Philanthropy in China


Charitable works in China date back some 3,000 years to the pre-Qin period, and were mainly carried out at the state level. It is recorded that during the Western Zhou (ca. 1100–771 BCE) period the government formed agencies to relieve famines and to provide aid and comfort to the common people. The following two thousand years saw the rise of charitable activities organized by Buddhist temples and local gentry. In the late Ming period (ca. seventeenth century), philanthropy involved charitable works by donors from all walks of life.


Some unique forms of charitable organizations evolved in pre-modern China to care for those in need. It was a common practice for Chinese gentry to set up “charitable estates” to help clansmen in need or to build schools to educate the young. An early and well-known Song dynasty example is the Fan Clan Charitable Estate founded in Suzhou by the famous scholar-official Fan Zhongyan (989–1052). Specialized agencies were also funded by the government and gentry to house and care for abandoned babies. Local gentry also sponsored Pujitang, or Hall for Spreading Relief, to shelter the homeless and the elderly. There were also guild halls established by officials and merchants in national and provincial capitals for the reception and net-working activities of their members, as well as to provide charitable services.


Philanthropy became more institutional and regulated by law in the twentieth century. In the War of Resistance Against Japan of the 1930s to 1940s, governmental and non-governmental charitable organizations contributed to the survival of many displaced citizens. Today, charity in mainland China has entered a new stage.


For historical reasons, modern charities in Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan developed differently from those on mainland China. From the mid-nineteenth century to the early 1960s, the work of charities in Hong Kong contributed to mutual support within the Chinese community. After the 1960s, with the rapid development of the Hong Kong economy, private charities began to prosper, and the Hong Kong government strengthened its public welfare policies. Charitable foundations established by successful Chinese individuals have also exerted a wide influence on public giving. Public donations to the needy by religious groups have also accounted for a considerable proportion of philanthropy in today’s China.


Charitable works in Macao can be traced back to 1569 when the Portuguese established the Holy House of Mercy to care for the sick and the needy. The year 1871 saw the founding of the Hospital Kiang Wu, the first charitable institution established in Macao entirely by Chinese citizens. The hospital and its parent institution, the Kiang Wu Charitable Association, not only offered free medical care to the sick and disabled but also ran schools, built roads, and assisted in burials. During the War of Resistance Against Japan, Hospital Kiang Wu and the Macao Chamber of Commerce provided relief to displaced war victims.


After pacifying and reunifying Taiwan with the mainland in 1684, the Qing government established charitable agencies modelled on those on the continent to help the poor, the elderly, and the homeless. From that time up to the eve of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95), philanthropy in Taiwan developed steadily, until it was severely curtailed during Japanese colonial rule. After the Chinese Civil War, the government of Chiang Kai-shek on Taiwan took measures to restore the economy and revive the island’s charitable works, enlisting the active participation of prominent celebrities, benevolent societies, and community and religious organizations.


Ancient Chinese thinking on charity reflects a mixture of Confucian benevolence, Buddhist belief in karma and compassion, and popular Daoist retribution. It also bore marks of a lineage society in which public welfare was transmitted down through charitable estates and guild halls by clan and regional relationships. In the last two or three hundred years, the Chinese, combining Western concepts of charity and welfare with traditional Chinese concepts of datong and pingjun (universal harmony and equilibrium), have created a comprehensive outlook on this issue. Today China’s philanthropy, on the basis of socialism, is undergoing modernization and institutionalization, and has become an effective complement to social security and an important force in building a harmonious society.

Last updated: