Chinese Culture · Chinese Genealogy

Book review: In search of your Asian roots by Sheau-yueh J. Chao

I love getting packages in the mail, and I especially love books. This one was immediately intriguing: In search of your Asian roots: genealogical research on Chinese surnames. Thank you to for the review copy. Chao, a librarian for the Newman Library at Baruch College, New York, NY, spent years researching original texts to come up with this guide.

Genealogy of Chinese surnames

The centrepiece, literally and figuratively, is Chao’s research into the origins of 622 surnames (for which she cites no less than 76 original texts). For each listing, Chao cites the work referenced, and traces the origins of the name, including names of feudal lords, ancient territories, dates, and subsequent geographic locations. There is much more in the book than I will provide here, but to test it, I’ll see if I can find the origins of the names for all 4 of my grandparents here. Please note the alternate spellings for the same name.

葉 – Yip, Yeh, Yé

My grandfather YIP Kew Sheck:

…the surname Yeh originated from the name of the vassale state in She hsien, bestowed on the Grand Master … Shen I-wu of the State of Ch’u in the Spring and Authum [sic] Period…

Chao, S. (2000). In search of your Asian roots: genealogical research on Chinese surnames, pg 201. Clearfield: Baltimore.

趙 Chew, Zhào, Chao

My grandmother CHEW Wai Ming:

…Chao originated from the name of a feudal territory, Chao ch’eng, bestowed on Tsao Fu, in the Chou dynasty and he later adopted Chao as his surname…

Chao, S. (2000). In search of your Asian roots: genealogical research on Chinese surnames, pg 20. Clearfield: Baltimore.

徐 Chu, Xú, Hsü

My grandfather CHU Dit Young:

… The founder of the surname Hsü was Po I. He was the Grand Minister to Yü Ti-shun. The surname Hsü derived from the name of the feudal territory, the State of Hsü, bestowed on Po I’s son during the reign of the great Yü in the Hsia dynasty…

Chao, S. (2000). In search of your Asian roots: genealogical research on Chinese surnames, pg 77. Clearfield: Baltimore.

陽 Young, Yang

My grandmother YOUNG Soo Hing:

… Yang was the name of a state in the Chou dynasty, located in I-shui hsien, Shan-tung province… the State of Yang was taken over by its neigbouring State of Ch’i during the reigin [sic] of Chou Hui-wang, 676-651 BC…

Chao, S. (2000). In search of your Asian roots: genealogical research on Chinese surnames, pg 199. Clearfield: Baltimore.

Comments on this section

The book is a great reference tool for this section alone.

Using it was a bit of a process, as the names are listed in alphabetical order using the Wade-Giles system of romanization. Put another way, it’s like learning yet another form of writing Chinese names in English, along with pinyin (Mandarin) and jyutping (Cantonese). For those of us with Cantonese ancestry, Chao provides a Wade-Giles-pinyin conversion table. If she hadn’t, I’m not sure I’d have figured out that CHU is HSÜ.

Using the bibliography to find Chinese genealogy resources

The third section of the book is a bibliography of the 261 Chinese genealogy publications (210 Chinese, 51 English) available in the USA. To test the usefulness of this section for a genealogist not located in the USA, I searched a random sample of 10 intriguing titles to see how readily I could get my hands on a copy. See below for the Sources I used.

TitleResult (all CAD$)
Ball, J. (1971). Things Chinese, or notes connected with China. Detroit: MI. Tower Books.Internet Archive: fully digitized edition. WorldCat: no Canadian locations, 5 USA, 2 Singapore. HathiTrust: citation only. Available as a Kindle Edition for $1.12. Available on Abe Books ($84).
Ching, F. (1988). Ancestors: 900 years in the life of a Chinese family. New York, NY. William Morrow and Company.Internet Archive: fully digitized edition. Also available on WorldCat, showing Canadian universities.
Gates, M. (1919) Chinese-Korean readings of selected Chinese family names from Giles Chinese-English dictionary in McCune-Reischauer romanization. No. Internet Archive: Nil results. WorldCat shows no Canadian results, and 1 copy each in London and Berlin.
Giles, H. (1964). A Chinese biographical dictionary. Taipei, Taiwan. Literature House.Internet Archive: fully digitized edition. WorldCat: 2 results, both in Denmark.
Harrison, S. (1992) Chinese names in English. Cataloguing & Classification Quarterly. 15.2Internet Archive: Nil results. Available on WorldCat, showing Canadian universities.
Hu, Q. (1994). How to distinguish and catalog Chinese personal names. Cataloguing & Classification Quarterly. 19.1.Internet Archive: Nil results. Available on WorldCat, showing Canadian universities.
Kiang, K. (1934). Chinese family system. In On Chinese Studies, Shanghai: The Commercial Press.Internet Archive: Nil results. Available on WorldCat, showing Canadian universities.
Meskill, J. (1979). A Chinese pioneer family: the Lins of Wu-feng, Taiwan, 1729-1895.Internet Archive: Nil results. Available on WorldCat, showing Canadian universities.
Smith, F. (1870). A vocabulary of proper names in Chinese and English of places, persons, tribes, and sects, in China, Japan, Korea, Anna, Siam, Burma, the Straits, and adjacent countries. Shanghai, China. Presbyterian Mission Press.Internet Archive: fully digitized edition. WorldCat: 8 editions, the closest being Manitoba.
Sung, B.L. (Oct 1994) Spotlight on Chinese immigration. On Campus.No. Internet Archive: Nil results. Unavailable on WorldCat, FamilySearch, or Amazon.
Table of 10 titles chosen at random to test accessibility of the resources listed.

Here are the results in numbers:

  • 10 random titles
  • 4 fully digitized editions online – 40%
  • 2 unavailable – 20%

To be honest, I was a bit skeptical about the usefulness of this section, but finding 4/10 online is a huge success rate. There are 51 titles. If the 40% success rate held up, that’s 20 books I didn’t know existed which might further my education in this area. Of course, the key to finding books on the Internet Archive is their age: the older they are, the more likely for copyright to have expired. (If you’d like to read a lot more from someone who truly understands this subject, see Judy Russell, aka The Legal Genealogist’s blogs on copyright.)

Sources used in this section

Abe Books. A site for used books, now owned by Amazon.

Amazon. Be sure to search in your country site to see results available to you.

Google and Google Scholar. Search for articles or case law.

Internet Archive. To search, go to Advanced, and enter the Title and Author in the appropriate places.

WorldCat. To search, go to Advanced, and enter the Title and Author in the appropriate places.


If you missed it above, I was sent a review copy of this book by My deepest appreciation for the review copy!

For every book I buy, I have 3 criteria: will I be able to acquire it, is it a reasonable price, and will it further my knowledge in this area?

First, will I be able to acquire it? Unfortunately, Genealogical does not ship to Canada. Using the technique above, then, there are 7 editions available on WorldCat but none in Saskatchewan. There are multiple copies available on Abe Books. Published in 2000, it’s too new for the Internet Archive (copyright issues). It is available on Amazon.

Second, the reasonable price test: it’s CAD$48 before shipping on Amazon. If you are able to acquire books from the USA, it’s USD$25-39 on With the exchange rate at 33%, a USD$39 book is CAD$51.98 before shipping. I leave it to you to decide what constitutes a reasonable price.

Third, will it further my knowledge in this area? Definitely. I think you can see from my write up here that this book would add to your knowledge. Before doing this piece, I was not aware of the many works about research into the history of Chinese names, much less have titles to search.

My grandparents

When I was reviewing this piece prior to publishing, I thought it felt a little dry and academic. Here then are my four grandparents, in the old black and white photos I love so much.

This might be my absolute favourite photo of my paternal grandparents. I have no idea what year it was taken, and of course you can’t tell by looking at them (25? 35? 45?) but just look at them, swinging down the street, doing a little shopping, my grandmother in an outfit that could have originated from the floors at Dior. It’s photos like this that remind me: everyone was once young, beautiful and sexy, even your ancestors.

This is my grandfather Harold Dit Young Chu. He’s sitting in the doorway of Wing Wah Company on Main Street. He looks to be in his 30s, or maybe it’s his serious expression. He takes pride in his appearance: the pinstriped suit, tie with tie-pin, and Brylcreem’d hair. Behind him in the store window is a tobacco ad featuring a girl in a uniform.

This is my grandmother, Leila Chu née Young. She’s dressed very formally, in her good coat, with her hair perfect and her bag tucked a little too tightly under her arm. She’s been asked to stand full face to the near-midday sun for the photo, and is squinting.


This is my 4th blog post on Chinese names. If you missed them, they are (in order) How to find your surname in Chinese, Finding the Chinese names of my family, and What is the Chinese name “Ah”?

Why so many? Because family research begins with knowing the names of your ancestors, and for too many of us, that is an insurmountable brick wall. By exploring this slowly, step by step, it’s my goal to show you how I approach this, and why you might have found it impossible to get started at all.

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