A Guide to Reading Engravings on Chinese Tombstones
A Chinese gravestone usually has at least three columns of characters. The writing in the middle column tends to be larger than that on the side columns. The size of the writing indicates the relative importance of the information. The center column, not surprisingly, gives the name of the deceased. Information about the date and place of birth and age of the deceased is usually inscribed on the right hand side (east) and the date and time of death is found on the left (west).
Characters across the top usually give the district or province of birth. This pattern is not always followed especially with gravestones found overseas: the east (right) and west (left) pattern are not necessarily observed, although the center is always reserved for the name of the deceased.
Most gravestones have the family name first followed by the given names.
Occasionally a character transliterated in pinyin and Cantonese as “Gong” appears between the family name and the given names (as in the gravestone of “Chew Hing” below). Sometimes “Gong” comes after the family and given names (as in the gravestone of “Low Goon Chung” below), and sometimes the word “Gong” is not present and only the family name and given name/s. The word “Gong” literally means maternal grandfather but it can be used as an honorific term attached to the name of the deceased irrespective of his age. However, it can only apply to a male.
The character sometimes precedes the name of a young unmarried female for “Miss” as in the gravestone of Nancy Pang.
Other characters often written after the name of the deceased are those translated as “the grave of”. One or two characters represent these terms. For example:
A more traditional way of inscribing the name of the deceased is shown on the gravestone of “Gee Hing” below. The first two characters in the center column are a term used by a son or daughter to address a father who is deceased. The third character is a possessive adjective meaning “whose name” and is a character used mainly but not exclusively for the dead. The next two characters are the deceased’s given names and his family name is the third last character.
Basically, if the Chinese inscriptions on a gravestone remain reasonably intact, the name of the deceased is in the middle column. Reading from top to bottom the family name comes first and then the given names (usually two characters). The other Chinese characters interspersed with these are honorific names (for example, “gong”), and at the bottom of the column the Chinese characters for “the grave of”. The sequence of characters can change with, for example, “gong” coming after the family name or after all the names of the deceased or, as in the above gravestone of “Gee Hing”, with the names of the deceased in a different order. The reason Zhu (Chu) is recognized as the family name is because it is a common family name compared with the other characters. It is similar to reading an inscription in English with the name “Sue Brown”. We know that the family name is “Brown” and the given name “Sue”, no matter in what sequence the words are inscribed.
Place of Birth
Details about the place of birth can be seen on either side of the middle column but most often on the right hand side. On some gravestones, there is quite a bit of detail. On others, the information is minimal. The gravestone of “Gee Hing” below provides an example of a detailed record of the deceased’s place of origin. The place names are listed from the largest geographically to the smallest. The usual ranking goes from province to district to county (and subdivisions within counties) to village.
The level of detail available from gravestones like that of “Gee Hing” makes it possible to trace a deceased to his or her ancestral village. However, there can be difficulties in subsequently locating any units smaller than a district because, over time, many villages and counties in China are subsumed into larger centers, some have disappeared, and there have been name changes. Sometimes the only way to establish the exact location is to visit the district archives in China armed with the Chinese characters available from gravestones.
Dates of Birth & Death
The date of death is usually inscribed on gravestones although it can be either on the left or right of the middle column of characters. The date of birth is found less frequently. What is consistent is that, as you read Chinese from right to left, if there are two dates anywhere in the inscription, the first date on the right hand side is the birth date. The birth and death dates are presented in Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.) and/or Chinese numerals and different dating systems are used. The different dating systems are:
A. The Chinese Republic followed by a number either in Chinese or Arabic numerals.
The Chinese Republic was established in 1911. Hence, for example of the tombstone below, the 34th year of the Chinese Republic is 1911 + 34 = 1945. (See Gravestone of Wu Shi Zhang following)
B. The “nth” year in the reign of the Qing Emperor. The first two characters refer to the name of the Emperor; the following characters show the number of the year of Emperor’s reign. It is necessary to know the year the Emperor came to the throne in order to calculate the date.
C.Two Chinese characters which indicate a year in the traditional Chinese calendar. This calendar works in 60-year cycles and within each cycle; each year is assigned a name consisting of two characters. The first character refers to one of the ten Celestial Stems, the second to one of the twelve Terrestrial Branches. These are the most difficult dates to interpret as the same two characters could indicate, for example, the years 1840, 1900 or 1960.
D. The dates in the western calendar written in Chinese numerals and writing and/or sometimes written in Arabic numerals and/or writing.