Is philanthropy (cishan) Chinese? According to dominant narratives, the concept and the practice are Western imports, originally arriving with Christian missionaries, expelled as foreign imperialist influence under Mao, and welcomed back after reform. Accordingly, the most prominent philanthropy education institute in China was originally founded in 2015 on the premise that the nation’s wealthy must learn charity from Americans. However, Chinese scholars have recently begun tracing an alternate genealogy claiming “cishan" as inherently Chinese, even an integral part of “traditional culture” (chuantong wenhua). This talk is based upon ethnographic research alongside professionals at the aforementioned institute who designed a new 2019 course module locating “cishan” in Taoist, Confucian, Buddhist, and other philosophical and moral traditions predating Western influence. Analysis is also drawn from participation in this program alongside elite would-be philanthropists, as well as from examination of course materials. Both explicitly, in course readings and lectures, and indirectly through careful curation of classroom aesthetics, instructors and program facilitators put forth an understanding of “cishan” not only as component of “traditional Chinese culture,” but also as mechanism for the preservation and perpetuation of Chinese society and culture, whether through cultivation of moral goodness to preserve the fabric of society, or through efforts to recuperate and pass down “culture” itself. Significantly, “chuantong wenhua" is here portrayed as having been handed down hundreds, even thousands of years in an unbroken stream, erasing a history of internal shifts and disruptions (most notably the Cultural Revolution), as well as global flows of artifacts and ideas.
Elizabeth H. Crane is a doctoral candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Rutgers University. Her dissertation research is focused on the emergence of “new philanthropy” in contemporary China, and she has completed year-long ethnographic dissertation research with two philanthropy training organizations based in Beijing.