Genetic Genealogy and the Chinese

Genetic Genealogy and the Chinese

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted November 7, 2007 in DNA and Genealogy

Last week’s Nature news article about personalized genomics was interesting in more ways than one. I was particularly intrigued by the picture they used showing three generations of East Asian (probably Chinese) women looking at a laptop. It got me wondering if they were at all representative of the type of consumer who’s interested in personalized genomics. What does the Chinese community think of genetic genealogy anyway?

Generally speaking, I don’t believe genetic genealogy companies based outside of Asia can provide much information for Asians primarily because their databases are made-up of people who are not Asian. If you look at any article about genealogy using DNA testing, the same ethnic groups or populations pop up again and again – whites, Europeans, Africans, Native Americans, and Jews. What are the chances that a genealogy DNA testing company in the US or UK has enough data on other Chinese people like me so that I can learn more about my family tree or find matches with distant relatives?

In Singapore, there are Chinese clan associations that keep detailed records of descendants – but only male descendants really count because they carry on the family name. Some of my Chinese-American friends have gone to China to visit their family’s village and can trace their family trees back many generations. Me? I can barely trace further than my grandparents.

One company that has done some testing of Chinese DNA is Family Tree DNA. Group administrator Ivan Shim runs the China/Chinese DNA Project which aims to map “the distribution of the various Chinese haplogroups & subclades around the world.” As of today, 42 Y-DNA tests have been run and of these, most appear to come from the O haplogroup. Eighteen mtDNA tests have been performed with seven people in the M* haplogroup.

The Genographic Project uses Y-DNA and mtDNA to trace ancestry which can be interesting for anyone, including the Chinese. Two years ago, a Chinese reporter from Singapore’s Todayonline (article offline) participated in The Genographic Project and was surprised to find that her DNA mapped to haplogroup H, which is associated with more than half of all Europeans, many North Africans and Middle Easterners, and some Northern Indians and central Asians. She apparently belonged to an understudied branch of haplogroup H.

haplogroup o2

Jeff Yen in Singapore got his Genographic results late last month. His genetic markers showed that he belonged to haplogroup O2. Jeff’s ancestors most likely started in Africa, traveled through the Middle East, Iran or southern Central Asia, then Central or East Asia, and finally East Asia approximately 30,000 years ago. Interestingly, one commenter pointed out that Jeff’s haplogroup is unusual for a Chinese person and indeed there is only one person in the Family Tree DNA China Project that belongs to haplogroup O2. For Genographic Project results that typify Chinese males, see this pdf file for haplogroup O.

Have you taken a genealogy DNA test before? Why or why not? Were your results what you expected? I’m especially interested in hearing from people of Chinese heritage.

For more about genetic genealogy, Blaine Bettinger of The Genetic Genealogist is the one to visit. You may want to start with his free eBook – 10 DNA Testing Myths Busted and Other Favorite Posts.

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Comment by Blaine Subscribed to comments via email


Great post. I think you’re right, Asian populations are severely under-represented in most public (and private) genetic genealogy databases such as Ybase, Ysearch, and mitosearch. However, in January 2006, The Wall Street Journal Asia published an article which concluded that genetic genealogy is on the rise in Asia:

“Asia has become an emerging market for consumer-oriented DNA-testing services”

The full article is here:

This could be a huge market for any company with the desire and resources to enter it.

Thanks for weighing in, Blaine! I’ll be moving to Singapore sometime in the near future and will be looking into the market there. From what I can tell, Singapore is an ideal place to start a direct-to-consumer DNA services company. Nobody better beat me to it or at least consider starting without me. ;)

Comment by nick gogerty Subscribed to comments via email

hi Hsien,

as always an interesting post. I read somewhere that 95% of chinese self identify as Han. Just curious what the social implications are if there is a perceived difference among groups.

For example some Japanese are very interested in Blood Types as status indicators. It will be interesting to see how genotypes are percieved through the social prism. Lets hope that genetic variances aren’t used for prejudice or social biases.

Hi Nick! That’s an interesting statistic. From my own experience, Chinese people are already very aware of regional differences so having genetic data to support that would not be too surprising or controversial. And sadly, Chinese people can also be just as, if not more than, biased than everyone else….

Comment by Kristina

Fascinating and no I’ve not had my geneaology DNA tested—-it makes me wonder, though.

Kristina, It’s like one of those things where we’re pretty sure what kind of answer we’re going to get (which would make the test somewhat boring) but…at least for me, a little afraid of getting something unexpected!

Comment by Blaine Subscribed to comments via email

Kristina, I’ve been unconsciously working on Hsien to get her to try genetic genealogy for a while now! I think she’s getting closer and closer! I feel that the unknown aspect is a real divide – some people are excited by the prospect of unexpected results, while others are cautious. There certainly isn’t any right or wrong – it’s a very personal choice that should only be made after some research and education.

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Comment by Derek Subscribed to comments via email

Hi Hsien, I don’t understand the craze for genealogy. I submitted my DNA for genealogical analysis, (as I was offered a free test) and was told that I belong to haplogroup R1 (basically common British) — well, I could have told anyone that without a test. As for any continued research based on male ante-cedents or surnames, I already know for sure that I am descended from a line of females that were lax about matching surnames with biolgical fathers, so I don’t see any reason to pursue that route. It seems genealogy makes more sense for a “melting-pot” society like the US, rather than the more homogeneous society that Britain was when I was born. Maybe I should post to Blaine and ask him what point there would be in looking any further.

Comment by Rob Subscribed to comments via email

Well Derek, my male ancestors are from the German Rhineland and I well expected to test with a common northern western European haplogroup such as R1. However, it tested as a southern mediteranean European J2. I had the deep sub clade testing done and this revealed even more. It gave me a marker, M102, that has its highest concentrations in ancient Macedonia Greece and north central Italy. So, one possible explanation for this is that the Romans garisoned legions from both these regions in Mainz Germany which was the capital of the Roman province of Germania Superior. And, my male German ancestors were from a place close to Mainz.

Thanks for sharing your results, Rob! Fascinating to imagine what your ancestors may have been up to in ancient history.

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Comment by ds Subscribed to comments via email

I have to say, for me personally, Genetic Genealogy is one of the most interesting things to do. B/c it gives one the information about “where one comes from.”

For example, my own Y-chromosome is of haplogroup E3b-V22!! See

for the distribution of E3b-V22 (E1b1b1a3*, formerly E3b1a3*) in different populations. Of course, only a small number of people (20-300) was sampled in each population, but still, the distribution patterns are very interesting. It will be fun to correlate the geographic distribution of specific haplogroups with specific historical events.

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Derek, I think Rob brings up an interesting point which is that you can get more detailed SNP analysis done to help you match with others in the database. Genealogists look for that so they can fill out their family tree. If you’re more interested in ancestry, however, then a Y-DNA test may not be quite so exciting.

On the other hand, although admixture DNA testing (looking at autosomal DNA) is controversial, many people find those results interesting as well.

Comment by ds Subscribed to comments via email

Hi Hsien, it maybe that USA/UK based testing companies have currently a relatively small amount of Y-DNA & mitochondrial DNA results from Asian customers in their databases to help a new customer find matches. However, anyone on the Planet can test his/her DNA with these companies, so every time someone new, regardless of which ethnic group, tests him/herself, more information will be available to everyone else!

There are in fact 2 aspects of genealogical DNA testing: (a) one’s haplogroup tells one one’s ancient migration route from East Africa to whereever the grandparents were born. This is of course a much more detailed, and thus interesting, journey, than the straight & simplified arrows on the world map. (b) By comparing one’s haplotype ( & with those of other people, one can reconnect with (far) relatives.

Please note that Family Tree DNA offers a small discount if one first joins any project, see point 9.) here:

Also, everyone who tested via the Genographic Project is highly encouraged to transfer his/her results to FT-DNA, see point 10.).

ds, Thanks for the additional info. I focused more on ancestry/haplogroup testing in this post simply because I don’t really think there are enough data from Asians to have much chance of reconnecting with distant relatives. Perhaps I’m wrong but that’s the impression I get.


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