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How to find your ancestral locations in China: geography basics, maps, and the UBC Register of Chinese immigration

In this post I’ll take you through navigating the tricky world of Chinese maps and places. Regardless of where in China your ancestors originate, some basic Chinese geography will be useful.

In the previous post Finding Mrs. Yip Sang, I located the immigration of my second great-grandmother, “Mrs. Yip Sang,” or Dong Shee (鄧氏) on 25 Apr 1900, and discovered the immigration records of at least three other family members: Yip Sang’s second and third sons Yip Kew Mow and Yip Kew Suey, as well as the wife of his first son, “Mrs. Yip Yow.” On the General Register of Chinese Immigration, I found that all four came from “Ow Yook, Sinning, China.” “Sinning” is an old name for Taishan. In this post, we’ll go one step further and find “Ow Yook.”

Geography in China – the basics

Before we can talk about places of origin, let me first talk about how to think of geography in China. From large to small, we have country, province, city, county / district / area, township, and then village. (If you are reading historic Chinese, this may be in reverse order.) Regardless of where in China your ancestors originate, the first few geographic designations will apply to you and it’s worth trying to recognize the words.

Think of Chinese geography as going from large to small. Diagram by Linda Yip.

What this means is that when you start trying to identify ancestral homes on grave markers, for example, you need to distinguish between the Chinese words for China, Guangdong, cities, districts, townships, and villages.

In addition, as you likely know, the Chinese language laughs at niceties like spaces. Here’s the address for my Yip family ancestral village as it was given to me (for privacy’s sake, I have not provided the house number or street address).

中國廣東省台山市杜侯江門聖堂村

Reading from left to right, this is “China Country, Guangdong Province, Taishan City, Duhu, Jiangmen, Shen Tang Village.”

Let’s take this step by step.

In the table below will be the name, then the name plus the identifier (e.g., country, province, city) because if you don’t read Chinese, you may be confused when you see 廣東省 (Guangdong Province) instead of just 廣東 (Guangdong).

ChineseTranslation (pinyin)English
ZhōngChina
GuóCountry
中國ZhōngguóCountry of China
廣東GuǎngdōngGuangdong (formerly Canton)
ShěngProvince
廣東省Guǎngdōng shěngGuangdong Province
台山TáishānTaishan (formerly Sinning, Xinning, and Hoi San, among others)
XiànCounty
ShìCity
台山市Táishān shìTaishan City
杜侯Dù hóuDuhu / Dufu
江門JiāngménJiangmen
District or Area
江門区Jiāngmén qūJiangmen District (Area)
ZhènTown
XiāngTownship
聖堂ShèngtángShen Tang, Sing Tong
CūnVillage
聖堂村Shèngtáng cūnShen Tang Village
Table of geographic identifiers sorted roughly from larger to smaller using the Yip family ancestral home as an example.

Useful Chinese words for geography

Above you can see how an address might be written. Below are the key words that, no matter where your ancestors are from, learning the below words in their order will help you navigate maps, grave markers, and immigration records. (This is not an exhaustive list.)

省 = province

縣 = county

市 = city

区 = district or area

鄉 = township

鎮= town

村 = village

Using the Friends of Roots Database Search

If you are using the Friends of Roots Village Database Lookup, you’ll need the county, then two levels of townships (heungs), called “heung,” and “sub-heung.” Note this site draws from information from the 1970s, has not been updated recently, and only provides information on the Guangdong provincial counties of Toishan, Sunwui, Hoiping, and Chungshan.

Here’s mine.

ChineseTranslation (pinyin)English
台山TáishānTaishan (County)
大南都鄉Tai Nam To HeungTai Nam To Township
都陽Dōu yángTo Yeung
Xiāng (Heung)Township
都陽鄉Dōu yáng xiāngTo Yeung Township
聖堂村Shèngtáng cūnShen Tang Village
My Yip family village of origin, the sub-heung To Yueng Township, and the heung Tai Nam To Township. From the Friends of Roots Village DB Search.

The UBC Register

Beginning in 2005 and for the next three years, the University of British Columbia’s Drs. Ward and Yu oversaw a research project which transcribed and analyzed the entire General Register of Chinese Immigration (1885-1949) into one downloadable Excel spreadsheet. Now this 24.6 MB spreadsheet is available to anyone, free of charge. I recommend you download both the Information Package and the Excel file. See References at the bottom of this post.

Aside from the inestimable value of manipulating a file of some 97,000 (ninety-seven thousand) immigrant entries, the analysis cleaned, analyzed, and normalized most villages of origin if know. From the information sheet:

This electronic copy of the Register includes the following information… Standardized corrections for village and county names, in both English and Chinese, for approximately half the immigrants in the Register. These corrections were introduced to address the problem of multiple English spellings for many Chinese place names.

W. Peter Ward, 8 Mar 2011, Register of Chinese Immigrants description, pg 2, UBC Library

How to use the spreadsheet

First and foremost: have patience. There is a LOT of data in this file, and you may find your computer frustratingly slow. Deep breaths. These techniques work but if your computer’s processor is overwhelmed, you can crash if you attempt to enact more commands while your computer is mid-process. Secondly, I save a copy using the name of the person I’m researching. We’ll use Mrs. Yip Sang, so my title will be “Register of Chinese Immigrants to Canada for Mrs. Yip Sang 1900.” Next, I add a filter and freeze the top row, and start using the filters.

HINT: if you hover over the videos, in the lower right corner you can find the toggle to view in full screen – much easier on the eyes.

Use the full screen control to see the videos as large as possible
Get started on the spreadsheet. Use the toggle to watch full screen. Video by Linda Yip.

After you’ve got the top row frozen and the filter installed, here’s how to find Mrs. Yip Sang, her party, and her place of origin quickly and easily.

Using Excel’s tricks to quickly find people on the UBC Register. Use the toggle to watch full screen. Video by Linda Yip.

From the General Register, Mrs. Yip Sang, Mrs. Yip Kew Yow, Yip Kew Suey, and Yip Kew Mow came from Ow Yook, Sinning, China. We now know this is:

台山 / 新寧縣/都斛 = Toisan, Xinning, Duhu

Note that “Ow Yook,” or Duhu, was likely in Hoisan Wa (Toisanese).

Using mapping programs for China

As you can see from the above, there is a bewildering number of jurisdictional layers in Chinese geography. I tried typing the smallest jurisdiction – the village of Shen Tang, using Chinese – into my online map but the closest I can get is the wider area of Jiangmen District. That’s not too bad: we’re in the neighbourhood. Note that you will be far more likely to get accurate results if you use Chinese, not English, to find places smaller than cities in China. For more on the problems of using Google to find your village, see my post Travels in China – the beginning.

For an 1865 map of China, see this beautiful one from the David Rumsey map collection. For more, see the references below, where there are links to maps of China from 1142 AD to 1967.

Summary

Finding an ancestor’s place of origin can be a tricky business, especially if like me, you don’t read or speak Chinese. Having familiarity with some of the basic levels of Chinese geography will help, as will learning some Chinese words for geography. With those, if you put together the General Register of Chinese Immigration 1885-1949 from Library and Archives Canada with the subsequent spreadsheet research by Ward and Yu at UBC, you can get a lot closer to finding where your ancestors came from if your ancestors came through Canada. A second good, if dated source, is the Friends of Roots DB. There’s one more resource I haven’t mention – that of the village lookup at My China Roots – which I will cover in a future post.

For simplicity’s sake, I avoided talking about heungs, administrative levels, and city prefectures. If you’re familiar with historic records, you’ll notice I also didn’t discuss Sze Yup (Four Counties, or 四邑) or Sam Yup (Three Counties, or 三邑), and that’s because I have yet to see either on any immigration record. A third wrinkle in matching the words found on historic documents with original places of origin is language. In this post I focus on immigrants from Toisan, where the language is Hoisan Wa. The most likely language for poor immigrants from Guangdong is, sadly, not Cantonese, but the language of the county from which they originate.

If you’re new to Chinese and would like more advice, see my posts:

Postscript and thanks

Thank you, as ever, to my readers for your wonderful comments and feedback. I received several suggestions about the Friends of Roots DB, and the spreadsheet, and thought it would be a great follow up post to “Finding Mrs. Yip Sang.”

References and Sites Used

“Administrative Divisions of China,” in Wikipedia, June 11, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Administrative_divisions_of_China&oldid=1028009956.

American Consulate General in Hong Kong, “Village Database Search, Index of Clan Names By Villages for Toishan, Sunwui, Hoiping, and Chungshan Counties, Guangdong, China,” circa 1975, Database Lookup, Friends of Roots, accessed August 2, 2021, http://villagedb.friendsofroots.org/search.cgi.

“Baidu.Com (百度一下,你就知道),” Chinese web search engine, Baidu.com, accessed August 2, 2021, http://www.baidu.com/.

Canada, Immigrants from China, 1885-1949, Port of Vancouver, Register of Chinese Immigration 1887-1908, immigration manifest, Empress of China, arriving Vancouver, Canada on 25 Apr 1900, lines 7-12, Mrs. Yip Sang and party, Volume 701, Microfilm Reel No. C9513, Reference No. RG 76 D2a, index and image, Library and Archives Canada, bac-lac.gc.ca at https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/immigration/immigration-records/immigrants-china-1885-1949/Pages/item.aspx?IdNumber=43640&

“Chinese Maps and Gazetteers,” wiki, FamilySearch Wiki, accessed August 2, 2021, https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Chinese_Maps_and_Gazetteers.

Peter W. Ward and Henry Yu, “Register of Chinese Immigrants to Canada, 1886-1949,” library database, downloadable files, University of British Columbia Library Open Collections, accessed August 2, 2021, https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/facultyresearchandpublications/52383/items/1.0075988.

“Google Translate,” online translation website, Google Translate, accessed August 2, 2021, https://translate.google.ca/. Note that Google translates Chinese to pinyin, which is Mandarin, not Cantonese or Hoisan Wa.

Library and Archives Canada, “Search: Immigrants from China,” Museum and archives, Library and Archives Canada, accessed May 23, 2013, https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/immigration/immigration-records/immigrants-china-1885-1949/Pages/search.aspx.

6 thoughts on “How to find your ancestral locations in China: geography basics, maps, and the UBC Register of Chinese immigration

  1. What an amazing project putting all that info into a spreadsheet and making it freely available!

    So far, I’ve not had any library patrons ask for help with Chinese ancestors, but if anyone does, I’ll be sending them right to your blog.

    1. Yes!! I have lots more tricks on finding data. As you could see from my example, “Mrs. Yip Sang” was perfectly legible, but Yip Kew Suey was not. I find it extra tough to work out transcript errors when they are typed like that, so I use indirect evidence to narrow down the right clues. Over the years, quite a few people have said they know about the spreadsheet, but still can’t locate their family, and I think that’s mainly because of this issue.

      I’m very grateful for the referrals, Teresa. I think people don’t ask because they think there’s no hope of finding anything, but personally I know if a Chinese person came to Canada before 1923, there are public records.

  2. Your Excel instructions are very clear, Linda. Another filter option I use is “contains” which is useful but success is sometimes elusive because of the transcript errors that you have mentioned. Errors are multi-fold. The immigration officers did not understand or speak Chinese, they recorded what they heard in fancy cursive handwriting and the volunteers who entered the data electronically likely struggled with reading the handwriting (does anyone use handwriting anymore?). Case in point is Ow Yook. If you examine the microfilmed image you will note that the supposed letter “Y” matches the letter “F” in the word “female” just a few columns to the left in the register. So the officer actually wrote Ow Fook which is a close transliteration of 都斛 in Hoisan Wa.

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