Chinese Culture · Genealogical Research

Why is everyone called Shee?

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, or Shih. 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.

The photo is my poor attempt at Chinese calligraphy. I did try to locate a better image online, but Google didn’t understand what I wanted, and searching for the phonetic Shih kept returning pictures of dogs. True story.

Happy hunting!

11 thoughts on “Why is everyone called Shee?

  1. A woman’s records on traditional ancestry manuals as solely something-氏 (shi). I thought this was limited to written records, but it seems from your research many women actually referred to themselves thus.

    Not only is this disturbing, it is incredibly annoying for tracing family history. Without more info, the commonness of Chinese surnames makes most attempts at finding a woman’s birth family (rather than clan) from 2-3 generations back more or less impossible. Have you developed a way to link a woman’s to birth family solely by shi?

    1. Hi Sean,

      Right? It’s a brick wall. I know next to nothing about my paternal grandmother other than she came from China.

      There was a meme going around Facebook saying that 1 in 6 Americans didn’t know all of their great grandparents and isn’t that terrible, and I thought, hey now, it’s not for lack of trying. But there are ways and ways to do genealogy. Some folks are able to trace their families back hundreds of years. I dig sideways and deeply. I will trace clues relating to 2nd and 3rd cousins, umpteen times removed, because you never know when those clues will yield something about your direct line.

      Recently, I found an important clue – I found her name (in characters). I’m hoping to find more, now I’ve got a starting place.

      There ARE Chinese speaking professionals one can hire, but what fun would that be? (Kidding. If I get enough clues, I’ll be seeking advice, for sure.)

  2. I find it relatively easy to dig deep in family history since that is almost always very well documented by the family ancestry records. Tracing back centuries isn’t too difficult. Finding cousins on the paternal sides Is also straightforwardly s.

    The issue I find is getting the breath specifically for the women’s side. Without it, each person’s tree is essentially linear and lacking the “paired contributions” that allow branching.

    1. I’ve been lucky in that one side of my family has been carefully tracked for generations – the work of my aunt and uncle, who spent a lifetime collecting family facts. I owe them so, so much. The other side of my family? Not so much. Very few documents and if there’s a family ancestry record out there I’d love to see it!

      1. I tried it – looks amazing. Now, if I can figure out a way to navigate it in English, while also not allowing it to take over my browsers..! (I found it automatically set itself up as my preferred browser after one use. That’s pretty audacious / aggressive for a website.)

      2. Oh dear, that doesn’t sound good. If you can’t stop it doing that, maybe just use one browser for that and nothing else? (There must be some settings, surely?)

    1. Interesting. It looks like Firefox partners with Baidu for Chinese searches. That’s a different business model.

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