How I Found My Ancestral Villages in China

The most rewarding trip you’ll ever take is chasing your origin story.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been curious about my family history. I would try to stitch together pieces I’d hear from my parents or at family gatherings. Only recently have I been able to synthesize the finer details of my family history. It’s a complex one — spanning four generations from China to Africa to Canada. With extended family still in Africa, I was able to fill many of the gaps but it quickly became clear the missing pieces were my ancestral origins in China — the villages. I needed to find these places, to see them with my own eyes. I needed to chase my origin story.

The odds seemed stacked against me: my parents had never been to their villages, we have limited ability to speak or read Chinese, and the elders who retained knowledge of the villages were sadly dwindling in numbers. However, out of sheer curiosity and determination I was driven to find these ancestral places. So much so that I — along with my parents — had the fortune of successfully finding and visiting my mom’s Hakka (客家 Kèjiā) village in Moiyan (梅州 Méizhōu) and my dad’s two Cantonese villages in Fatsaan (佛山 Fóshān). I cannot express how rewarding these experiences were to my parents and myself. It was almost like the climatic culmination of a lifelong mystery that had been solved.

I’ve learned a lot while trying to find my ancestral villages, so I’ve put together some tips on what I found helpful. If you’re like me and looking to connect with your roots in China, then hopefully these tips will be helpful to you too.

How to Find your Ancestral Village in China

1. Learn Chinese
First things first: learn Chinese, even if it’s the basics. Just a basic understanding and ability of the language (Mandarin or local dialect such as Cantonese) will aid in your quest greatly. More importantly, speaking with locals will enrich your experience beyond what you can imagine. With that said, there are ways around this like hiring a guide. More on this below.

Pro tip: Pleco is a dictionary app that saved me so many times while doing my research ahead of my trip as well trying to get around in China. Remember that Google products like Translate and Maps are blocked there, so don’t rely on them.

2. Find the name and region of the village
You’ll be hard pressed to find your village if you don’t know its name. Ask your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, family friends or anyone else who might have this info. As much as possible try to get the village name written in Chinese characters.

3. Seek multiple sources of the village name
It quickly became apparent to me that everyone I spoke to had a different name for the same village and they were absolutely convinced it was the only name. It took speaking to multiple people to discover some only knew the name of the region and not necessarily the name of the village. This is like knowing the name of the metropolitan region rather than the city or neighbourhood.

Fun story: One side of my family is Hakka and all of these family members told me how small the village Moiyan (梅州市 Méizhōushì) is. Were they ever wrong. Simple internet search shows that this so-called village is a city of 4 million people. Guess they hadn’t visited the “village” in a while. In fact, this is the name of the metropolitan region and not my ancestral village which is tiny.

4. Determine the current name of the village (eg. — cūn 村)
This is where the name of the village in Chinese characters becomes important. I was only ever given the local dialect name of villages. The internet doesn’t like this. The internet prefers simplified Chinese characters or pinyin, and I have a very basic understanding of either of these. What really helped was asking friends and co-workers to translate for me. Don’t know anyone? Make a new friend!

Pro tip: Many village names end in the word cūn (村) meaning village. Look out for this, because it was super helpful in finding my villages on maps.

Look out for place names that end in cūn (村), it means village.

5. Try to locate on a map
One of the reasons why you want to translate the village name from the local dialect into Mandarin (simplified Chinese/pinyin) is that the name your family calls the village might be quite outdated. Having the name in Mandarin will help you with internet sleuthing, even to the point of finding it on an internet map like Google Maps. I was able to find all of my villages on Google Maps. Some of my villages were a bit obscure so I did have to do some clicking around the map to eventually find them.

Fun Story: I located one village in Fatsaan (佛山市 Fóshān) on Google Maps, but it looked like a bunch of high rises had erased the village. Filled with determination, we still went. Google Maps doesn’t work in China, so we used Baidu maps which showed more detail and to our relief the village was there! But when we arrived at the location, our hearts sank because it was a sea of abandoned buildings and warehouses. Was it possible we missed the boat and the village was gone? We decided to press on by following some kids through the apocalyptic scene and at the end of this deserted wasteland, a thriving village appeared. Glorious.

Even if your village looks like a ghost town, have some faith. The actual village might be just around the corner.

6. Travelling to the village
After pinpointing where your village is in China, it’s now time to figure out how to travel there. You’ll most likely start off in a major city and then travel to the village by other means. China has many transportation options, so it will be up to you to determine the best mode. I found the long distance train system to be really easy and convenient. Only residents of China can book these trains, so your best bet will be to use a train booking service if you want to use this system.

Bullet trains so fresh and so clean, your uncle might pose for a picture. (That’s not my uncle. If it was, he’d pose with a beer.)

7. Booking a tour guide vs Do-It-Yourself
I’ve done both. This is really dependent on how comfortable you feel travelling around China. Hiring personal guides proved incredibly helpful when we lacked the ability to speak the local dialect and were in a region that didn’t serve a lot of foreigners. The prices will vary from region to region, but I encourage you to pay what you feel is reasonable while being respectful of giving a decent rate.

I have also found two villages without the use of any guides, but we spoke the local dialect enough to get by. Also, fortunately in this situation the villages were serviced by a metro train and bus system. If you try the DIY option, be prepared to speak the local language A LOT.

8. Have names of people connecting you to the village
If you have never been to the village before, it’s important to be able to validate that you belong there. Most villages are comprised of family clans based on surname. I found the best way to validate our family was to have the Chinese names and pictures of relatives connecting us to that village. For us, it was pictures of my grandparents’ gravestones with their Chinese names on it. Showing this to village elders was enough to prove our family came from there. Do some prep work and bring info with you.

9. Confirm your research by talking to people
Now if all of your research has paid off and you’ve found the village on a map and made your travel arrangements to get there, it’s important to know that not all may be what it seems. China can be a funny place. Sometimes places that seem close are really far, and sometimes places that are far, are actually really close. Before trekking to the village ask around in the region or big city if you’re on the right track. Even if you have a guide confirm they know where they are going. I was fortunate that my guide was legitimately from my village and knew exactly where to go, which I was able to verify with hotel staff and other locals.

10. Speak to villagers, find the elders
Congratulations, you’ve reached your destination! But how do you find your ancestral hall (祠堂 cítáng)? How do you find the house your family lived in? How do you put your name in the village genealogy book (族谱 zúpu)? Ask! Most people in the village probably have lived there for a long time and hopefully have a great sense of community. Ask to speak to the village elders because they’ll be some of the best people to talk to with the longest living memory.

You might be lucky and get your own village entourage to show you around.

11. Determine credibility of the villagers’ knowledge of your family
Can you get scammed? Short answer is yes. But don’t go into this thinking that everyone is out to get you. You’ll have a negative mindset distracting you from enjoying yourself. With that said, be aware that being scammed is possible. You brought items to prove your credibility, so try to do the same to the villagers. Ask about things they should know like nicknames of relatives, birth dates, and other things that are specific to your family.

12. Allow time to go back the next day if necessary
I hope you’ve had an amazing time visiting your village and connecting with villagers for lifelong relationships. I’ve personally had amazing experiences and some not-so-pleasant ones visiting mine. You travelled a long way to find your village and the people there will probably want to spend lots of time with you. Build time into your itinerary to spend another day (or two) visiting them, whether you want to or not will be up to you. If yes, then great. If not, more time for sightseeing and gorging on mouthwatering food!

I hope these tips help you along your way in creating memorable experiences and stories to last a lifetime.

If you have any questions or tips you want to share, head over to our Facebook page and add them to the comment section. Let’s help each other out!

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