27 October 2014

Etched in Stone

I love most episodes of Finding Your Roots. Some I've watched over and over and over again. Unfortunately last week's episode, "The Melting Pot" [video is available until 21 Nov 2014], made me want to throw things at the television.
Below are a few transcribed portions and my notes.
[Dr. Gates narrating] "When Ming's grandfather left China, there was one object he took with him. A book tracing the family's genealogy back to the year 891 A.D.. It's a treasure in the Tsai family. But unfortunately for Ming the book is simply oral history set down by his ancestors. There's been no way to know if it's true, until now.
We sent researchers to China to try and confirm the Tsai genealogy. It was a long shot. The communists had ordered that all genealogical records be destroyed in an effort to break down family structures. This was, in fact, a fundamental part of the Cultural Revolution. But in some cases stone carved tablets, known as steles, have survived. Before communism the Chinese landscape was dotted with hundreds of thousands of these steles. In Ming's hometown only one remains standing."
"Ming's hometown"? Ming Tsai was born in Newport Beach, California and was raised in Dayton, Ohio.
[Dr. Gates talking to Ming] "Our researcher kept asking around and someone told her that of all of the family shrines that had existed before the Cultural Revolution there was only one that remained standing. Can you imagine that? I mean, of all these thousands, just one."
 Screen cap from "The Melting Pot" episode of Finding Your Roots.

Of course it's for the Tsai family, Ming's 36th great-grandfather, and there is a great television moment...and then genealogy brain kicks in. That stele looks like it was created in the last 25 years so who created it? Where did the information come from? How well is it documented?
Someone on Facebook commented that this stele was actually created in 2007 to memorialize the thousands of steles that once were. I don't read Chinese so maybe someone else can confirm that. Is it "the only one" still standing because it has only been standing for 7 years?
[Dr. Gates narrating] The stele confirmed Ming's family history to the letter. It documented his ancestry back to 891 A.D. and beyond.
Not even a question about whether the book was copied from the stone or vice versa? Do we know who provided the information for the stone? How does this "confirm" anything? I just have more questions.
[Dr. Gates narrating] But for Ming the biggest surprise was yet to come. His family stele lead our researcher to records in the Shanghai Library. Records that allowed us to construct a Tsai family tree that stretched back more than 90 generations. It was the largest family tree that we've ever constructed and it connected Ming to a legendary figure in Chinese history, Huang Di, one of China's first five emperors, often cited in folklore as the father of the Chinese language."
 Screen cap from The Melting Pot episode of "Finding Your Roots."

Oh, they're looking at microfilm. It must be true.
[Dr. Gates narrating] The records skip several generations so precise genealogy is impossible here but Huang Di is roughly Ming's 116th great-grandfather and just one of the hundreds of new ancestors that we were able to name for him.
The records skip several generations. The records SKIP several generations. The records skip SEVERAL generations. There is no way to say that, continue speaking as if it's no big deal, and not have genealogists everywhere question any research you have ever done.
I was hoping that there would be an explanation on the Finding Your Roots website. Research info, a history lesson, something to help us understand. No such luck. Their genealogy blog only has posts about DNA and Dr. Gates' blog hasn't had a new post since May of 2012.

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  1. Thank you. I decided awhile back to view the show as art, aggrandizement, and entertainment. It plays fast and loose with records and serious research.