The 200-Year-Old Rural Handicraft 'Pedigree Revision' Is Being Revolutionized by Big Data in Internet Era
Peng Xiaoling
/SOURCE : Yicai
The 200-Year-Old Rural Handicraft 'Pedigree Revision' Is Being Revolutionized by Big Data in Internet Era

(Yicai Global) Nov. 14 -- Qiu Hengyong, who is the head of the last pedigree compilation and revision family, never thought that he would face such a formidable opponent. When he was a child, he dropped out of school decisively to learn all the pedigree compilation techniques from his father. However, if he is defeated by this opponent, the 200-year-old handicraft of pedigree compilation, handed down from his ancestors, may come to an end.

Qiu Hengyong, aged 38, is a stocky and swarthy man. His ancestors left him with more than 60,000 type matrixes, burins of different sizes, and a wooden box with three Chinese characters on it -- Wen Lin Tang. The wooden movable type printing technique that he inherited was invented by Wang Zhen in the Yuan Dynasty, more than 800 years ago. It was derived from the earlier clay movable type printing technique, invented by Bi Sheng in the northern Song Dynasty, which is one of the 'Four Great Inventions' of ancient China.  

In 2010, the movable type printing technique was in danger of being lost to the world. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) included it to the 'List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.' In Ninghua county, Sanming City, located between southeastern Fujian province and Jiangxi province, local Hakka people attach great importance to the Chinese clan and pedigree revision, and therefore this craft has been handed down from generation to generation. Pedigree revisers travel from one ancestral hall to another in remote villages to continue with this ancient profession.

In 2013 or so, someone brought in a new technique called "computer-aided pedigree revision" from other places. "At the time, we were defeated," said Qiu Hengyong, who was busy with his engraving work at hand in a shabby facility provided by Ninghua county cultural center for free. During the next few years, he competed with his "opponent" repeatedly.

"But now looking back, I don't think it's a big deal. Everyone has to compete," said Qiu Hengyong in a calm voice. As he said this, he continued engraving a piece of sorb wood with his burin. The room where he was working was filled with the odor of dark ink and bits of wood. He also sold cultural creativity products online that feature the wooden movable type printing technique. Recently, a customer from Shenzhen ordered 16 pieces of movable type printing featuring Chinese poems. In order to meet the deadline for delivery, these days, Qiu and his apprentice often work overtime till 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.

Living on the Internet

Qiu's latest encounter with his "opponent" occurred at the annual ancestor worship ceremony in Ninghua county in the middle of last month.

"We revise pedigrees for free. I mean, we input an old pedigree into a computer for free, and we charge fees only when new names need to be added. We charge CNY20 (USD3) for each name," said Zhou Chaoying, chairman of Fujian Bangda Group. He pulled a plastic stool over, sat down, and began to enthusiastically introduce his website, which he built from scratch. This ancestor worship ceremony is a good opportunity to promote his company. He has participated in this event for the fourth time. This year, he brought 16 employees to help promote his company.

Compared with manual pedigree revision, online pedigree revision has clear advantages. One of them is high efficiency, as pedigrees online can be revised at any time. Once a family has a new member, the family administrator will examine and approve the entry of the new member's name and then add it to the pedigree, and then the computer will print the new pedigree. Another advantage is accuracy, meaning that errors can be corrected immediately. "The accuracy of a digitized pedigree can reach 100 percent," said Zhou Chaoying confidently. Besides, the price is much lower, saving about 40 percent of costs on average. The pedigree software system developed by Zhou Chaoying can even record personal information such as phone numbers, photos, word descriptions, videos, etc., enriching traditional pedigree information.

"Today, more than 10 clans have expressed their intentions to revise their pedigrees, and online pedigrees are becoming more and more popular." He was very satisfied with the feedback that he received at the ancestor worship ceremony. As smartphones become more and more widely used, many senior citizens also join his customer base. He said that online pedigree revision business is now growing at the speed of 500 percent. At present, the website records more than 60 family names (clans), with more than 200,000 active users. As the data volume in the database grows, it will be easier for people to trace back their genealogy, which incidentally will bring a considerable enquiry fee to his website. "Our business volume this year has exceeded 10 million," he said.

Zhou Chaoying plans to develop the online pedigree revision business into Big Data business which is very trendy nowadays. Recently, three fund companies in Shanghai and Shenzhen have expressed their intentions to cooperate with him. Once the business model becomes mature enough, databases will allow clan members to query pedigrees for free, he opines.

"What's your view on the traditional handicraft of pedigree revision?" Yicai Global asked him. He paused, then smiled craftily, and said, "That's art!"

Pedigree Reviser

In fact, many years ago, being a pedigree reviser was a well-paying and respectable profession. Qiu Hengyong cannot remember how many generations have been recorded in his clan pedigree. There are more than 60,000 type matrixes stored in his studio, and they were from a younger brother of his great-grandfather. The characters on the matrixes are illegible. A few years ago, the county sent some of the type matrixes to be examined by experts in Fuzhou city, and they concluded that the matrixes had a history of more than 200 years. 

When Qiu Hengyong was 10 years old, during summer and winter vacations, he would go with his father to see how he manually revised pedigrees. Hakka people usually have a major revision of their pedigrees every 30 years and a minor revision every 3 to 5 years. During the compilation and revision process, people are very devout. The pedigree reviser will ceremoniously bring the plaque of their ancestors to an ancestral hall for incense and worship. Every day, some clan members will perform the incense ritual to show their respect. After the pedigree is revised, the festivity will continue for two days. The spectacle is even more ceremonious than Chinese New Year celebrations.

During revision, the pedigree reviser will do some statistics work and reorganize the pedigree based on population changes in the clan. Back in the old days, communication was not convenient. In order to facilitate communication, the reviser would temporarily live in the ancestral hall or villagers' house. For pedigrees involving too many clan members, the pedigree reviser often lived in their house for eight to nine months until the work was done.

Hakka people call these pedigree revisers "Mister Reviser" respectfully. They think that as a major pedigree revision is carried out every several decades, they need to treat those pedigree revisers as distinguished guests. Households in the clan will take turns to invite their pedigree revisers to their home for dinner, and they often give the pedigree revisers the best treatment that one can expect for a house guest in rural areas: the best food, new quilts, and some other things.

"In those days, I was filled with respect and pride," said Qiu Hengyong, reminiscing about how he used to revise pedigrees in rural areas in the old days.

The 'Qiu's Army' Dissolved

After the major pedigree revision in Ninghua and the surrounding areas in 2000, the pedigree revision business became bleak. "We did not have continuous business and it was unacceptable for my fellow apprentices to wait at home for two months after working for two months." Other apprentices gradually sought for other different jobs, going to other places to work, carving seals or providing key duplication services. As a result, the "Qiu's Army" shrank into a family workshop that was composed of only his aging father, his elder sister and him. After his elder sister got married, only Qiu Hengyong was still engaged in pedigree revision business.

Due to sharply-increased economic pressure after getting married and having a child, Qiu Hengyong were also engaged in a lot of other work, such as running a thrift shop, opening a small factory or working for others. However, every time someone came to ask for pedigree maintenance service, he would stop what he was doing immediately. "In my mind, pedigree revision was still my main business," he said.

In 2012, he followed the advice of his apprentice Wu Songgen to open a store on, one of the trading platforms of China's e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. [NYSE:BABA], providing pedigree revision service online and selling wooden movable type cultural and creative products concurrently.

Almost at the same time, Zhou Chaoying from Quanzhou was determined to develop a set of pedigree compilation software after he received Zhou's pedigree that was completed after five-year compilation and revision and cost more than CNY1.3 million. "There were seven to eight mistakes in the information about the more than 100 members of my grandpa's branch. For example, the date of birth of my uncle was recorded wrong, the gender of my aunt was recorded as male and my name was omitted." Zhou Chaoying, who had earned a lot of money in the software industry and generously contributed CNY200,000 to show his support for revising the pedigree, was very unhappy about his name being missed, saying that "this is a very taboo thing."

Zhou Chaoying said that he suggested making an online edition of the pedigree at the beginning of the revision. But a dozen respected elders in the clan who had the final say insisted on editing the pedigree according to the traditional method, and the young people even did not have the right to say in the whole process. "At that time, I thought that the way of editing the pedigree should be changed."

In 2013, a businessman surnamed Wang returned to the Ninghua county after mastering the web-based genealogical techniques, which further narrowed the living space of Qiu Hengyong. "The web-based revision method takes a very short time. For instance, the manual revision takes one year while the web-based revision takes only one month. Besides, many young people believe that it is convenient to watch data that are recorded in the U disk or CD." A brutal fact was that after some people chose the web-based pedigree revision after asking Qiu Hengyong about the price. Within two full years thereafter, Qiu Hengyong did not receive any pedigree revision business.

At the very beginning, this businessman surnamed Wang once found a go-between, expressing his intention to cooperate with Qiu Hengyong and proposing that one of them be responsible for web-based pedigree revision and the other for the traditional pedigree revision. After careful consideration, Qiu Hengyong refused to cooperate. "If someone knows that I am using the computer to revise pedigrees, he may cast doubt on my craft. Therefore, I still stick to my own tradition. Currently the customers of my online store often ask me if I can use the machine to carve and my answer is no."

Time-honored Craftsmanship

They maintained their livelihood with their online store in order to manage and pull through the hard time. "The user was named Yan Jingting, a name that I never forget for my whole life," Xiao Wu, an apprentice, said. They recorded nearly CNY1,000 from a Beijing-based netizen who ordered to inscribe a classical Chinese poem, and received a favorable comment upon delivery. Both of the master and the apprentice were excited and thought it was a good sign.

With increasing orders, a wooden movable type ornament of Heart Sutra was priced as CNY 6,200. In addition, they also provide customized services with multiple languages, such as English and Arabic. At present, orders accepted by the online store have been queued for more than one month. Due to the shortage of hands, they had no choice but to decline some of the urgent orders.

Xiao Wu was responsible for the day-to-day running of the online store, while Qiu Hengyong still stuck to inscribe pedigrees manually. "I may change my profession if the online store did not make it. But with the success of the online store, my economic performance turns to be better. I make a living on my own. Now, network pedigree compiling will no longer exert impact on me. During the past few years, more and more people like this traditional craftsmanship."

Qiu Hengyong has struggled to find more decent helpers. He trained six apprentices, but most of them quitted after a few months or even a year. Xiao Wu is the only one who can keep on, and followed his steps for seven years. "The young generation nowadays is lacking in patience," Qiu Hengyong said while pointing at the type matrix with his graver on the opposite side. "It is not hard to find that we all live in a virtual world. If you give them a computer and a mobile phone, they can play with them all day. But it is impossible to require them to pick characters throughout the day, or lower their heads to letter."

"Computer printing is so good," Xiao Wu smiled enviously and said. He doesn't have time to seek for his companion. "80 pieces can be printed within seconds! How nice if we can reach such speed," He said and kept inscribing. They divided the labor by inscribing the outline for characters and refined processing, respectively. Both of their hands are full of thick calluses. They also suffer the different extent of diseases associated with cervical vertebra, lumbar vertebra and shoulders.

The longer I worked in this field, the more intense I got down to sticking it to the end, said Qiu Hengyong. "Ink used by lead impression on the surface of the paper will fade over time. Movable type printing can manage to avoid fading by permeating the ink into the paper. The ink on the paper will not fade for over thousands of years if the paper is kept properly."

Gently stroking sets of brand-new pedigrees, he even imagined the scene after hundreds of years: when a descendant sees the blossoming words of "Wen Lin Tang," he/she may think that there was someone inscribing each stroke for their ancestors' names with his/her hands.

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Keywords: Craftmanship , Pedigree Compilation , Tradition , Taobao , ONLINE , Revision , Qiu Hengyong , Ninghua