When Family Myths and Research Collide

Surprise! Not everything you think you know about your relatives is true

Aimee Liu
5 min readApr 23, 2022

The author’s grandparents and eldest aunt, 1908. Courtesy of author.

This morning I received an email that torpedoed one of my family’s central myths. My father and his siblings always told the rest of us that their grandfather was “the Viceroy of Canton.” Naturally, our extended family took that as gospel — even if we could never identify the specific viceroy whose dates in Guangzhou (Canton) lined up with my grandfather’s birth date there in 1876. Since my grandfather was just a boy when his father died, we had little first-hand information to go on, but I finally deduced that “our” viceroy had to be Liu Changyou, whose name resembled my grandfather’s, Liu Chengyu, and who had been Viceroy of Canton in the early 1870s.

Today, though, I received the first bit of research from My China Roots, the genealogical service I recently hired to look into my family’s Chinese history. Our supposed viceroy was the first casualty of this project:

It turns out that Liu Changyou 劉長佑 on the doc you shared with us was not your great grandfather.

Liu Chengyu’s father was called Liu Zhaolin 劉兆霖 whose literary name 號 was Yuchen 雨臣. His ancestral place was Jiangxia, Hubei Province 湖北江夏(Google map).

He was a 拔貢(“ a student plucked up and offered as tribute”), which means he was an outstanding graduate of the local Confucian School and admitted to the National University. Then he worked as an employee in Grand Secretariat 內閣 of Qing Government, later became a magistrate in Guangzhou Prefecture 廣州府 and Chaozhou Prefecture 潮州府. We found he was the county magistrate 知縣 of Renhua County 仁化縣 in 1861, and was the county magistrate of Sunning County 新寧縣 (aka Toisan 台山 now, ancestral place for many American Chinese) from 1872–1874.

After retirement, he went back to Wuchang 武昌 and taught at home. He was strict with his children. He died in 1888 when Liu Chengyu was 13 years old, and your grandfather was raised by his mother Ms.Fang 方.

Now, there’s no shame in this news. A magistrate in old China held a civil rank of distinction. But not on a par with that of a viceroy, or provincial governor. How, then, did this myth of exalted rank develop?

The making of a…

Aimee Liu

Author, Asian-American novels (Glorious Boy), nonfiction on eating disorders (Gaining), writing, wellness. Published @Hachette. MFA & more@ aimeeliu.net