Confucius’s diverse descendants can contribute anything but their blood. Illustration: Jillian Tamaki.
In Jinan, China, the Confucius Genealogy Compilation Committee is at the final stage of the fifth major revision of Confucius’s family tree, which should be complete next summer. With more than 2 million registered descendants, the family tree of Confucius, the revered Chinese philosopher who lived over 2,500 years ago, is the longest in the world. Fearing that the genealogy of Confucius, last updated in 1931, could be lost forever as China marches into modernity, 77th-generation descendant Kong De-yong launched the present effort in 1998.
The current revision marks a major break from the past in several respects: Unlike previous attempts, women, ethnic minorities, and other previously excluded groups will be able contribute their genealogies. “The project is about promoting the legacy of the great man rather than the patriarchal clan system of the family,” says Kong. But even as the project’s directors strive to bring the memory of Confucius in line with the more progressive ideals of modern society, there is one potentially important — and doubtlessly the most modern — contribution to the project that the Chinese won’t be allowed to make: their DNA. In doing so, the project hints at the limits of Chinese engagement with the age of genomics, and demonstrates how high cultural stakes can constrain science.
Part of the rejection of DNA is conservatism. The 82-year-old Kong explains that the revision of the Confucius family tree resorts to traditional approaches in genealogy, which are heavily based on records and documentations. According to Deng Ya-jun, director of the forensic-science center of the Beijing Genomic Institute, genetic genealogy — quite popular in much of the Western world — has attracted far less interest in China. This might be, she reckons, because the families interested in genealogy are likely to be the most traditional ones, and therefore unlikely to embrace DNA fingerprinting. Part of it is cost, too: The project would cost more than 100 times more per participant if DNA were used.
Some Confucius descendents, such as Kong Wei, a 21-year-old economics student at the Beijing Normal University, are not happy with the committee’s chosen course. Kong Wei worries that “rejecting genetic-fingerprinting technologies would undermine the authenticity of the revised Confucius family tree.” Authenticity, however, is not the only issue in genealogy, remarks Bryan Sykes, a professor of human genetics at Oxford University. “The Confucius family tree has an enormous cultural significance,” he says. “It’s not just a scientific question.”
This is because of what DNA fingerprinting might reveal. “Records and documentations are not foolproof,” says Deng. As titles and prestige often accompanied patrilineal descent from Confucius, adoption and even deceit probably contributed to the appearance of unbroken lineage — as has been the case with powerful families across cultures throughout history. “DNA, however, does not lie,” says Deng.
The scientific expertise and techniques to establish patrilineal descent from any man are all available, explains Sykes, who in 2001 founded Oxford Ancestors, the world’s first genealogical DNA testing firm. As the Y chromosome is passed from father to son, all male descendents of a man would have the same Y chromosome. Past fraudulent claims for descent could leave living male “descendents” within the 181 Confucius lineages with different Y chromosome. “You can imagine the kind of havoc this result may cause,” says Sykes. “So people revising the family tree probably don’t want to know the answer.”
Han Dong-hui, a professor at the Beijing-based Renmin University, argues that the cultural importance of Confucius — and the role his apparent descendants play in his resurgent veneration — means it is not a perfect window into the Chinese public’s feelings toward science. But perhaps it is: Given the potential implications of genetic knowledge for long-presumed members of the Kong family, they think it better not to know. And so, in this case, science takes a back seat.
Originally published August 13, 2008