Philanthropy / Philanthropy and Democracy / Philanthropy and Historical Research

“A Disparity in Paper”: Recovering Chinese Charitable Traditions and the Struggle Against Western Philanthropic Imperialism

Editors’ Note: This post, by Caroline Reeves, is adapted from a paper presented at the “Empires of Charity” conference, held at the University of Warwick in March 2017 and is part of Reeves’ larger project on the history of Chinese charitable giving.

The Last Bastion of Cultural Imperialism

In 2009, I was invited to celebrate the Luce Scholars Program at Harvard. Henry Luce, who was born and raised in China and who built a fortune establishing the Time-Life media empire, left money to grant “young leaders” the opportunity to go to the “Far East” to get a better understanding of Asia. At the celebration, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity International, a Luce Scholar alum, stood to speak.  He introduced himself and proceeded to tell the assembled group about Habitat’s successes building houses in Sichuan province, where a year before a devastating earthquake had left approximately ten million people homeless. Through that work, he explained, “we have begun to show the Chinese how to take care of disaster relief and to provide charitable aid so that they can learn how to do it themselves, since the Chinese have no tradition of philanthropy.”

This patronizing attitude towards Chinese philanthropic traditions—and, in fact, about traditions of charity in other non-Christian parts of the world—is a long-standing trope in the discourse of Western giving. In 1921, John D. Rockefeller Jr. visited the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce and told his Chinese audience effectively the same thing.[1]  In 2010, working on a similar assumption, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett also traveled to China to teach the Chinese wealthy how to give.

This attitude towards indigenous traditions of giving is not new, but it is wrong.  China—like all other human societies—has always had its own systems of aid provision and, in fact, rose admirably to the challenge of the 2008 earthquake. But local, particularly non-Western, humanitarian and charitable initiatives have long been invisible to international actors intent on bringing their own priorities and prerogatives with them overseas.  In some contexts, local societies also choose to erase their own charitable history. Nonetheless, they are there, in myriad forms and manifestations.  This essay uncovers one such hidden charitable tradition, that of pre-Maoist China.  It discusses indigenous Chinese charitable work and how it was obscured and effaced from the historical record by a sort of philanthropic imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century.

My contribution here is not meant to deny the tremendous good that non-local aid and actors can do. Instead, I suggest that in order to empower local resiliency in the face of increasingly dire global conditions, we must celebrate and champion local social relief traditions and initiatives. We need to empower all stakeholders and work to counter the tendency for humanitarianism and international charity to overshadow local initiatives.  In short, we must overcome one of the last bastions of cultural imperialism: global giving.

Recounting and Discounting China’s Charitable Traditions

By the fourteenth century, charity existed at all levels of Chinese society, from mutual-aid societies among the poor to grander schemes designed by the wealthy elite.  Chinese people had been recording charitable practices for over a thousand years. Distribution of food, clothing, medicines, as well as the formation of special societies to bury the dead, to care for widows and orphans, to offer schooling to poor boys, and to provide lifesaving services were all part of the pre-modern Chinese charitable landscape. These localized charitable activities were not sporadic events, although they often blossomed in the face of disasters. Chinese giving was underpinned by Confucian and Buddhist philosophical and theological exegeses, often institutionalized, and formed part of the Chinese habitus, just as charitable giving did in the Christian world.

Given its long history, how has this major tradition of giving managed to be so ignored? Many leading scholars of Chinese social relief have drawn the same conclusion[2]: non-Chinese language sources—particularly sources produced by missionaries—often leave Chinese giving out of their accounts and so historians or others who rely entirely on them miss out on this history. In the rare case when non-Chinese language sources do document Chinese charitable activities, they often disparage them, criticizing Chinese inadequacy to the task, the impure motives of Chinese donors and volunteers, Chinese methods of giving, or all of the above.

This historiographical erasure began almost as soon as Christian do-gooders arrived in China.  Often wanting to encourage donations from compatriots in their home country to support their mission in China, missionaries and others would overstate the lack of services provided to the poor and the needy in China. Catholic missionaries were some of the earliest. During the nineteenth century, one French Catholic group, the Holy Childhood Association (l’Oeuvre de la Sainte Enfance), founded in 1843 in France, began raising money to save abandoned children in China.  China already had its own orphanages and foundling homes, some private and some state run, many of which were well funded and well appointed.[3] Yet the Association ignored the existence of these institutions, instead using images of abandoned and hopeless Chinese children being rescued by priests to raise funds from European and American Catholics.[4]

Such disregard of the local capacity for charity had other effects besides creating an image of the Chinese as compassionless. Take, for instance, the reaction to a particularly well-publicized event in 1923, when Chinese bandits kidnapped Chinese and international passengers from a luxury train travelling through northeastern China, holding them hostage near Lincheng, Shandong for almost two months.  The Lincheng Incident sparked a relief operation widely covered by the international press.[5] But despite being deep in China’s hinterlands, the relief operation was not mounted by the extremely able local Chinese Red Cross Society, an indigenous Chinese society built on local charitable networks and brought together into a national organization in 1904, or by any other Chinese aid organization.  Instead, an outpost of the American Red Cross organized the operation, taking control of caring for the kidnapped passengers in Shandong.

American Red Cross leaders had dismissed the Chinese society as ineffective and “unbusiness like,” and imagined their work in Lincheng would provide the Chinese with a model of sound charitable practice.  They gave little thought to working with indigenous Chinese organizations. So the American Red Cross gained access to the non-Chinese passengers and provided them with food, bedding, clothing, and medical care, while the Chinese passengers—and the Chinese Red Cross, denied access to the area—stood by, helpless.  It was not until the international prisoners were released that the Chinese group received any relief aid at all, and then only from the Chinese Red Cross who were finally allowed to act.


This international disregard of local charitable provision affected work on the ground as well as local morale.  It also left a lasting legacy: it tainted or expunged the written record of native charitable activities, thereby assuring that local initiatives would remain unknown to future generations of scholars, practitioners, and other interested parties. One scholarly work in particular set the tone for the historical study of Chinese charitable activities in the United States: a monograph by Andrew Nathan, published by Harvard in 1965 when Nathan was a Master’s student.  A History of the China International Famine Relief Commissionbecame a seminal source on Chinese disaster relief over the next half century.  To write his piece, Nathan used the archive of the China Famine International Relief Commission (CFIRC), a Western institution that operated in China from 1921 through the 1930s. By relying so heavily on this source base, Nathan ended up completely downplaying the importance of native relief activities during the Chinese famine of 1920-1921, giving the bulk of credit for efforts to save famine victims to the CFIRC and other international agencies.

The story of Chinese charitable work, however, changes radically once indigenous sources from the same time period are consulted.  Historian Pierre Fuller has carefully examined local sources produced during the 1921 famine that Nathan discusses and demonstrates that despite the severity of the disaster, it was actually “traditional organizations” that provided the bulk of famine relief and thus assured that the death toll in north China was not any higher than it was. These organizations included native-place associations, Buddhist groups, networks of wealthy Chinese merchants and gentry, and government actors, as well as neighbors reaching out to neighbors: “local efforts rising organically from communities drawing from an indigenous north Chinese legacy of charity relief.”  Fuller notes, “The dominance by the international committees of the 1920-1921 relief narrative was in part a product of their own publicity…. a function of a disparity in paper production…that has resulted in, at best, half the story being told.”

Interestingly, this early Western scholarly negation of China’s charitable past resonated with the story that the Chinese Communists wanted to tell about China’s own feudal history before 1949.  After Mao Zedong’s takeover of China and the establishment of the People’s Republic, it was important to the new regime to discredit Buddhist beliefs and Confucian traditions and to glorify the new Communist system.  Furthermore, to complete the vilification of the upper classes in China, and to underscore the exploitation of peasants and workers by landlords and capitalists, it was also better not to discuss pre-1949 charitable activity, or, if one were to do so, to refer to it as Dong Biwu, who was then Vice Premier of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), described it in a speech in April 1950: “Charities are…the tools used by the oppressors to deceive and beguile the oppressed.”  Thus in the post-1949 Maoist period, the Chinese themselves had no use for their own traditions of charity in their newly egalitarian society. Now that everyone was to be taken care of by the socialist state, charity would become a discredited vestige of the Old Society.  Thus the expurgation of the record of traditional charitable work in China became mainstream not only in the Euro-American world but also in China, although for very different reasons.


The historiographical record of giving around the world has been traditionally appropriated by philanthro-imperialists intent on using material aid to further their own agendas. As the 1923 Chinese Lincheng Incident demonstrates, the impact of those attitudes is not simply theoretical.  The disregard of local systems of relief provision had real consequences for the development of China’s own civil society and significant effects on the delivery of relief to Chinese victims of abduction. Almost 100 years later, we still need a clearer vision of what networks of aid already exist in local communities and a more collaborative design of how to engage them and all interested stakeholders as genuine partners, in order to get aid to where it needs to go most effectively.

Moving beyond a philanthro-imperialist history means opening a space at the table of the international humanitarian community to include local stakeholders in their own relief activities. By seriously acknowledging and respecting local traditions of aid delivery, we can jointly develop more effective and sustainable systems of relief provision and social welfare support.

-Caroline Reeves

Caroline Reeves is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center, specializing in the history of Chinese charity and philanthropy. Recently in Shanghai as a visiting scholar at Fudan University, she is now working on a manuscript on the history of Chinese philanthropy and its import in the contemporary global arena.


[1]Speech delivered to the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce, 28 September 1921.  The Online Collections and Catalog of Rockefeller Archive Center, Collection: Office of the Messrs. Rockefeller records, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Personal, Series Z; Subseries 8: John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Personal Papers – Speeches.

[2]See the work of Pierre-Etienne Will, Bureaucracy and Famine in Eighteenth-Century China (Stanford University Press, 1990); Will, Nourish the People: The State Civilian Granary System in China, 1650-1850 (University of Michigan Press, 1991); Joanna Handlin Smith, The Art of Doing Good: Charity in Late Ming China(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); Pierre Fuller, “North China famine revisited: Unsung Native Relief in the Warlord Era, 1920-1921,” Modern Asian Studies 47:3 (May 2013); Lillian M. Li, Fighting Famine in North China; State, Market and Environmental Decline, 1690s-1990s (Stanford University Press, 2007); Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley,Tears from Iron: Cultural Responses to Famine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

[3]Angela Ki Che Leung, “L’accueil des enfants abandonnes dans la Chine du Bas-Yangzi aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siecles,” Etudes Chinoises 4, no. 1 (1985): 15–54.

[4]Henrietta Harrison, “A penny for the little Chinese: The French Holy Childhood Association in China, 1843- 1951.” American Historical Review113, no. 1 (2008): 72-92, 75.

[5]See Caroline Reeves, “Red Cross, Blue Express: Chinese Local Relief in an Age of Humanitarian Imperialism,” in Johannes Paulmann, ed., Dilemmas of Humanitarianism Aid in the Twentieth Century(Oxford, 2016).


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