Genealogies (pudie 譜牒) served as records of family history in ancient China. They were biographical genealogies kept with the purpose to underline the social and political importance of a family. The science of family records is called puxue 譜學 "genealogy".
The earliest genealogy in China is the book Shiben 世本 that has survived in several different versions. It describes the genealogies of dynasties and rulers of the regional states from the mythological past to the end of the Spring and Autumn period.
During the Three Empires 三國 (220-280) and Southern and Northern Dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600) it became important for the eminent families (menfa 門閥, shizu 士族) to demonstrate their importance for law and order in the local areas of China, and to clarify their quality for producing candidates for high government offices. Genealogies so became an important instrument to the access to power. The central government actively consulted such genealogies in search for adequate candidates. Eminent families were furthermore exempted from tax-paying and labour corvée. Officials of the local government therefore regularly combed the genealogies in order to find out who was tax-liable and who not, in order to avoid tax evasion. Eminent families intermarried with each other and therefore consulted the genalogies to find ideal matches for their sons and daughters.
During the Taiyuan reign 太元 (376-396) of the Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420) Jia Bi 賈弼 was the first to undertake an empire-wide collection of genealogies in order to record the most eminent families throughout the realm. His records were arranged geographically along the 18 provinces (zhou 州). At that time, the Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420) only ruled over 9 provinces, the others being temporary "refugee provinces" (qiaozhou 僑州) founded by refugee families from the north. His staff compiled an enormous register with a length of 712 juan. This register was actualized during the Qi period 南齊 (479-502) by Wang Sengru 王僧孺 (465-522) who supervised the compilation of the 710-juan long Shiba zhou pu 十八州譜. The version from the Liang period 梁 (502-557) was 690-juan long.
Except such general, empire-wide genealogies, there were also locally limited genealogies, like the Jiangzhou zhuxing pu 江州諸姓譜, Yuanzhou zhuxing pu 袁州諸姓譜, or the Yangzhou puchao 揚州譜抄. Other genealogies were restricted to one family cluster or "clan", like the Xieshi pu 謝氏譜 or the Yangshi xuemai pu 楊氏血脈譜. Understandably, eminent families preferred intermarrying with others of an equal standing. Some books expressed these long-continuing relations between two or more families, like the book Qi Yongyuan zhong biaobu 齊永元中表簿.
From surviving data it can be reckoned that during the Southern and Northern Dynasties period there must have been about 23 empire-wide genealogies (zongpu 總譜), 62 genealogies of particular families (jiapu 家譜, jiazhuan 家傳, jiadie 家牒, shizhuan 世傳), 15 genealogies of dynastic houses (huangshipu 皇室譜), and 13 geographical genealogies. Only a very small part of these was written in northern China.
Under the Liang dynasty an office for genealogies (puju 譜局) was founded. The descendants of Jia Bi continued his work and were the most important compilers of genealogies, like Jia Feizhi 賈匪之, Jia Yuan 賈淵 (439-501, during the Tang period 唐 (618-907) called Jia Xijing 賈希鏡, in order to avoid the personal name of Emperor Gaozu 唐高祖, r. 618-626), Jia Zhi 賈執, and Jia Guan 賈冠. Other genealogists were Xiao Jian 蕭儉, Prince of Langya 琅琊, or Xiao Sengru 蕭僧孺, Prince of Donghai 東海. The historiographer Liu Zhiji 劉知幾 (661-721)called them the "Two Princes of North of the Yangtze" (Jiang zuo liang wang 江左兩王).
Because northern China was much affected by warfare, a lot of genealogies were lost. The Northern Qi period 北齊 (550-577) scholar Wei Shou 魏收 (507-572) tried collecting surviving copies for the compilation of the normal and collective biographies (liezhuan 列傳) of the history of the Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534), the Weishu 魏書. The imperial bibliography Jingjizhi 經籍志 in the official dynastic history Suishu 隋書, written during the early Tang period, includes only a very small amount of genealogies from the north.
It is known that there was a tabloid register of the northern families, the so-called Fangsige 方司格 (also written 方思格). This register was quite simple and served to provide an overview of the general situation of the eminent families. It was not, like in the south, a detailed biographic report of all important family members. There are unfortunately only rare fragments surviving from the Southern and Northern Dynasties period genealogies. Some information is included in the table Xiangzai shixi biao 宰相世系表, which is part of the dynastic history Xintangshu 新唐書, and in Wang Zao's 汪藻 (1079-1154) Shishuo renming pu 世說人名譜. Both sources date from the Song period 宋 (960-1279), much later than the originals.
Genealogies were still important during the first half of the Tang period. During that time large empire-wide genealogies were compiled, as the Yuanhe xingzuan 元和姓纂, Xingshilu 姓氏錄, or Zhenguan shizu zhi 貞觀氏族志. From the second half of the Tang period on, military power became more important than genealogy, and under the Song, the examination system for official recruitment was to replace the former system based on recommendation and family status.
For private purposes, genealogies continued to be compiled. From the Song period on the term zongpu 宗譜 became common for private genealogies, as well as shipu 世譜, shidie 世牒, jiacheng 家乘, jiaji 家記, jiazhi 家志, pulu 譜錄, pulüe 譜略, etc. In the course of generations, each genealogy had to be revised, and was accordingly given a prefix like chupu 初譜 "original records", laopu 老譜 "ancient records", xinpu 新譜 "new records", jinpu 近譜 "recent records", or xupu 續譜 "continued records".
Large family clusters ("clans") had their genealogies often written in compound versions, the so-called tongpu 通譜, tongpu 統譜, quanpu 全譜 or huipu 會譜, while that of a particular family branch was called zhipu 支譜, fenpu 分譜, or fangpu 房譜. Family registers of an imperial dynasty - the imperial genealogy - were called yudie 玉牒 "jade registers" or huangyuan jiqing 星源集慶.
Family registers or family trees (puxi 譜系) were often drawn up in a tabloid shape that had been invented by the Song period scholar Su Xun 蘇洵. Additionally, information was given about imperial grants (enrong 恩榮), shrines (ciyu 祠宇), tombs, biographies, and writings of family members. The family trees include information about the origin of the family, its dwelling place, and all male members, as well as some female member. The section of "imperial grants" mainly includes a list of graduates of provincial and metropolitan examinations as well as imperial edicts directly issued to the family, mostly including the award of titles like zhongyi 忠義 "of loyal conduct" or lienü 烈女 "eminent females".
The section about the shrines include the description of these places, as well as instructions of family ancestors to the family (zugui 族規, jiaxun 家訓), as well as donations of the family to the public community. The tombs section includes the inscriptions incised into the stone slabs. Some genealogies include tables and portraits of ancestors, shrines, estates and tombs.
The number of genalogies is immense, and not all of them have been published. The largest collection of Chinese genealogies is to be found in the Genealogical Society of Utah. The largest part of the more than 10,000 genealogies was collected in Taiwan during the 1970s and 1980s. More than half of these date from the Qing period 清 (1644-1911), several thousand from the Republican period (1912-1949), and less than 100 from the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and earlier. In Southern China it was apparently far more common to compile genealogies than in the north, and among the southern provinces, Jiangsu and Zhejiang are the most prominent places.