Past Features

February 23, 2009 (Vol. 9, No. 3)

Lehman Librarian Travels to China to Unlock Family's Past

Kauchen Gee
Kauchen Gee

Lehman Librarian Kachuen (Carol) Yuan Gee put her research skills to work last October when she traveled to China on a mission to chart her family tree. Family ties were severed in 1916 by the death of her grandfather, who became the first president of the Republic of China after the abdication of the nation's last emperor.

Professor Gee, who made the trip with genealogy researcher Janey Chao, a professor at Baruch College, is scheduled to present her work at the Mid-Manhattan Library on Saturday, March 7, at 2:30 p.m. on the sixth floor of the library.

Born in Beijing, Professor Gee moved to Hong Kong at age six with her family, where she grew up hearing stories about her grandfather, Yuan Shikai, and his many contributions to Chinese governance. He played a critical role in China's evolution from a monarchy, successfully negotiated the peaceful abdication of the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty and was the first president of the new republic from 1914-1916. Because he tried to revert the government back to a monarchy, with himself as the emperor, his reputation became mired in controversy after his death.

During China's Cultural Revolution, Shikai was branded as a cruel, ruthless, and selfish man whose only aspiration was to be the emperor. Members of his family were ostracized, forced out of their jobs, and sentenced to hard labor; some were banished to Mongolia. Born thirty years after his death, Professor Gee can still recall how the history books of the time portrayed her grandfather in a less than favorable light.

Kauchen Gee with members of family
Kauchen Gee (Center) with members of her family visiting the military museum built in her grandfather's honor in Tianjin, China.

In recent years, though, China's views of its first president have changed, mostly for the better. Historians have revisited Shikai's legacy and determined that his contributions far outweighed his failings—which is why Professor Gee decided that now was the time to rediscover her family's history and help mend the family tree. With the help of her cousin Yin Chengzu, a prominent hydraulic architect who lives in China, she was able to track down many surviving family members.

Professors Gee and Chao visited many parts of China, including Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Hefei, Yuan's ancestral home in Xiangcheng, Henan, and his tomb in Anyang. Together, they collected research materials, took hundreds of photographs, and interviewed about thirty relatives.

Professor Gee admits that before setting off on the trip she was concerned about how she would be received. "In China, people are generally reserved about speaking to strangers, and they do not express their thoughts and ideas openly," she explains. "I was very pleased to find, however, that my relatives were not only happy to meet me, but they were eager to share with me their life stories without hesitation or reservation."

Overall, she was impressed by the warm reception she received not only from members of her family but also from Chinese officials. During her visit to Henan, she found many people there still revered and respected her grandfather. The local government treated her and Professor Chao with generous hospitality and escorted them around the city for a week.

From two museums built in President Yuan's honor, they gathered original documents about the family's history, anecdotes, and secrets, in addition to valuable pictures of ancestors. Returning home, they spent weeks sorting materials to create a large online Yuan ancestral file. Professor Gee is currently writing a paper summarizing the findings of their trip for presentation this May at the fourth international conference of the World Confederation of Institutes and Libraries for Chinese Overseas Studies. Eventually they hope to publish their research, including many oral history interviews with Yuan survivors, as a commemoration of the Yuan family and contribution to modern Chinese social and political history.