I know very little about my family’s past. I do know that my parents came to Canada in 1947 as part of the Chinese diplomatic service. They never expected to stay permanently but history intervened and they were forced to become refugees. Like so many other immigrants, they worked long and hard to provide a good life for their 4 children. Unfortunately, they did not force us to speak Mandarin, they were busy and the community was small. Regretfully, none of us grew up speaking the mother tongue. Although there was prejudice, we were somewhat sheltered by a community full of immigrants including Greeks, Italians, Latvians, Germans and even open minded multi-generational Canadians. We grew up Canadian first, we were assimilated. This was especially true when I, the last child, rolled out of the womb. I was never interested in my heritage, something that I regret today.
Last year, my sister and I took a trip to China, my first time. Over the course of 2 weeks, we saw many sites in Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu and Shanghai. At one tourist shop, we picked up a souvenir pamphlet that talked to the history of our name “任“. Of course, neither of us could read it but we would get it translated. Fast forward several months. I asked an elderly Chinese man to translate it for me. He politely declined but found the same document online. That’s where it started, I spent a month obsessed by the pursuit of my family history.
My siblings had some snippets of documents that my father had written. On one, I found crucial information: my father and grandfather’s names written in Chinese characters along with their ancestral hometown, Yixing in the province of Jiangsu. My elderly friend provided the digital characters that allowed me to do Google searches. Not reading Chinese is an enormous handicap when you are researching your genealogy. I had to use several online translators to gain even a nugget of understanding. Translators are literal, they cannot grasp the context of characters that have different meanings when placed in different sequences.
What I have found is fascinating. It also makes me proud of where I come from. My family is old, very old. The name”任” harkens back to 2500 B.C. Yes, that’s 2500 years before Christ. The Yellow Emperor bestowed a Dukedom of “任” upon the youngest of his 25 sons. His descendants took this surname. The branch I come from can trace roots back to the 5th century. This current cycle split off in the 13th century when my ancestors fled south from the invading Mongols lead by Kublai Khan. They settled in Yixing where my father (任以宏)was born in 1912, almost 7 centuries later.
My father was very proud of his own father (任锡周). Born in 1873, our grandfather was awarded the title of “Juren”, a designation bestowed upon the few who successfully passed the grueling imperial exams. This was the entry to higher level positions within the public service. We know that he was a secretary in the Governor of the Province of Jiangsu’s office and for 5 years, he had a similar role in the office of the President of the Republic himself. We also know that he was honourable and patriotic. He was deeply disturbed by the corruption manifested by powerful warloads that was rampant in the government. During the Sino-Japanese war, he refused to be bribed and as a result, he eventually lost his wealth, his health and his life shortly after this period.
During my search, I stumbled upon a Chinese language website that was set up in 2014 to celebrate the”任” family heritage but also to find overseas members. I sent an e-mail in English and 5 days later, I was rewarded with an e-mail from Mary in Sydney, Australia. She gave me so much information including the digital version of the last update of the family book, a customized spreadsheet showing our lineage back to the 13th century and even poems by family members. Unfortunately, many of these documents sit in my Dropbox, still unread.
My last name “任” means “a person doing his duty”. It is listed as the #58th most popular Chinese name with 4.2 million people sharing it. In English, it was translated to “Jen” (although more recently, the new Pinyin translation is “Ren”). My siblings and I have always thought that we alone had this last name, we had never ever met any other Jen’s. But this past summer, much to my surprise, I saw someone in a Facebook group with the same last name. I sent her a private message with some information and lo and behold, she confirmed that her family also came from the same town. And then we discovered that we live 1 kilometre apart!. I have also become aware of an American writer named Gish Jen who I now follow on Facebook. I bought her book, Tiger Writing, which was inspired by her father’s memoirs. I’ve done a search and found other people in the US and Canada named “Jen” and “Ren”. I have not reached out, I am not sure what I would say so maybe it is a project for the future.
The Internet has made the search for my family roots much easier. My only regret is that I did not take the time to gather information from the master of story telling himself, my father. He was a also scholar and a very prolific communicator until he went blind in his 80s. Much of our immediate ancestral history died with him in 1999. But I have to think that he is looking down upon us, happy that we are finally looking back to the past to help define who we are today.