Chinese Headstone Transcription

A BIG THANK YOU to Steven Gillispie and those who helped him with this translation!!!

Click here for photo of Chinese headstones

Here is the final interpretation of the two Chinese Heppner flood stones that I and my friend have both agreed on. (At last!!) It is pretty much the same as the interim one, except that we have settled on the locations. For reasons that should be clear, I also reversed the order of their discussion, so that the short, round-topped one now appears first. (Its home location is much more clearer, based on the much better photos you were able to send me.) But, still, we had to do a lot of guessing about the locations described on the stones. I have just sent you below our final conclusions. If you want a discussion of why these were our best guesses, I can send you that as well, but it might turn out to be even longer than this one! Probably you will be happy with just this, but let me know if you want something more documented.

First of all, I want to say that I think the earlier translations appear to have been done as best as possible given the information available (pictures and such), and I am still treating their work as an important part of these explanations even while correcting some things. One thing, though, is that even though China uses the same written language throughout the country, the pronunciations of it vary in different regions. Today the official "national" language is Mandarin with the Beijing accent, and that looks to me like the language used in the transcription done for you before. However, most of the Chinese that came to the US in the 1800s were from southern China from the province of Guangdong (around Hong Kong), and they spoke Cantonese, or something similar. So, as an example, Guangdong would have sounded more like Kwangtung. This adds an additional layer of information. On the other hand, it turns out that neither of these two stones actually indicate positively which province of China their "residents" were from. So add in another layer of confusion as well!

I have been working with a friend from Hong Kong, and she is also contributing her knowledge to this. But neither of us are experts on Chinese gravestones, so believe all of this at your own risk! One thing, though, is that both stones seem clearly to be Chinese, so you may want to remove the "& Japanese" part from the title of the Web page with the pictures. (Unless you have some Japanese stones there in Heppner, as well. While I have found that Japanese stones are also often written in Chinese characters, these two seem clearly to be Chinese.)

So, to start with the shorter, rounded-top stone. Most of the Chinese stones I have seen all follow the same general pattern, with the name down the middle and the birthplace and death date down the sides. However, there also seem to be a lot of variations. For example, this stone contains no death date--just the name and the person's home village in China. So starting with the middle column, the first character is the family name, or surname, of this person. It is true that in Mandarin this first character is pronounced Wu (it is the formal character for 'five'), but when used as a surname, at least in south China, it is pronounced Ng. Sometimes this is anglicized to Eng or Ing. The next character (gong) is probably used simply to indicate that this person was a man. It might be roughly translated as 'Mr.', but in Chinese there is a different term used for where American English usually uses 'Mr.', so we think this second character was probably not part of the name and was meant just to clear up any uncertainties about the person buried there, though it is still possible it was part of the given name. But most likely it was not and you should just leave it out when referring to this person. The third character is the given name, which would be Wah in Cantonese (it is also the first character in the Chinese spelling of Washington). The last two characters together mean 'grave'.

The remaining eight characters all refer to this person's birthplace (or at least where he wanted it to be known where he was from). Unfortunately, the province of China where he was from is not given on the stone. It also turns out that the place names here are somewhat common. Moreover, much has changed in China over the last century. We have made our best guess as to where this location really was, but there is still a little uncertainty involved. (At least, though, things are more reliable with this stone than with the taller one below!) Starting with the rightmost column and reading down, the first two characters would be pronounced Hsin and Ning. Together, Hsinning is an old name for a district in Guangdong province located to the west of Hong Kong and now called Taishan. The next two characters are Haiyan, and refer to a town located not far from the coast on a peninsula south of the city of Taishan that a moderately detailed modern map, if you have one, might actually show. Then starting with the top character in the leftmost column, the next three characters down form Namagang followed finally by a character meaning 'village'. Taken all together, these eight characters describe this person's home village: Namagang village, near Haiyan, in the Hsinning district of Guangdong province. This village no longer seems to exist, since the town of Haiyan seems to have grown out and engulfed it, but at least we believe that this is where it used to be.

Note that there is no death date on this stone. But since it is located in the cemetery section with the other Heppner flood victims, that seems pretty clear. There is also no birth date, but that is not unusual for Chinese gravestones.

Then, going on to the taller, square-topped stone, this stone shows another variation: the two horizontally written characters at the top of the stone. Reading these from right to left, the first (rightmost) character is another form of the character Ning. The second (leftmost) character is Yi, meaning 'district'. I have never seen any Chinese location described fully with only a single character, so this Ning is probably the abbreviation for the district name. It seems most likely that it refers to the same Hsinning district of Guangdong province that the shorter stone above refers to. Most of the Chinese who came to the US during this time were also from this Hsinning (now Taishan) region. I do not know why this stone gives so much emphasis to the home district (displayed more prominently than the person's name), but I have seen this pattern before and, while it is not the normal style, it is not a particularly unusual one, either. Next, the first character of the middle column (below the top two characters) is the family surname. This is Lei in Mandarin, but in Cantonese this would be pronounced more like Lui, or as more commonly Americanized, Louie. The next character down is the given name, which in Mandarin is Quan (the handwritten translation from before is a 'q', not a 'g') and is probably best pronounced in English as Chuan, but in Cantonese this would be more like Tsuen. That could get recorded in English in many different ways. Then comes the 'gong' character, most likely just indicating that this person was a man, though it is still possible it was part of the given name. And then, finally, the last two characters together meaning 'grave'.

In the right column, the third character means 'village'. So the first two characters in that column would be the village name, Tangmian.

The final (left) column gives the date of death. Chinese dates during this time used lunar years counted from the beginning of the reign of the current emperor. So every time there was a new emperor, it was year 1 again. Obviously, it would be essential to mark which reign period was the relevant one, so the first two characters of this column give the reign period to use. The next three characters are 'twenty', 'nine', and 'year'. The next two are 'five' and 'month', followed by 'twenty' and 'day'. The last character means 'at the end', meaning that this is a death date. So now one has to convert this to a Gregorian calendar date.

In 1903 anybody who could read and write would know the current year, but these days one has to look this up in a book. The reign year shown here is that for the ninth Qing (best pronounced in English as Ching) emperor, who ruled from 1875-1908. So the 29th year would be 1903. Of course, this refers to the lunar year, so one then has to know the lunar New Year's day for 1903. The Chinese lunar year begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice, and each month after that begins on the next new moon. These days, even with GPS satellites and computers, the US Navy still expects its officers to be able to navigate using a sextant and astronomical sightings. So, even though now most of its "customers" are professional astronomers rather than ship captains, the US Naval Observatory still publishes data for these sorts of things. On their Web site at <> you can find out that the first new moon of 1903 was on Jan 28 at 4:38pm, and that there was also one on Dec 29, 1902, which would also have been after the winter solstice (around Dec 21), but that there were none others before it. So the new moon on Jan 28 would have been the second one after the solstice and so would have been New Year's day. But note that these times are in Universal Time, which is (basically) the time at Greenwich, England. In China, at the time of the new moon the clocks would have read 8 hours later (8 time zones to the east), which would have been 12:38 am on Jan 29. So in China the new year would have started on Jan 29. But in Heppner, 8 hours earlier, it would still have been Jan 28. Then using the same Web page, the fifth lunar month would have started four new moons later, or May 26, 1903 (in Heppner). The twentieth day of that month would have been 19 days later, or June 14,1903. This date matches exactly the date of the great Heppner flood, which is very reassuring!

But note that there is also no mention anywhere on this stone of the province of China where this person was from. Still, though, the reference to the Ning district strongly suggests that this person was from the Hsinning district of Guangdong province, especially since historical records show that most of the Chinese in the US at that time were from that region, and so would have spoken the same dialect of the Chinese language. It isn't very likely that in the small town of Heppner there would have been enough Chinese people there to have supported two different subgroups speaking different dialects of Chinese.

Most of the Chinese that came to the US at that time were not planning to become permanent residents, but were simply hoping to get enough money (originally in the gold fields, since they called America 'Gold Mountain'; that term is still part of the Chinese name for San Francisco) to be able to return to China and retire comfortably. When they landed in the US they normally went to a local association, usually organized around their home district in China, for assistance in getting started in this strange, new country. There they often paid an "insurance" fee so that if they died their remains would later be gathered up and sent back to China so they could be buried beside their ancestors. Perhaps these two never paid their fee, because they didn't believe they would die or because they couldn't afford it. Perhaps they did but their records were lost. Or perhaps they left China and never wanted to return, and so figured that if they died they would prefer to be buried here. Another possibility is that the group that came out years later to send the remains back to China was from one area (probably Portland) while these two people had paid their fee in San Francisco or some other place and the records were never known about. It seems to me that at the time the fee was paid, the association would have recorded thoroughly the home district and location of where to send the remains, so that it would not be necessary to depend solely on the characters on the stone. Thus, if they were not sent back it was most likely because there were no known records requesting that.

In the end, it seems that there could be a lot of reasons why these two graves were left behind, and it is hard to know which of those above is the right one or whether it was something entirely different. If we could compare these two stones to the ones that were taken and see the differences, that might give some more clues but, of course, we can't do that. But I do think that it is probably very certain that if the remains were sent back to China the gravestones would have been as well, so these two stones still mark actual burials, and are not just memorials left behind.

If you want to follow this up further, you could try writing to the Chinese associations to see if any of them might have records of the delegation that came out to Heppner those many years after the flood. Most likely it was from Portland. There were actually many associations Chinese people could belong to--based on family surname, home district, or type of business, for example. In most large US cities, though, there was one master association, one of whose important functions was to be a focal point for dealings with the non-Chinese society. You might want to write to one of these. I am sure that if you described your problem as wanting to re-establish the Chinese contribution to Heppner history, they would be happy to help you. In Portland, the master association is called the Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Association. In San Francisco (this one had national prominence), it is the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, and in Seattle it is the Chong Wah Benevolent Association. Let me know if you want further details on this.

Finally, if you want to search in American records it seems like you should look for (in American name order) the names Wah Eng and Tsuen Louie, or something similar to those. Because the Chinese laborers of that time were moving around looking for work, I would be surprised if any of them stayed around in Heppner from 1900-1903 (if you were to check the census). On the other hand, the Louie stone appears a bit larger and slightly better carved than the Eng one, so perhaps he was a bit better off and maybe a business owner who might appear in some Heppner records. Still, though, I think you will have a hard time turning up anything. But best of luck to you if you decide to give it a try!

Steve Gillispie (8-23-2013 Unknown if still good)