The birth of a book genre can tell us a lot about the world into which the genre was born. It tells us about the historical actors who created, promoted, and manipulated it, about the social relations that called for it, and about the book industry that made its material production possible. Surveying the life history of a genre, thus, enables us to investigate society at large.

On that basis, my dissertation looks at the formation of a book genre in early modern China, the family genealogy. The genealogy has existed in China for centuries, but it matured as an elaborate book form only around 1500. Transforming from a collection of written pages about ancestral and genealogical information to a structured book, the genealogy also started to take in other materials, such as literary compositions, illustrations, and land deeds, materials that barely existed in earlier genealogies. The book-lization and standardization of the genealogy, then, are the focus if my research.

In this short introduction, I briefly sketch what a genealogy looks like after it underwent the process of book-lization and standardization. I start with a statistical analysis of genre, proceed with a compositional analysis of a typical late-Ming (1500-1644) genealogy, and end with some speculations on the implications of the rise of genealogy books.


The number of genealogies seemed to increase significantly in the late fifteenth century. This trend is evident in a statistical analysis of all the surviving genealogies cataloged by the Shanghai Library, the institution that holds the largest number of surviving genealogies. The graph below clearly shows that most surviving genealogies were produced after 1700, but it also shows that the genre of the genealogy gained its initial momentum between 1400 and 1699, especially in the sixteenth century.

Number of Surviving Genealogies.

The Common Structure

As the genealogy became increasingly standardized in the sixteenth century, most genealogies share a common structure. A typical late-Ming printed genealogy consists of front matter, genealogical charts, biographies, literary compositions, practical documents, illustrations, and back matter.

Book Cover

Just like other Chinese books, the cover of a genealogy is usually made of a piece of blue cloth or hard paper with the title of the book written or printed on a rectangular label glued onto the cover.

Cloth cover and paper covers.

Title Page

A genealogy might or might not have a title page, but if it does, the title page is made visually distinctive. In some cases, it is a piece of red paper; in other cases, the title on the page is printed in calligraphic scripts. The style of the title page of a genealogy not only reflects its owner’s taste, but also marks the printer’s brand. For example, in Huizhou Prefecture at the turn of the sixteenth century, the most famous genealogy printers bearing the surname Huang used the same design of the title page in many Huizhou genealogies (see below). Therefore, the title page is a good place for us to identify the publishers and printers of a genealogy.

The title page of a genealogy.

The title page of a genealogy. The printers used a piece of red paper to make the title page. The characters in the top frame read, “Recompiled in the fifth year of the Guangxu reign,” and the five large, bold characters read “respectfully printed by the Hall of Luoman.”

Prefaces (and postfaces)

Genealogy prefaces are not simply paratexts. They are probably the only part of a genealogy that were considered as public and could be incorporated by both the author and the owner into their literary collections. They were different from other parts of the genealogy, such as genealogical charts and gravesite maps, that were deemed private and could be circulated only among the members of that recorded lineage. Therefore, we have the paradoxical phenomenon that many genealogies had perished over time, whereas their prefaces survive to this day.

In a preface, the writer usually goes to great length to establish the significance of genealogies in educating kinsmen, maintaining social order, and rectifying social problems. He (yes, never a she) oftentimes briefly mentions the process of genealogy compilation, but hardly goes into details about the material production, such as logistics, expenditures, or employees. The writer is higher in status than the receiver of a preface. In late-Ming Huizhou Prefecture, most preface writers were officials, and a smaller proportion were scholars. In general, the lineage that compiled a genealogy recruited at least one writer to devote a preface to the that genealogy project. But illustrious lineages were able to amass several prefaces each time they compiled and printed a new version. For these reasons, the social connection between the writer and the receiver suggested in a preface determined its value. The higher status the preface writer was, the greater the economic or cultural capital the preface receiver had.

Part of a genealogy preface. The piece was written by an illustrious official named Zhang Sheng.

Table of Content

A table of content defines a genealogy as a book, for it transforms a crude collection of genealogical materials into an organically structured book. Many kinship organizations in imperial China had the habit of accumulating genealogical materials, but only around 1500 there emerged a systematical rationale of arranging these materials into books. Meanwhile, tables of content became an essential part. Over time, they underwent further expansion, from lists of chapter titles to hierarchical tables extending to the level of individual pieces of writing. Some genealogies even have tens of pages devoted to tables of content.

Editorial principles also became a crucial part of genealogies. The ideal process of the editorial work of a genealogy project started with the drafting of ten to twenty editorial principles that stipulated the selection and arrangement of materials. These principles can tell us about the genealogy editors’ logic of dealing with genealogical information.

This is part of a table of content. Not only chapter titles, but also titles of individual pieces under each chapter, are listed in it.

Genealogical Charts

Genealogical charts have always been the fundamental part of a genealogy. A genealogy could lack any part except a genealogical chart. A typical chart runs across continuous pages and displays the names in the parameter of five generations on each page. Names are linked with red lines or put in rectangular frames. The names are accompanied by smaller characters briefly introducing the figures. Such information includes birth and death dates, marriages, burial sites, and in some cases short biographies. Daughters are not registered as units of the charts, but could appear under their fathers’ names. There are different formats of making genealogical charts, with each format having specific ideological meanings.

This is part of a genealogical chart. Names are put in rectangular frames accompanies by short biographies of the figures.


In some genealogies, short biographies are attached to the names in genealogical charts, but in other cases biographies are grouped together as a separate part. Each male member has its own entry in the biography section, but the length of that entry varies greatly, depending on his economic, political, and cultural capacities. The format of this section varies greatly as well.

This is a page of biographies. Biographical information mainly includes birth and death dates, marriages, and burial sites.

Literary Compositions

Literary compositions expanded greatly around 1500. In the sixteenth century, literary compositions grew to the extent that they outnumbered all other sections in size. Typical components of this section include poems, eulogies, commemorative essays, and tomb inscriptions. Like prefaces, most of these pieces were authored by illustrious officials or/and scholars. By extensively including such pieces, genealogy editors added another function to the genealogy–it became a record of social networks, among others.

Two pages of poems in a genealogy.

Practical Documents

Like literary compositions, practical documents became a new but crucial component of the genealogy also at the turn of the sixteenth century. Such documents include land deeds, village compacts, family regulations, and lineage agreements. The proliferation of such documents suggests that the genealogy gained more practical functions in villagers’ everyday life. Such documents also helped genealogies gain authority in local communities.

The right page is part of a lineage contract, a document that regulates annual sacrifices to ancestors and itemizes common properties in detail.


Before 1450, illustrations were marginal in genealogies. But the number of illustrations suddenly increased around 1500. Typical subject matters of illustrations include ancestor portraits, gravesite maps, landscapes, and floor plans of ancestral halls. The proliferation of ancestor portraits and gravesite maps reveals the growth of the genealogy’s ritualistic functions. The use of images to reach less literate or even illiterate members of the recorded lineage also suggests that genealogy editors tended to expand the readership and utility of the genealogy.

These are two gravesite maps. They depict graves in geomantic settings, in relation to the mountains, rivers, ponds, roads, and buildings. The mountains are depicted with black areas of ink, in the shape of animals (for example, a tiger on the left map and a dragon on the right map). The maps have both religious and directional functions, reminding the readers of the graves’ auspicious shapes and providing guidance for locating the graves. They could also serve as evidence of ownership when brought to the court.


The aforementioned components of genealogies fall in two categories: contents that already existed in earlier genealogies, and contents recently invented or expanded. Genealogical charts and prefaces belong to the first category, and tables of contents, literary compositions, practical documents, and illustrations belong to the second category. The growth of tables of contents and editorial principles reveals a book-lization process, in which the genealogy as an age-old genre took the form of books at the turn of the sixteenth century. As standard books, they became cheaper to make, more available for use, and better to preserve. Thus, the number of genealogies skyrocketed around the same time. The growth of literary compositions, practical documents, and illustrations in the genealogy book suggests that genealogy compilers in the sixteenth century strove to expand the audience of genealogies to include both educated readers and illiterate users. The enlarged readership and utility of the genealogy made it become one of the most popular book genres in late imperial China.