China's Charitable Past

With trade imbalances helping make billionaires of more than a few Chinese, business pages have been abuzz with the promise of at least one American export to China: philanthropy.

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are visiting China this week to coax commitments to charity out of their Chinese counterparts. The Americans will be in China to “spread the word that it’s good to give,” said a host on America’s National Public Radio. The visit “underscores what experts say is the relatively immature state of philanthropy in China,” we hear from the Associated Press.

In fact, Mr. Buffet and Mr. Gates might as well be bringing gunpowder and fireworks to China.

The relatively small amount of charitable giving in modern, Communist China is an aberration in the longer sweep of Chinese history. In late imperial China, bridges, ferries or schools — what a modern person might see as public or civic facilities — were often run with charitable land or cash endowments set up by local notables. Village social-welfare — in the form of clinics, refugee shelters or soup kitchens — was often paid for and managed by prominent resident households.

China’s moguls of the imperial period traded in salt, which like Microsoft software was essential for the imperial economy, used for everything from cooking, preserving and pickling foods to tea, leather, paint, medicine and fireworks.

Extraordinary profits were made by the men with imperial licenses to deal in salt, and this money was consistently poured back into temple or bridge construction and even into disaster-relief operations.

These public-spirited figures came in the form of Li Sixian, who was one of several sojourning salt merchants in rural north China’s Cang County credited in a local history with major charitable acts in a 50-year stretch of the 17th century.

Local official histories, bound with string, brittle and yellowed, are troves of information on China’s charitable past. According to one of these, Li spent 1,000 gold coins — a fortune at the time — on famine relief in 1639, “saving countless” of the starving, while Wei Qijie, the son of another sojourning merchant, was said to have donated 10,000 gold coins to feed and clothe thousands during a drought in 1688.

Salt profits also meant an unconscionable wealth gap between an average laborer and these merchants, who earned some hundred thousand times more in annual income, a ratio akin to the income disparities in today’s leading billionaire-producing nations: the United States and China.

With the arrival of Mao and the Communists, wealth was nationalized and philanthropy maligned. Any recognition of the need for charity for schooling or sustenance under Mao was a sign of state failure. Hence, the stubborn — if weakening — suspicion of “good works” by China’s leadership under the People’s Republic.

One vestige of traditional Chinese giving that has survived the 20th century is aid within families. Where lineages were strong, particularly in the south, charitable estates long provided the schooling and health care of poorer members of extended families, which could comprise an entire community.

Why is so little known of China’s charitable past? The buck must stop at the desks of historians, who have largely failed to properly study and report on this vast philanthropic legacy.

Today’s Chinese leaders, too, have not been eager to publicize the country’s legacy of charitable giving. The education systems of the Nationalist and Communist revolutionary regimes were predicated on the modernization of an “exploitative” and “backward” traditional Chinese society.

Chinese scholarship has only recently begun to focus on this aspect of the Chinese legacy. So, this week, as Mr. Buffett and Mr. Gates visit China, even Chinese themselves may associate philanthropy with modernity and the “new China” — despite the fact that, for centuries, dispensing medicine and winter clothes to the local poor and setting-up free tea stations on the roadside for the benefit of weary travelers were all, in a sense, as Chinese as silk and firecrackers.

Pierre Fulleris, completing a doctoral dissertation on Chinese charity networks and famine relief at the University of California, Irvine.