I have four great grandmothers with the same name: Shee. If you’re the descendent of a Chinese family, you will also have female relatives named Shee, Shi, Shih, or See. You may also notice that in the 1900s, every Chinese family has women named Shee. You’ll see passenger lists, censuses, and other official documents where all the women are named Shee.
Here’s the character.
As you may know, I don’t speak Chinese, so it’s taken me a very long time to realize that Shee is not a name, but a title. It signifies a family name, clan name or surname. It means from the family of, the same way English uses the French word née (born). For example, if your family name is Lee, and your great grandmother’s family name was Wong, her name would be: Lee Wong Shee. Let me break that down for you: the most important part of her identity, her married name, is first: Lee. The second part of her identity, her family name, is second: Wong. The third part signifies her married status: Shee. To me, this naming convention encapsulates the traditional Chinese attitude toward women: a woman’s significance only as a part of a family collective. She does not have, and does not need, a first name of her own.
For genealogists, this adds a layer of complexity to the research, because the documents that we use to build a family history – census forms, birth and death records, marriage licences – are not necessarily correct. The handwriting is hard to read. Census takers may not have known how to spell the foreign sounds they were hearing, never mind record them accurately, or the same way over time. I sometimes wonder if any census takers asked themselves why all Chinese married women had the same name?
That’s the downside.
The upside is that a traditional Chinese wife’s name automatically spells out her family name, as opposed to the English convention – say, Mrs. Lee – which does not. A census may be misspelled, but it may be phonetic, and for a genealogist, a small clue is better than none at all.