China’s “New Philanthropy”: Cultivating Elite Chinese Philanthropists

In: Public Anthropologist
Elizabeth H. CraneMA, Doctoral Candidate, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, New Jersey, United States,

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Faced with glaring economic inequality within China, and the need to grow soft power globally, president Xi Jinping has identified the urgent need to usher in a “new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” and has specifically called for the expansion of “xin cishan” (新慈善), or “new philanthropy.” Both as a new phenomenon in the prc, and as a novel type, “new philanthropy” represents an opportunity for the nation to envision and cultivate charitable practice that mediates between market economics and socialist ethics, and grants China a moral authority that is legible to a Western gaze yet resistant to cultural imperialism. Based on yearlong ethnographic research inside an elite philanthropy training program, this article outlines three different visions that were found to coexist: philanthropy-as-new-revolution, philanthropy-as-new-legacy, and philanthropy-as-new-tradition. I also examine how wealthy participants responded to these various interpellations—part of a process I call “philanthropic subjectification.”


Faced with glaring economic inequality within China, and the need to grow soft power globally, president Xi Jinping has identified the urgent need to usher in a “new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” and has specifically called for the expansion of “xin cishan” (新慈善), or “new philanthropy.” Both as a new phenomenon in the prc, and as a novel type, “new philanthropy” represents an opportunity for the nation to envision and cultivate charitable practice that mediates between market economics and socialist ethics, and grants China a moral authority that is legible to a Western gaze yet resistant to cultural imperialism. Based on yearlong ethnographic research inside an elite philanthropy training program, this article outlines three different visions that were found to coexist: philanthropy-as-new-revolution, philanthropy-as-new-legacy, and philanthropy-as-new-tradition. I also examine how wealthy participants responded to these various interpellations—part of a process I call “philanthropic subjectification.”

In September of 2010, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett invited 50 of the wealthiest individuals in the People’s Republic of China to a dinner party in Beijing. Initially, only two accepted their invitation. Why wouldn’t the others jump at this opportunity? The billionaire-philanthropists were in the midst of a world tour soliciting elites to sign their Giving Pledge,1 and an article published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy speculated that most invitees “had declined for fear that they would be asked on the spot to give to charity.”2 The piece also ascribed reluctance to part with their wealth, or fear that signing the pledge would expose their finances to scrutiny (implying corruption). Nowhere was it suggested that Chinese elites might legitimately resist being interpellated into a particular, American style of philanthropy.

More recently, in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, Western media has consistently demonized China’s response to the crisis, while the outpouring of donations, service, and self-sacrifice in the prc has been ignored or dismissed as authoritarian coercion or nationalist propaganda, rather than genuine care for the wellbeing of others. Media representations such as these sustain an inability on the part of Westerners to discern or imagine a Chinese mode of philanthropy, and perpetuate the perception of a lack of charitability in Chinese elites, in particular. When I have described the topic of my research—Chinese philanthropy—to Americans outside of academia, I have often been met with a quizzical look. “Is there such a thing?” more than one person has asked me with a smirk. In Beijing, as well, conversations about philanthropy with people outside of my research context (i.e. those not actively engaged in the charitable sector) have often revealed skepticism—“Oh, the philanthropy here is all fake!” I have been told by taxi drivers and financier acquaintances alike. Notably, the reaction I have received in China has varied somewhat with the terms I have used. “Gongyi” (公益) and “aixin” (爱心)3 reference more broadly pro-social behavior including volunteering and small donations to charity. Both are perceived as accessible to regular people and are more readily acknowledged as part of contemporary Chinese society. “Cishan” (慈善), on the other hand, was more often associated with the large-scale giving of the elite, and was the kind of charity that many people didn’t believe to be genuine.

In fact, the (re)emergence of a practice identified as “cishan” is a recent phenomenon in mainland China,4 as it was banished with the founding of the prc in 1949. The problem with cishan was two-fold: first, elite giving to the poor was ostensibly incompatible with socialism—impossible without private wealth as well as unnecessary when the state provided for all citizens; second, the practice was identified as foreign, aligned with Western imperialism. Indeed, the term “cishan” entered contemporary Mandarin Chinese through a Japanese translation of the English term “charity” in reference to Christian missionary work in the Far East. However, there has been an ideological shift in the 21st century, as the prc faces a new set of challenges. At the national scale, glaring economic inequality calls into question a claim to socialism, and poses a threat to social stability. On the global stage, Western leaders and media representations consistently portray China as the opposite of charitable (indeed as violator of human rights).5 The lack of Chinese practices visible cross- culturally as “philanthropic” has been interpreted by Westerners as indicative of cultural backwardness—a negative image that impedes the nation’s otherwise decisive geopolitical rise.

In response to these challenges, state leaders and intellectuals have been pushing to rehabilitate cishan (after its Mao-era banishment) and to cultivate a redistributive and symbolically significant practice, especially among those who have benefitted the most from the post-1979 marketization of the economy. Indeed, president Xi Jinping has identified the urgent need to usher in a “new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics,”6 and has specifically touted the expansion of “xin cishan” (新慈善), or “new philanthropy” as means for addressing uneven development. Both as a new phenomenon in the prc, and as a novel type of philanthropy, xin cishan thus represents an opportunity for China to envision and cultivate charitable practice that mediates between market economics and socialist ethics, and that somehow grants the nation a moral authority that is legible to a Western gaze yet resistant to cultural imperialism.

Along with this increase in ideological support, statistics reveal a bourgeoning trend of giving, especially since the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. In fact, once domestic foundations were legalized (in 2004), nearly six thousand were established within about a decade,7 and giving from the wealthiest 100 people in China increased from usd 1.3 billion in 2010 to usd 4.6 billion when I began my research in 2016, more than tripling in six years.8 Donations have mostly tended to support domestic causes, such as education and poverty alleviation, but philanthropists are increasingly giving internationally, spreading Chinese aid to other parts of Asia, as well as African and South American countries.

As a result of this growing interest in charitable giving, and in order to further catalyze its surge, the organization I refer to as the World-class Philanthropy Institute (wpi) was founded in 2015. Based in Beijing, wpi offers four tiers of programming: online courses for the general public, a certificate program for professionals in the nonprofit sector, a degree program for charitable foundation executives, and a leadership program for wealthy would-be philanthropists. This last program, which I call the Elite Philanthropy Program (epp), is the most exclusive, and the cost (~$100,000 usd for seven five-day modules) ensures that only individuals with significant disposable funds may join. From September 2018-September 2019, I conducted participant-observation fieldwork alongside program organizers as an “intern” in the Beijing office of wpi, and later alongside elites as an “international student” in three of the immersive five-day epp modules in Boston, New York, and Suzhou.

Far from offering a consistent, uniform framework through which to understand the significance or function of cishan in contemporary China, my interlocutors provided various, shifting, and seemingly contradictory interpretations of the term. In this article, I present several distinct ways that program organizers at wpi (as well as closely aligned academics who influenced/contributed to course content) have articulated understandings of “new philanthropy.” In particular, I outline three different frameworks: philanthropy-as-new- revolution, philanthropy-as-new-legacy, and philanthropy-as-new-tradition.

Since a vision of philanthropy is only a mirage without philanthropists to realize it, I also examine how wealthy participants in the Elite Philanthropy Program responded to these various interpellations in a process I term “philanthropic subjectification.” While this internal transformation—coming to see oneself as a “philanthropist” or “cishanjia” (慈善家)—is a deeply personal one, it is also a social process, shaped by external forces. Philanthropic subjectification is influenced, for example, by the disciplining reproaches of the potentially resentful poor and middle classes,9 by official state ideologies,10 and by pressure to improve China’s global image,11 along with what might feel like a more authentic desire to achieve personal fulfillment and spiritual redemption of sorts after several decades in the reform-era free-for-all environment.12

“New Revolution” (新革命)—Philanthropy as Voluntary Collectivization

My initial placement at wpi was with a work group that ran a philanthropy training program targeting professionals in the charitable sector, but they didn’t have much for me to do. I made a new friend, Ms. Tian, in the tea break room of the 8th floor offices, and she offered to help pull me into the Family Legacy work group, which was focused on elites. However, I still needed to secure permission from the director of the group, Professor Li. A forty- something-aged man whose early career was in the government, he was second in command at wpi. Ms. Tian spoke with him, making the case for having me join on in the participatory role of an intern, and he invited me to his office to discuss it. At the appointed time, I got up from my desk in the large open workspace, grabbed my notebook, pen, and phone, and walked back past the elevator to the other side of the building. I knocked tentatively on the door, then poked my head in. The room was brightly lit with natural sunlight streaming through floor to ceiling windows. The shelves behind his desk supported books, tea paraphernalia, and a photograph of himself surrounded by cherry blossoms. When I entered, Professor Li adjusted his thin-frame glasses, stood up from his desk, and walked over. He invited me to sit in one of the five chairs around a small round wooden table near the door, and I perched on one, nervously awaiting his verdict. Before he even pulled out a chair for himself, he began: “First of all, I want to warmly welcome you to join our group.” I let out a breath in relief, and allowed myself to imagine the year ahead, learning about the process for advising wealthy families on how to design and implement a philanthropic vision.

Then, as Professor Li sat down, he launched into a short background explanation of the raison d’être for the group. He proudly described how, over the past 40 years since Reform and Opening Up, China had experienced “extremely rapid economic development.” However, he admitted, an unfortunate side effect was that there was now a large gap between rich and poor. He explained, matter-of-factly, that this state of affairs was not tenable in the long term, and that if things continued this way, there would be a “revolution” or “geming” (革命). I tried not to register surprise in my expression, and instead nodded along. The real mission of this group, he intimated, was to lead China’s wealthy to philanthropy in order to reduce the stark inequality and prevent this otherwise inevitable revolution, thus maintaining the social harmony and stability that the prc had enjoyed over the past several decades.

At the time, I was shocked that someone with a background and position such as his would openly admit to an economic reality so far removed from the socialist ideal of equality espoused by the Chinese Communist Party (ccp), and imply it was so dire as to warrant class warfare. However, I came to see that Professor Li’s voice was not one of dissent. In fact, he was simply referencing one of the “contradictions of socialism with Chinese characteristics” articulated by president Xi Jinping himself. In the course of my time at wpi, I eventually came across the writings of Lu Dezhi, Ph.D., who might be described as an intellectual of the philanthropic movement in China. His words, I later realized, likely directly informed Professor Li’s position. Himself a wealthy donor, Dr. Lu has produced a number of papers and speeches outlining philosophical arguments for the promotion of philanthropy. Most notably, in 2013 he gave a speech that translates as “Philanthropy is Collective Sharing.”13

In this published speech, Dr. Lu postulates that philanthropy requires, and indeed, developed alongside private property. He suggests that the property in every society, under any economic system, might consist of some mixture of both private and public property. The key question, he says, relates to the origin of the public property—“Is it given willingly, or gathered up through coercive means?” Surprisingly, he states outright that coercive collectivization is “not in accordance with human nature,” and postulates that communism causes a loss of social wealth and the underdevelopment of a society. In fact, he claims that Marx’s communism is best understood not as a blueprint to follow, but rather as a critique of the inequality that Marx observed—the uneven distribution of private property resulting from the capitalism of his time. Marx, he acknowledges, does call for social change under such circumstances. However, Dr. Lu makes a significant break with conventional interpretations, and proposes an alternative to forcibly obtained collective property, or “gongchan” (共产).

Instead, he introduces “gongxiang” (共享), which translates as “collective sharing.” He constructs a parallel between collective sharing and collectivization, suggesting that they both perform the same function in society—that of redistributing wealth to address inequality. Both terms share the same first character (共), and they even sound similar (gongchan vs. gongxiang). The crucial distinction, he explains, is that one is voluntary, and the other is not. Finally, Dr. Lu goes so far as to argue that Marx’s call for revolution to resolve inequality is conditional. He proposes: If the rich are unwilling to voluntarily share their wealth with the poor, only then is revolution prescribed to forcibly collectivize property and redistribute it. Therefore, directly contradicting Mao’s assessment of philanthropy as incompatible with communism, he argues that Marx’s theory of communism actually “contains the seed of a theory for contemporary philanthropy (cishan)—which is collective sharing (gongxiang).”

In fact, Dr. Lu even goes beyond Professor Li’s contention that philanthropy is a more desirable alternative to revolution, claiming that as far as the wealthy are concerned, philanthropy itself is actually “a new form of revolution.” Traditional revolution, he says, is carried out by the poor; it means revolting against others. On the other hand, the new form of revolution is undertaken by the rich, and entails revolutionizing the self. He warns his wealthy audience that they cannot afford not to carry out this new form of revolution if they don’t want to “meet their fates.” Further drawing out the parallel, he fashions his appeal into a call for “new revolutionaries.” He cautions us that being “a revolutionary of the new era” (i.e., a philanthropist) is not easy. One needs the drive to create wealth, as well as a strong sense of social mission and an outstanding moral character to give it away.

Another, perhaps more obvious, mechanism for potentially revolutionary wealth redistribution would be progressive taxation14 coupled with the expansion of state-funded social welfare programs. However, “new philanthropy” has been prioritized by state leaders (including president Xi Jinping) and officially sanctioned intellectuals, such as Dr. Lu. In contrast to forced collectivization or taxation, philanthropy requires individuals to internalize a responsibility to society—that is, to undergo a shift in subjectivity. The “revolution of the self” described above is a particular conceptualization of this inner transformation, or “philanthropic subjectification.” Depending on what philanthropy/cishan means to an individual, this revolution can result in various shifts in both internal sense of self and external behavior.

The Toilet Revolutionary

I met the man who calls himself the “Toilet Revolutionary” some time later, at a weekend “Sharing Retreat” or “Sixiang Hui” (思享会). This was an event hosted by a glamourous epp alumna at her Catskills-style real estate development and country club several hours outside of Beijing. Rather than the “collective sharing” of material resources outlined by Dr. Lu, this event focused on the “sharing of thoughts and experiences,” and was really an opportunity for current and former epp participants to speak about how they came to philanthropy, and how wpi helped them on this journey. It was both a community-building and a recruiting event, as a handful of prospective participants attended, as well. During a series of 15-minute “sharing sessions,” four individuals who had been successfully interpellated as elite philanthropists gave PowerPoint presentations narrativizing their philanthropic subjectification—the process through which they revolutionized themselves and came to identify as philanthropists.

Taking the floor after a presentation by a self-identified Tibetan Buddhist monk, Mr. Zhou shared a story that was later written up and published by my colleague, Ms. Tian, who then asked me to translate it into English. The narrative served not only to inspire and recruit potential elite philanthropists at the sharing retreat, but also to represent—both to a Chinese audience via the organization’s WeChat account, and to an American audience who later read the story in a family philanthropy newsletter—the kind of model subject that wpi was proud to have successfully molded. The following is composed of pseudonymized excerpts of my English translation of Ms. Tian’s recounting of Mr. Zhou’s story:

Before getting involved in philanthropy, Mr. Zhou was a successful entrepreneur. At a certain point, his various ventures in logistics, catering, finance, and commerce were all sailing along smoothly. Then, in 2011, his doctor found a tumor. Completely blindsided, he struggled to make sense of this news: “At that time, I was working from dawn to dusk every day. The possibility of cancer made me step back and reflect on the purpose of all that hard work. It made me wonder, what am I actually living for?”

Mr. Zhou and his wife are devout Buddhists. He remembers: “My wife and I made an offering to Buddha, asking for his intervention, and pledging to devote ourselves to caring for others. That’s the moment when we began making plans to do philanthropy.” Most of us have the notion that we will do something good “in the future,” but the future seems very far away. We put it off, assuming we will get around to it later. For Mr. Zhou, being faced with cancer suddenly brought “the future” into the present moment. It motivated him to act immediately. Even when his tumor was later found to be benign, his newfound determination to help others remained.

However, he still needed a cause he cared about, and wasn’t sure how to get started. In September of 2013, he was invited to enroll in a philanthropy training program associated with the nascent World-class Philanthropy Institute(wpi). “I met prominent figures in the philanthropic sector, both in China and abroad, and took a series of meticulously designed courses on philanthropy management. These things had a big impact on me,” he reflects.

“One day in class, the professor was lamenting the fact that China can make space shuttles that ascend to the heavens, and gigantic ships to sail the seas, yet many details about everyday life in China have been ignored—for example, many latrines don’t even have toilet paper.” According to statistics, one in every three people in the world doesn’t have access to a proper toilet, and 2 million lives are lost each year because of a lack of acceptable sanitary facilities. “Once I heard this, and I discovered that we didn’t have a dedicated organization researching the toilet problem in China, I was shocked. The condition of our toilets has direct bearing on the degree of progress that we have attained as a civilization.” In April of 2014, he decided to dedicate his foundation to “toilets.”

And the Toilet Revolutionary isn’t shy about exactly what his mission is. In a clever demonstration of self-deprecating humor, Mr. Zhou has exploited the fact that the words for “struggle” and “latrine” are homophones in Chinese (both pronounced “fendou”). For his foundation’s slogan, he has adapted the Mao-era propaganda phrase, “To improve the conditions of mankind, let us pledge ourselves to the struggle!” into a witty pun: “To improve the sanitation conditions of mankind, let us dedicate ourselves to the… latrine.” Over the past few years, this motto, which is painted boldly on the wall of his foundation, has provoked a hearty chuckle from a fair share of visitors. But this sense of humor belies the serious determination which has transformed Mr. Zhou into the Toilet Revolutionary. He is dedicated to what he has labeled “The Toilet Revolution,” and the timeframe he has set for himself is a mere 30 years.

While this narrative introduces hints of Buddhist morality at work, it is nevertheless a paradigmatic example of successful interpellation into a vision of philanthropy-as-revolution. Mr. Zhou is an entrepreneur whose rational pursuit of self-interest in the market economy resulted in an accumulation of wealth. Faced with his own mortality (confronted with a tumor, rather than pitchforks), he experienced a re-orientation away from himself, towards society as a whole. In addition to being funny, Mr. Zhou’s motto plays with the similarities and differences between his philanthropic work to improve toilets in China, and the professed goals of Mao-era revolutionaries to develop China and improve the conditions of the poor. As a “new revolutionary,” Mr. Zhou’s philanthropic subjectivity is a mishmash of prosperous capitalist and resolute socialist. A tension remains between his earnestness regarding the urgent need to improve sanitation in China (truly a life and death matter for China’s rural poor), and the sense that this is almost a bizarre parody of the ideological fervor in pre-reform China.

“New Legacy” (新传承)—Passing Wealth and Morality on to the Next Generation

My first introduction to philanthropy-as-legacy took place in October 2018, not during an elite philanthropy course or event, but rather at a three-day training for managers of family trusts who worked at a bank. The trainees returned from a lunch break on the first day of the program to find a large qr code projected on the slide at the front of the room. Everyone was invited to scan it with their phone, to take a short survey. The survey contained five “yes/no/not sure” questions including: Do you know the names of your great grandparents?; Do you know the birthdays of your great grandparents?; Do you know the name of your ancestral village? While everyone was busy answering the questions, there was a slight undertone of the occasional quiet comment.

After allowing several minutes for everyone to finish, Professor Li asked, through a show of hands, how many people knew the answers to all of these questions. Only a few hands went up. “See?” he said, “We have all become disconnected from our family lines! Several generations ago, everyone would have been able to answer these questions.” He didn’t make mention of the reasons for this—the drastic social upheaval that occurred when landowning and prosperous families were stripped of possessions, shamed, and even killed in the process of land reform and collectivization in the 1950s, or the destruction of genealogical records tracing the history of prominent lineages back thousands of years that were burned in the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s.

Nevertheless, I was left pondering what this had to do with philanthropy, as he segued into an anecdote about teaching a wpi course in Wuhan not too long before. The title of the course, he explained, was initially “Jiazu Caifu yu Cishan” (家族财富与慈善), or “Family Wealth & Philanthropy.” However, a few members of Wuhan’s nouveaux riches, the target demographic for the course, approached him and advised him to make a change. They told him that he would do well to remove “cishan” from the title, suggesting that it would scare off potential participants by evoking connotations of forced collectivization. Therefore, Professor Li explained, he made a last-minute strategic decision to change the topic of the course so that it was no longer overtly concerned with philanthropy/cishan. Instead, it was switched to “legacy” or “chuancheng” (传承). He said he shared this story in order to give these wealth management professionals some insight about how to approach the topic of philanthropy with their clients.

Professor Li then suggested that the valorization of family legacy is a distinguishing feature between the philanthropy of Bill Gates, and that of the Rockefellers. While Gates as an individual is surely leaving a name for himself, he is not grooming his offspring to carry on the mantle of either his business or his foundation. The Rockefellers, on the other hand, have continued to administer the wealth from Standard Oil’s success for seven generations and counting. Tying this to the Chinese concern for restoring strong family lines, he then held up a particular family as the so-called “Rockefellers of China.” A wealthy milk magnate had endowed a philanthropic foundation which bore his name, and also established a separate foundation for his children to oversee. Following the example of the “Rockefeller Brothers Fund” established by John D. Rockefeller’s five grandsons, this second-gen foundation was a “Brother and Sister Foundation.” Slides depicted some programs funded by the family, and a photo showed the beaming father with an arm around each of his two children. Wearing jeans and sweatshirts, and surrounded by grinning impoverished children in Inner Mongolia, the brother and sister didn’t at all fit the stereotype of the spoiled “fu’erdai” (富二代), the “wealthy second generation.”

A few days after the training, following an uneventful 9:00-5:30 day spent in the wpi office, I was walking with Ms. Tian to the packed Beijing subway train we both took home to our apartments. This was often the time when I asked her questions about organizational politics, the rationale behind program design, or unfamiliar concepts and strategies that had arisen in the course of my day sitting in on meetings, attempting to research content for our Family Legacy newsletter, and translating Chinese-language coursebooks and promotional materials into English. Other times, she shared what was on her mind from work or homelife, or pitched a new project she was working on. Constantly brainstorming creative solutions to professional and personal problems, these ideas ranged from a “pick-up your dog poop” campaign in her neighborhood, to encouraging me to write a speech about my family history for the next epp “Sharing Retreat.” That day, the topic of our conversation was the fu’erdai.

Ms. Tian, as a professional at wpi, was not wealthy herself, but was deeply empathetic, and easily made strong connections with others (it is not a coincidence that she was the person who took me under her wing). After some time working with elite Chinese philanthropists, she sympathized with their parental struggles, and outlined some of them for me. For China’s wealthy parents, deep anxieties are centered around their second-generation-wealthy children, specifically around whether they will be able to chuancheng, or to carry on the new legacy of the family lineage. There is a widespread perception (both in China and abroad) that the fu’erdai are spoiled and self-centered, making them a source of family and national shame, as well as targets of social critique. Wealthy parents also worry that their children won’t be able to shoulder the responsibilities they must carry out in order to perpetuate the family prosperity and status beyond themselves, into a third generation. Elite Chinese who send their children abroad for education (as is common practice) often fear, as well, that the second generation is not Chinese enough, observing that this practice is interrupting the transmission of Chinese culture and values. I could tell Ms. Tian was projecting a bit of her own experience, because she lived abroad with her husband while her son went through elementary school, and she had confessed to me some of the intergenerational culture-clashes that arose, even at that young age, when her son saw how things worked differently at his friends’ houses. But for the fu’erdai, she admitted, there is an added challenge because they tend to be very selfish. When I asked her why she thought this was so, she explained, without blaming the parents, that they were raised to be that way. She said the parents grew up very poor and worked very hard to earn money. They just want to be able to give their children everything they didn’t have growing up, to make them happy, and to provide them with high quality education.

While most media and scholarly attention has been devoted to the spendthrift, selfish heirs and heiresses of undeserved fortunes, Jinghua Xing and Wei N. Gan draw attention to a new subjectivity that is emerging to contest this negative perception—a subset of the second generation who engage in “efforts to resignify the moral valence of Chinese wealth.”15 In response to the pejorative “fu’erdai” designation, they identify as the “shan’erdai” (善二代), or “charitable second generation,” and report feeling an authentic desire to make a positive contribution to society. As Ms. Tian observed, most epp participants are concerned parents who hope to encourage exactly this kind of charitability in their children. When wpi pragmatically frames philanthropy-as-chuancheng (as a means for passing down family legacy), it becomes the vehicle through which wealthy parents might teach their children to be altruistic, responsible, and proud bearers of their Chinese cultural heritage—in other words, to induce the philanthropic subjectification of the next generation.

Spend-Down vs. Perpetuity

Early in 2019, I was invited to enroll as an observing participant in wpi’s Elite Philanthropy Program (epp). Because I myself am an eighth-generation member of an American family with a 200-year-old family business (which qualifies as a strong “family legacy”), my colleagues at wpi determined that I represented the kind of participant they aimed to recruit to the program. Furthermore, as the first non-Chinese participant, I added a desirable international flavor which might help attract others to enroll. Thus, I found myself halfway around the world, in Boston, sitting around a seminar table with 10 other new epp members. This was the preliminary module of wpi’s flagship two-year program, which takes place in a series of immersive course modules every few months, in cities all over the globe, including Boston, New York, London, Paris, Florence, Singapore, and Tokyo. We participants had all just arrived on flights from Greater China, and sat uneasily in our ergonomic mesh desk chairs, anxious to make a good impression on the others, and excited for what was in store for us over the next few days. The program organizers (my colleagues at wpi) invited us to go around and provide brief self-introductions, asking us to give a little background on ourselves and explain why we had decided to join this program. The other participants were highly successful women (seven) and men (three) with business endeavors in real estate, commerce, and tech. Most were sporting sharp professional garb or trendy fashion pieces, and spoke with humility about their entrepreneurial past, then described some of their current engagement or interest in philanthropy.

One participant, however, stood out. His dress and demeanor alone distinguished him from the rest. A tech guru from a modest background in rural China who founded several wildly successful businesses, Mr. Wang was lounging in his chair, wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt. Someone later told me that he no longer fit the suit pictured in his headshot because of excessive banqueting, and I imagined a scene from John Osburg’s ethnography of the opulent consumption (and gifting) practices of the new rich in Chengdu.16 When he introduced himself, he was careful to make it clear that he was already an established philanthropist. He spoke for much longer than the others, sharing his philosophy on charity, even providing advice, as if he were one of the guest lecturers. I wondered why he had chosen to enlist in this extraordinarily expensive program if he didn’t want to learn anything more about using his wealth for the benefit of others. Finally, after a painfully long monologue, he wound down. The reason he was here, he explained, was to study the Rockefellers, to learn how to chuancheng (to pass down his legacy). “Afterall, I have four sons!” he ended, raising his eyebrows for emphasis, and evoking a sympathetic chuckle from everyone in the room. I understood his referencing this large number of sons to be a sign of wealth—Mr. Wang would have had to pay a hefty penalty for each of the three over-births as a result of the one-child-policy; a source of pride—in China’s patrilineal society, sons have traditionally been valued for their role in carrying on the family line; and a cause for anxiety—with four claims to inherit the family wealth and business, the likelihood of conflict and division is much higher. After orientation, Mr. Wang succumbed to jetlag, sleeping through several lectures and activities over the course of this five-day module in Boston.

Once we disembarked from the coach bus in New York for a second module explicitly focused on the Rockefellers, his demeanor changed. He was fully alert, and I sensed that the other participants were also buzzing with anticipation, eager to learn secrets to a lasting family legacy. Inside the conference center, broad tables in a large “U” had chairs arranged around the periphery. At the front of the room was a double projector screen displaying one slide in English, and another which had been translated into Chinese. Several “experts” (advisors to and members of wealthy American families) were seated up front, between the screens. We, the epp participants, took our seats around the periphery, along with two simultaneous interpreters. Gooseneck microphones had been placed at regular intervals, and everyone was wearing headsets tuned in to channel 1 for Mandarin Chinese, or 2 for English.

When the session started, the lecturers went over the basics of family philanthropy, and spoke about the components of the Rockefeller model. All of them were white Americans, teaching in English about “legacy,” while the interpreters skillfully translated their words such that participants heard about “chuancheng” through their headsets. The speakers delved into some of the options for setting up various types of philanthropic institutions, for example: a family foundation, a donor-advised fund at an existing foundation, or a philanthropic trust that would allow the next generation to make their own decisions about what to do with the wealth.

For the endowment of a family foundation, we were told there are two choices. Traditionally, one woman explained, the endowment of a philanthropic foundation would be set up “in perpetuity.” This designation, which also resonates directly with the Chinese concept of “chuancheng,” means that the wealth in the endowment would be invested to generate dividends, and only a portion of those would be given out each year in philanthropic grants. In this way, the wealth keeps re-generating, and the endowment sustains itself far into the future. In recent years, however, she said there has been another trend, which is to plan a “spend-down” of the wealth in the endowment. This means that there is an intention to give away all of the wealth within a set period of time, be that within a decade, within a year after the death of the founder, or within the lifetime of the second generation. Bill and Melinda Gates, for example, have chosen to “spend down” their fortune. There are a number of ways to set up a spend-down, but it is usually paired with a commitment to tackling a specific social or environmental problem. This contrasts directly with the Rockefeller approach, in which the “culture of philanthropy”—the practice of giving itself—is understood to be significant and is “passed down” (translated through the headsets as “chuancheng”) generation-to-generation. For the Rockefellers, another speaker explained, this training begins young. The family tradition is that, beginning in elementary school, children are required to divide their modest allowance into three parts: 1/3 for spending, 1/3 for saving, 1/3 for charity. Children are also brought along to volunteer in the community. Most significantly, the younger generation is included at an early age in family meetings to review past foundation grants and make decisions about directing charitable funds in the coming year.

At the end of the lecture, just before a break for a buffet lunch of tacos in the next room, the facilitator asked for a show of hands indicating who amongst us thought they would choose to “spend down” the endowment of a family foundation, should we establish one. I was surprised to see that no one moved a muscle. Even allowing time for the interpreters to relay the question into my classmates’ ears, it become clear no one wanted to raise their hand. Next, she asked who would like to set up a foundation that would exist “in perpetuity.” Though ostensibly at odds with a formulation of philanthropy-as-new- revolution, the hand of every participant immediately shot up into the air, and a few smiles and nods were exchanged. These budding Chinese philanthropists thus unanimously expressed an intention to establish foundations that would tie the making of charitable donations to the strengthening of a new family legacy, and the reproduction of their elite social and economic status in generations to come.

In fact, not even the “Toilet Revolutionary” is immune to the appeal of chuancheng. Rather than donating all of his wealth to address the sanitation crisis in the current moment, another excerpt of his narrative describes how he has set aside a portion of funds in the endowment of a family foundation, which he has established in order to pass the practice of philanthropy on to his children:

Many people are curious about the name of Mr. Zhou’s foundation. Even though he obviously has no embarrassment about exactly what he funds, the name has nothing to do with toilets, or sanitation. In fact, it is a compound of the first names of his son and his daughter. He told his children, “I named the foundation after you, so if you aren’t passionate about advancing sanitation, that’s ok. No matter what cause you are passionate about, my only wish is to pass (chuangcheng) the tradition of philanthropy down to the next generation, and the next. That’s the most valuable inheritance that I could leave you.”

In accordance with the Rockefeller’s “secret” to ensuring a strong legacy, Mr. Zhou has chosen to focus on the practice of giving (i.e. the “culture of philanthropy”), rather than on any specific cause. He recognizes that his children might care more about something else, and prioritizes his children’s philanthropic subjectification through participation in charitable giving over the actual disbursing of grants, or resolution of a particular social problem. Tellingly, he even observes that this particular kind of cultural capital is “the most valuable inheritance.”

“New Tradition” (新传统)—Philanthropy as Indigenous Chinese Culture

While instruction focused on legacy/chuancheng was received enthusiastically, epp lectures and workshops preaching philanthropy “best practices” met with less excitement. They tended to reinforce a narrative of American cultural superiority and comparatively underdeveloped charitable practice in the prc. For example, during one lecture in the Boston module, the instructor described how China lagged behind the US in impact measurement. Many Chinese foundations, he said, were quick to report on “outputs” as a way to demonstrate efficacy, but lacked a more sophisticated understanding of the instruments of modern philanthropy, such as the “Theory of Change,” and they failed to measure and report on “outcomes.” After outlining the logic of this model and leading some brainstorming exercises, the instructor implored his Chinese students to use this knowledge to better develop their nation’s charitable sector.

Against a backdrop of rising US-China tensions (exacerbated by President Trump’s anti-China rhetoric, and a trade-war between the two nations), my interlocutors managing the epp program expressed frustration about their relationship with some of the American institutions running the core philanthropy courses. The cost of participation in the epp program was exorbitant, such that potential recruits often balked at the price during initial phone calls I overheard in the open-plan office space. However, it should be noted that, according to my understanding from office conversations, these funds did not result in a profit for wpi, and in fact barely covered operating costs. Indeed, I witnessed the hand-wringing, the emergency meetings, and the late nights of work as my colleagues struggled to get enrollment up to the bare minimum required to avoid running a deficit. Eventually, I came to understand that a significant portion of the tuition for this program was passed on directly to “partner organizations”—the academic institutions and philanthropic foundations that ran most of the core modules. For example, wpi was charged a premium for lectures such as the one on impact measurement. One morning in Boston, walking over to a cafeteria breakfast, Ms. Tian confided quietly that the program organizers were not happy with the quality of programming they received for such high fees, and were seriously considering whether this partnership was beneficial enough to wpi.

Though China’s geographic territory was only ever “semi-colonized” 17 by European powers, the influence of Western cultural imperialism has been pervasive. The Enlightenment notion of a teleological trajectory of social evolution was accepted by Republican-era and Communist intellectuals alike, and references to progress (jinbu,进步) and development (fazhan,发展) still appeared regularly in everyday discourse with my interlocutors. In this model, European civilization has conventionally been upheld as the paradigm, and progress towards modernity has thus been equated with adopting Western technologies and modes of thinking.

In fact, Chinese intellectuals in the early twentieth century identified China’s “traditional culture” as a source of weakness with respect to foreign powers. The most extreme rejection of “tradition” or “chuantong” (传统) in favor of the “modern” culture of science and technology took place during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), when the “Four Olds”—old ideas, old culture, old habits, and old customs—were cast out through the violent destruction of architecture, religious shrines, and artifacts, along with persecution of practitioners of “superstitious” beliefs.18 The first generation of wealthy citizens of the prc were born during or just on either side of this decade, and therefore wouldn’t have been socialized into China’s religious and philosophical traditions in their youth. In recent years, official state discourse has been working to rehabilitate or reinvent19 “traditional Chinese culture” along with a sense of national pride. The promotion of “wenhua zixin” (文化自信) or “cultural self-confidence”20 can thus be understood as a recuperation of previously denigrated cultural practices, as well as a push back against cultural imperialism.

In this context, philanthropy/cishan is not only a materially redistributive (or potentially conservative) practice, but also a symbolic arena in which these cultural politics between China and the West continue to play out. Within the paradigm of teleological social evolution, the presence of a moral practice legible as “philanthropy” has been considered indexical of a certain degree of civilizational development. As previously noted, the dominant narrative has accepted philanthropy as a foreign import that first arrived in the early twentieth century when the very term “cishan” entered contemporary Mandarin along with the arrival of Christian missionaries. Despite the expelling of foreign philanthropic entities, first with the founding of the prc and then again recently with a new law in 2016, the persistence of cultural imperialism ensures that the US should set the standard for “best practices”—often translated into Mandarin as “kexue cishan” (科学慈善) or “scientific philanthropy.”

In a sense, wpi itself was an outgrowth of the same mission civilisatrice bringing Western charitable practices to China. Not only was the institute co-founded by two prominent American philanthropists alongside three Chinese philanthropists, but the flagship Elite Philanthropy Program entailed sending wealthy Chinese to philanthropic metropoles in the West—Boston and New York for the fundamentals, then European cities such as Paris and London. On these trips, “visiting professors,” (primarily white men with academic positions or professional careers in the charitable sector) presented lectures and facilitated workshops teaching formidable self-made business tycoons how to design a mission statement, or evaluate impact.21 Despite the nation’s formidable economic might, the stubborn persistence of this narrative that maintains the US as source of philanthropy and China as backwards and uncharitable has hampered its otherwise meteoric rise in global prowess.

Buoyed by the recent tide of “cultural self-confidence,” some Chinese intellectuals have begun to trace an alternative genealogy for Chinese philanthropy. For example, Zhang Xiulan and Zhang Lu decisively assert that: “The concept of philanthropy was not something imported into China from the West. Offering charity to the poor is called shan [善] in Chinese, and this principle has existed in Chinese culture for thousands of years.”22 Maori indigenous scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith articulates the significance of such a project: “Coming to know the past has been part of the critical pedagogy of decolonization. To hold alternative histories is to hold alternative knowledges. The pedagogical implication of this access to alternative knowledges is that they can form the basis of alternative ways of doing things.”23 Thus, by depicting a contemporary concept of tradition/chuantong as having survived thousands of years in unbroken generational transfer, and simultaneously identifying moral behavior described in ancient texts as indigenous embodiments of philanthropy, Chinese scholars are making a claim on cultural and civilizational development on par with or even outpacing that of Western societies.

Manifesting the “Spirit of Philanthropy”

wpi program organizers were in a unique position to facilitate a bridge from this kind of academic work describing a Chinese philanthropy (especially in the past) to shaping the realization of such in the present. Therefore, beyond questioning the value of American expertise, they also designed a new core course module to be held in the Song dynasty-era (960–1279 ce) metropole of Suzhou. Though I never heard discussion of this course potentially replacing the modules in the US, it certainly offered a different vision of philanthropy—both its origins and definition. Rather than focusing on teaching “scientific” methods to achieve specific, quantifiable social goals, the module I depict below interpellated wealthy Chinese into a particular kind of philanthropic and nationalistic subjectivity through a focus on embodying a distinctively Chinese “spirit of philanthropy” or “cishan jingshen” (慈善精神). It is this intangible essence, I suggest, that the course portrayed as common to both Chinese cultural tradition/chuantong and contemporary, indigenously Chinese charitable practice.

At the height of spring in 2019, I took a high-speed train from Beijing to Suzhou for a third epp module. After checking in to our designated hotel in the old part of the canal city and grabbing a late lunch of exquisite soup dumplings (the regional specialty), I crossed an arched bridge over a narrow waterway and found the location for our first lecture. I walked down the short stone path and up three shallow steps into a one-room post-and-beam building with a lofted ceiling and traditional southern-style swooping peaks on its ceramic tiled roof. Once through the doorway, I was faced with a short, white-washed wall blocking a view from the street to the interior. A vase containing a blossoming cherry branch was positioned in front of the wall, and a dark-stained latticework panel topped the partition. A lilting strain of bamboo flute music enticed me further inside. There, I found four rows of long, narrow wooden tables and matching wooden benches arranged to face the wall off to my right, where the projected image of a PowerPoint slide was trained. Sunlight streamed in from the garden courtyard across the room. Taking it all in, I came to understand that I was at the back of a reconstructed Song dynasty-era classroom. I scanned the nametags of the empty seats for my name, and slid in next to another epp participant with long, shiny hair who was gently rubbing her temple with a jade comb. Next to my name tag was a delicate porcelain cup containing the golden liquor and floral fragrance of oolong. Three bite-sized pastries that looked like mini mooncakes sat next to the tea.

The space that program organizers curated as our classroom was an embodiment of Chinese cultural tradition/chuantong. Its distinctive sloping roof and garden courtyard were characteristic of the city’s Song dynasty architecture. There is a rhyming idiom in Mandarin—one I heard almost any time I mentioned my college semester abroad in Hangzhou: “shang you tiantang, xia you Su Hang” (上有天堂,下有苏杭), meaning “up above there is heaven, down below there are Suzhou and Hangzhou.” Suzhou flourished as a commercial center a thousand years ago, and is seen as reflecting the epitome of ancient Han Chinese civilization, which is idealized (as in this idiom) as a sort of heaven on earth. My program organizer interlocutors also chose to decorate with a cherry branch like those depicted in Chinese scroll paintings, to set the mood with music produced by an indigenous instrument, and to pamper participants with a taste of fine tea. These particulars all stood out in even sharper relief against the aesthetics of attending philanthropy courses in the relatively sterile classrooms in Boston and New York—white cubes with wall-to-wall navy blue short-pile carpeting, equipped with laminate-topped conference tables, gooseneck microphones, and wheeled mesh chairs where participants were served coffee, Cokes, and granola bars. Thus, rather than signaling with trappings of modernity that the content of the course expressed Western or “scientific” expertise, these details cued participants to expect a different (a traditional Chinese) kind of content.

Directly in front of me on the desk was a stack of papers and booklets. One contained bios of the instructors for this module. Rather than applied researchers or practitioners of philanthropy such as I encountered in the US modules, these were professors and specialists in Chinese history, religion, and various cultural practices. A second packet was labeled as the epp “Specialized Curriculum Course Materials.” Curious, I flipped through, but didn’t have a chance to read it before Professor Li stood up in the front of the classroom to welcome us. In my apartment back in Beijing, I finally got the chance to look closely at the course book. It read like a history or philosophy text, describing a Chinese “spirit of philanthropy” that dated back to Daoist, Confucian, and Buddhist ethics. The booklet (written by the dean of wpi) used beautiful, poetic language and grammar such as might be found in Classical Chinese texts, as opposed to contemporary vernacular Mandarin. It articulated a worldview in which all human beings and all of the natural world are interconnected, and portrayed various ethical precepts as means for achieving the ultimate goal—harmony or “hexie” (和谐) among all things. According to this framework, for example, the Daoist notion that mankind is a part of nature and that natural disasters are caused by social ills, the Confucian valuation of proper moral behavior towards each member of society, and the Buddhist concept of good deeds towards all beings to achieve karmic reward, all stress the integration of the individual within a larger whole. This vision emphasizes good intentions and the cultivation of a sense of responsibility to society and the environment, rather than focusing on the measurement and evaluation of philanthropic outcomes.

Accordingly, over the next few days we heard lectures on Chinese literature and artwork as intangible cultural heritage, witnessed the demonstration of gongfu tea ceremony and the performance of Kunju opera (an esoteric cousin of Peking opera), and took part in a meditation workshop. We were treated with vegetarian, alcohol-free meals—even served leftovers!—and encouraged to carry this kind of ethical consumption into our daily lives. All of this was presented as means of practicing Chinese cultural “tradition” as well as embodying the “spirit of philanthropy.” In fact, at a certain point, it became impossible for me to distinguish between the perpetuation of chuantong and the practice of cishan—the meaning of the two became conflated.

On the final day of the module, we were educated about Chinese philanthropy on the global stage. We received a presentation, complete with video footage, about a Buddhist charity providing relief to Syrian refugees, the poor in Malawi, and those suffering the aftermath of the Tsunami in Malaysia. The presenter explicitly stated that one of the positive outcomes of this charitable work was an improved image for ethnically Chinese people all over the world, and these elite philanthropists were encouraged to assist those in need outside of Greater China. In conversations at dinner, I even heard classmates incorporating this kind of indigenously Chinese global philanthropy into their understanding of the famous Belt and Road initiative, envisioning their imagined projects as combined diplomatic and charitable missions.

In stark contrast to the highly publicized Chinese hesitation exhibited towards the 2010 Gates-Buffett promotion of American-style philanthropy, participants in the epp module in Suzhou enthusiastically welcomed the new version of traditional Chinese philanthropy presented here. Not only did they murmur with appreciation during lectures, recite classical Chinese poems along with the instructor, and carry out animated conversations about the material during breaks, but they also embraced their role as bearers of traditional Chinese culture, and went on to sponsor traveling holographic museums of ancient Chinese artifacts, to patronize performing arts, and to host dinner parties and ‘salons’ with aesthetics similar to those of the course. Underlying the warm reception to the course material and excited discussion of future plans, I glimpsed strong national pride. For these elite philanthropists-in- training, the opportunity to practice philanthropy-as-Chinese-tradition represented a means not only for achieving personal fulfillment and social distinction,24 but also for resolving China’s national shame and bringing about a new world order in which China might serve as moral, as well as economic leader.

Conclusion—“New Philanthropy” (新慈善)

Having achieved remarkable national prosperity and global might after four decades of rapid economic development, the People’s Republic of China now faces a new set of trials. Internally, rising inequality has accompanied skyrocketing gdp. The yawning gap between rich and poor undermines a socialist commitment to the equitable distribution of wealth and poses a threat to social stability. Globally, China’s recently acquired economic power is failing to translate into corresponding geopolitical status. This crisis of soft power—comparable to “failed distinction” on the part of the nouvelle riche nation on the scene—reveals the intransigence of Western cultural imperialism and calls for alternative yet recognizable demonstrations of cultural superiority and moral leadership. To meet the unique challenges of the current era, the prc is calling upon elites to transform themselves into philanthropists.

Rather than writing about the (re)emergence of “Chinese philanthropy,” there are several reasons I follow my interlocutors to label this phenomenon “new philanthropy” (xin cishan). First, I aim to decenter Western practice as the unmarked standard, and propose that this emergent vision of charitable practice is indeed novel—based on the creative imaginings of intellectuals, philanthropy education program designers, and elites themselves—as opposed to a superficial adaptation of global philanthropy to Chinese conditions. This emergent form of elite philanthropy is tied to a socialist ethic of equitable wealth distribution, but on the basis of an individual’s volition (“collective sharing,” rather than compulsory collectivization). Described as a new form of revolution (geming) in which successful entrepreneurs shift from accumulating to sharing wealth, new philanthropy is posed as a necessary alternative to violent class revolution. In apparent contradiction, new philanthropy simultaneously prioritizes the creation of new family legacies, that is, the transmission (chuancheng) of elite status—via both cultural and economic capital—to following generations. The endowment of family foundations designed to exist “in perpetuity” and the socialization of children into philanthropic practice are appealing to elites as means to re-establish prominent family lineages after the ruptures of the Mao era.

Second, the use of “new” as a modifier also paradoxically indicates a re-vamped version of something old, a reincarnation of past traditions. The individuals designing and enrolling in philanthropy courses are also fashioning new philanthropy as a return to traditional (chuantong) values and moral behavior, such as those described in ancient Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian texts. The latter, especially, depict models of social hierarchy in which each level of status comes with specific responsibilities. Philanthropy-as-indigenous-tradition also offers elites the opportunity to increase their own social distinction, while simultaneously harnessing this cultural capital for the purpose of nation-branding25 and increasing China’s global soft power.

Finally, this term gestures towards a new world order, and the potential for disrupting the patterns of Western cultural imperialism that have dominated for centuries. In fact, several months after I completed my dissertation research, the coronavirus outbreak had become a pandemic. Up-ending the longstanding tradition of European and American aid bequeathed upon Chinese recipients, two members of the Elite Philanthropy Program contacted me to help broker acts of charity towards the West. One wanted to assist Italy (in February of 2020) with a proprietary “big data” analysis of the spread of the virus, along with recommendations hoped to save the nation from a dire fate. Later (in March), the other wanted to make a massive donation of masks to an Ivy-League university in the US at a time when these forms of protection were scarce.

As with all moral practice, China’s emergent new philanthropy is neither purely altruistic nor crudely self-serving. In the 21st century, those who have earned their fortune in the morally murky market economy of post-reform China are now offered the opportunity to undergo a transformation in subjectivity. They are reclaiming a sense of moral goodness (shan) for themselves, and passing their new philanthropic values, charitable practices, and ethics of social responsibility down to their children. At the same time, becoming a philanthropist and cultivating cishan among the next generation is also conceptualized as self-preservation—staving off potentially violent class warfare and forced collectivization of property, as well as redeeming the much maligned wealthy-second-generation, and promoting a positive image of China. Broadly speaking, ethnographic research at the World-class Philanthropy Institute in Beijing at this historical moment in which new philanthropy is collectively imagined, propagated, and internalized, has highlighted questions about what philanthropy (cishan) ought to look like, and how it should function. While specific to the Chinese context, such questions are also universally relevant to utopian imaginings of any ideal society populated with philanthropic subjects.


Thereby committing to donate more than half of their wealth to charity. See:


Gates and Buffett Seek to Calm Flap Over China Event (2010). The Chronicle of Philanthropy, September 7.


For a nuanced discussion of the deployment of aixin discourse and the experience of moralized middle-class and migrant worker subjects in greater Beijing, see: Zhan, Y. (2020). The Moralization of Philanthropy in China: ngo s, Voluntarism, and the Reconfiguration of Social Responsibility. China Information 34(1): 68–87.


See Elaine Jeffreys’ detailed recounting of the history of the term “cishan” in mainland China: Jeffreys, E. (2015). Celebrity Philanthropy in Mainland China. Asian Studies Review 39(4): 571–588.


For example, at a press conference for the Beijing Winter Olympics, an expressly apolitical event, questions about the detention of Uyghur ethnic minorities and whether uniforms were made with forced labor dominated the conversation: Feng. E. (2022). China’s Politics—Not Sports—Spill out During Heated Olympic News Conference. National Public Radio, February 17, 2022.


At the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, in 2017.


China Foundation Center (2017). The China Foundations at a Glance.


Johnson, P.D. and Saich, T. (2017). Values and Vision: Perspectives on Philanthropy in 21st Century China. Harvard Kennedy School, Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.


See: Jeffreys, E. (2016). Elite Philanthropy in China and America: The Disciplining and Self-Discipline of Wealth. In: D. Bray and E. Jeffreys, eds., New Mentalities of Government in China, Routledge.


For example, in interviews with wealthy philanthropists, Paula D. Johnson and Tony Saich identify “a desire to create a harmonious society” as a motivating factor, noting: “It is possible that interviewees’ emphasis on creating harmony reflects the government’s emphasis, and that the concept has become internalized”(Johnson and Saich 2017: 16).


Johnson and Saich also discern pride in China’s economic and political power, and an “ambition for China to become equally strong in ‘soft power’—less tangible areas such as philanthropy, culture, political values and foreign policies”(Ibid., p. 19).


Often combined with charitable practice, some elites turn to Tibetan Buddhism for this reason: Osburg, J. (2020). Consuming Belief: Luxury, Authenticity, and Chinese Patronage of Tibetan Buddhism in Contemporary China. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 10(1): 69–84.


Lu, D. (2013). Cishan jiu shi Gongxiang [慈善就是共享]. Rutgers School of Social Work, Huamin Research Center.


For a comparison of taxation and philanthropy as mechanisms of redistribution in the US and in China, see: Vikse, J. H., Huang, C. C., and Lu, S. (2015). Reducing Inequality: Taxation and Philanthropy in China and the United States. Rutgers School of Social Work, Huamin Research Center.


Xing, J. and Gan, W. N. (2019). China’s Shan’erdai: the Formation and Transformation of Philanthropy. The China Nonprofit Review 11: 238.


Osburg, J. (2013). Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality among China’s New Rich, Stanford University Press.


Yang, M.M. (2011). Postcoloniality and Religiosity in Modern China: The Disenchantments of Sovereignty. Theory, Culture & Society 28(2): 3–45.


The rupture in cultural “tradition” (chuantong) parallels that of the “legacy” (chuancheng) of great family lineages, and indeed the two terms in Chinese share the same first character (传,chuan), which denotes “passing along.”


See: Hobsbawm, E. (2012). Introduction: Inventing Traditions. In: E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press.


For an extensive discussion of the many, shifting valences of “wenhua,” including its recent association with “tradition/chuantong” tied to “cultural self-confidence,” see: Schein, L. and Yang, F. (N.d.) Keywords Decolonized? The Social Lives of Wenhua/Culture and the Spectre of Symbolic Violence in Chinese-English Dialogues. In: K. C. Riley, B. C. Perley, and I. M. García-Sánchez, eds. Language and Social Justice in Global Perspective. Bloomsbury. Forthcoming.


Similarly, in the context of luxury consumption, John Osburg references “European luxury brand managers, for whom teaching Chinese drinkers not to pour 7Up into their $200 Bordeaux wines is part of their civilizing mission.”(Osburg 2020: 71–72).


Zhang, X. and Zhang, L. (2014). Medicine with a Mission: Chinese Roots and Foreign Engagement in Health Philanthropy. In: J. Ryan, L. C. Chen, and T. Saich, eds., Philanthropy for Health in China, Indiana University Press, p. 83.


Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2012). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, 2nd Ed., Zed Books, p. 36.


For more on Chinese elites trying to cultivate social distinction while navigating morality, see: Osburg 2013 and 2020.


For more on China’s nation-branding efforts in the face of Western cultural imperialism, see: Yang, F. (2016). Faked in China: Nation Branding, Counterfeit Culture, and Globalization, Indiana University Press.

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