Roots-Finding: Locating Your Ancestral Village in Teochew (Part 1)

The Teochew identity has come alive in the social media age. With revived interest in the language and culture many overseas Teochews have embarked on “roots-finding” trips to Swatow. A growing number, young and old, are even considering the further step visit the village of their ancestral origin. But for some this is a challenging mission.  

The vast majority of Teochews living abroad, if not all, are immigrants who left their homes before the 1960s, or their descendents. Because of long separation, many have lost contact with family members and relatives in Teochew and with the passing of the older generations, names and addresses can no longer be recalled. But even if the lines of inquiry with the elder folks are broken, there is still hope. 

A peculiar character of the early Teochew emigrants is that they perceived themselves as sojourners, and always harboured hopes of returning home to the place where they or their fathers came from. For this reason their gravestones are almost always engraved with the names of their county and village of origin. Thus for those keen to find out where your Teochew roots lie exactly, paying a visit to the grave(s) of deceased relatives can yield invaluable information.  

Notwithstanding great changes in China in the previous century, overseas Teochews maintain the convention of referring to local places in our ancestral homeland as they were during the late Qing dynasty period. Teochew was then governed as a now-defunct prefecture, which was sub-divided into eight counties, namely: 1. Hai-yor 海陽 2. Jaopeng 饒平 3. Thenghai 澄海  4. Teo-yor 潮陽 5. Gek-yor 揭陽 6.Pholeng 普寧 7.Huilai 惠来 and 8.Hongsun 豐順.  These are often reflected on the gravestones in the following shortened form:  1.海邑 2. 饒邑 3.澄邑 4.潮邑 5.揭邑  6.普邑 7.惠邑 and 8.豐邑. (The word Ip 邑 refers to “county”.) 

Hai-yor was renamed Teo-an 潮安 in 1914 and it encompasses also the Teochew prefectural city, now called Chaozhou. Although many overseas Teochews recall that their forefathers left overseas from Swatow, it is rare for a person to trace his/her ancestral origin to Swatow itself.  This is because even though Swatow was the most important port and centre of commerce in Teochew in the early 1900s, it was merely a settlement of less than 5,000 inhabitants under Thenghai county before it became a Treaty Port after the Second Opium War in 1860. 

The old Teochew prefecture area is currently administered under the three prefectural-level cities Teochew (Chaozhou), Swatow (Shantou) and Gek-yor (Jieyang), each further divided into multiple municipal districts and counties-towns-villages. The table below shows the historical Teochew sub-divisions (names in Teochew transliteration and traditional Chinese) and their modern equivalent(s) (names in hanyu pinyin and simplified Chinese):

  1. Hai-yor 海陽 / Teo-an 潮安 -  Chaozhou Chao'an District  潮州市潮安区

  2. Jaopeng 饒平 -  Chaozhou Raoping County 潮州市饶平县

  3. Thenghai 澄海 - Shantou Chenghai District 汕头市澄海区; Shantou Longhu District 汕头市龙湖区

  4. Teo-yor 潮陽 - Shantou Haojiang District 汕头市濠江区; Shantou Chaoyang District 汕头市潮阳区; Shantou Chaonan District 汕头市潮南区

  5. Gek-yor 揭陽 - Jieyang Rongcheng District 揭阳市榕城区; Jieyang Jiedong District 揭阳市揭东区; Jieyang Jiexi County 揭阳市揭西县

  6. Pholeng 普寧 - Jieyang Puning City  揭阳市普宁市

  7. Huilai 揭阳市惠来 - Jieyang Huilai County揭阳市惠来县

  8. Hongsun 豐順 - Meizhou Fengshun County 梅州市丰顺县

  9. Teochew Prefectural City 潮州府城 -  Chaozhou Xiangqiao District 潮州市湘桥区

  10. Swatow 汕頭 (part of Thenghai before 1921) -  Shantou Jinping District 汕头市金平区 

  11. Namoa island南澳 (included into Teochew prefecture after 1914) - Shantou Nan'ao County 汕头市南澳县

Contrary to the perception of some, local communities in Teochew are highly resilient and the majority of them remain intact despite recent decades of rapid economic and social transformations.   

Once you have the name of your ancestral village from the gravestone(s) or other sources, you can try to locate them on Baidu Map. Be mindful that the inscriptions on the gravestones are usually in traditional Chinese characters and you need to convert them to simplified Chinese. Also the Teochew term for village hie 鄉 is now replaced by the modern standard Chinese character ceng 村. If you are looking for a place in Hai-yor/Teo-an that is not indicated by village 鄉, but by the word hang 巷, it is very like to be a street within the old prefectural city. For your online searches, replace 巷 with the current equivalent goi 街.


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Comment on this post (1 comment)

  • Ryan says...

    Hello, 3rd-gen Singaporean teochew here. Thank you!! has been an invaluable blog series since I embarked on a quest to figure out my maternal ancestral homeland before my first Chaoshan trip.

    I’ve narrowed it down to the township level (彩塘镇), but neither google maps nor baidu maps is able to help me zoom in further, becuase I only have the following vague string to go by: " 仙一妈宫面前溪东路二横1号 ".

    I’m guessing you must frequently receive numerous such requests from gaginang, but I’m going to be thick-skinned and trouble you anyway to perhaps help me make sense of it?

    仙一 seems to be the village, and is 妈宫 面前 a local orientation reference, and is 溪东路 some road, and what does 二横1号 translate to?

    Thank you for any input/pointers!

    August 31, 2019

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