Digging up your roots

By Zhang Hui Source:Global Times Published: 2015/11/20 5:03:02

On the 200-meter-long "innovation street" in China's equivalent of Silicon Valley, where a cluster of Internet start-ups strive to produce the technology and services of the future, a store promoting traditional Chinese filial piety by helping people trace their roots sticks out like a sore thumb.

"For people occupied with material gains in bustling metropolises, tracing their family roots can comfort their souls and soothe their hearts," the 53-year-old store owner, Tu Jincan, told the Global Times while taking a sip of tea in his thin white tangzhuang, a traditional Chinese garment. Outside, energetic young people in casual clothes talk loudly about IPOs while holding cups of coffee.

Tu displays a genealogy chart. Photo: Zhang Hui/GT

The street where Tu's office is located was once home to bookstores. It gained worldwide fame after it was renamed Zhongguancun Innovation Street in 2014, attracting visitors from around the world as well as all over China.

Tu's business involves writing memoirs, biographies, family histories and genealogies for ordinary people. He has written over 5,500 of these works for over 4,000 people across the country since his store was established in 2008.

However, like other traditional industries, Tu's business faces the challenge of which direction to take amid the revolutionary impact of the Internet. 

Filial culture

Tu, a former Chinese language middle school teacher hailing from Xiaogan in Central China's Hubei Province, has always been fascinated by genealogy.

When he was a child, Tu's grandma told him the story of Dong Yong, a Xiaogan local from ancient times, who sold himself as an indentured servant in order to pay for his father's funeral fees. 

"Filial culture has been rooted in my heart ever since," Tu said.

When he taught Chinese in a local village, he accidentally discovered old genealogies and ancestral temples where families enshrined and worshipped their ancestors.

"I suddenly realized that the core of filial culture is the tracing of one's roots," Tu said. That's when he decided to come to Beijing to start his business.

Among his various tasks, Tu believes that writing genealogies is the most difficult, especially for people in China with unusual surnames.

"It took me one and a half years to complete a genealogy for an engineer surnamed Rang, but it takes an average of only three to four months for other clients," Tu said.

After carrying out some research, Tu found that there were about 200,000 people named Rang in the country, and they are scattered around 40 remote villages.

Tu and two of his colleagues then went to those villages to talk to people who may have a family connection with his client.

"Although we made a great effort to find as many members of the clan as possible, I am sure the final genealogy is still incomplete," Tu said.

For this kind of work, which involves collecting information from various places, Tu charges a minimum of 10,000 yuan ($1,567) based on how long the whole project takes.

After Tu finishes writing the biographies and genealogies, he then prints out dozens of copies, compiles them into books and then presents them to his clients, who usually share them with friends and relatives.

Benefits of old age

Tu's business revenue has grown by 500,000 yuan each year in the past seven years, and the number of people who work for him has gone from just 10 to 40.

Tu expanded his business to just include shooting family documentaries, training people who want to write their own autobiographies and organizing trips for people who share the same surname.

"The rapid growth of my business can be attributed to China's aging society, as over 90 percent of my 4,000 clients were people aged 50 and above, with the oldest at 96," Tu said, adding that elderly people put a higher value on family and ancestors. 

One client in his 70s from the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region passed away with a memoir written by Tu resting on his chest.

China is aging rapidly, with 212 million people, or 15.5 percent of the total population, aged 60 and above at the end of 2014. It is estimated that the percentage will reach 19.3 percent by 2020 and 38.6 percent by 2050, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

It's not just the aging society that helps Tu. He said his business will further benefit from China's recently eased family planning policy that allows all couples to have two children.

Tu said many clients whose only child is a girl give up on writing their genealogies, because only sons are included in the family tree according to Chinese tradition.

"But with more boys being born in the future, more people will come to me for genealogies," Tu said with as much passion as the other start-up owners in the street.

"Most of the visitors also came to my store out of curiosity, and now my store is quite popular both domestically and internationally," he said, showing off a collection of news clippings from Chinese and foreign media.  

Modern struggles

But the street's rebranding has brought more torment than luck to Tu.

"Waves of young start-ups flooded my store demanding that I make way for their businesses after the street was renamed, and I was totally overwhelmed," Tu recalled.

After the street became the country's innovation hub, it attracted over 20 agencies providing services for Internet start-ups and 400 entrepreneurial teams.

Many young start-ups dismissed Tu's business as a "sunset industry," and asked him to close his store.

"I found that I could not conduct my business, as they kept calling or showing up to try and talk me out of my business," Tu said.

Unable to resist the pressure, Tu was forced to rent out the second floor of his store as a teahouse in March for start-ups to discuss their business ideas.

Tu managed to close the teahouse and reopen it as pact of his store three months later, but his business still shrank.

"My store shrank from three floors to the current one floor after the landlord, who also believed my business was incompatible with the street, put up the total annual rent from 900,000 yuan to 2.8 million yuan," Tu said.

Even the management of the street said that companies not connected with the Internet would gradually be eliminated from the area.

"Under pressure from multiple sources, I am now forced to bring my business online," Tu said.

"But I have no idea how to go about doing this project," he said. 


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