[REVIEW] “Building Bridges Across Both Countries and Cultures: A Review of Chinese Diaspora Charity and the Cantonese Pacific 1850-1949” by Joshua Bird

{Written by Joshua Bird, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

John Fitzgerald and Hon-ming Yip (editors), Chinese Diaspora Charity and the Cantonese Pacific 1850-1949 華僑慈善與環太平洋區的廣東人世界 1850–1949, Hong Kong University Press, 2020. 236 pgs.

In 2008, a massive earthquake struck China’s southwest Sichuan province. Almost 70,000 people lost their lives, with nearly five million more left homeless.

The disaster was notable not only for its severity and scale but for the responses of the Chinese government and the Chinese people. For the first time in decades, the Chinese Communist Party accepted international help to cope with the aftermath of the earthquake, displaying uncharacteristic willingness to partner with foreign governments and international organisations to share resources and information to aid rescue and recovery. The response from the Chinese populace also represented a shift in public responses to national disasters. Both online and on the streets, individuals reached into their pockets and gave money to support quake victims. Individuals, corporations and public institutions all donated—and pushed others to give in kind.

A government-sponsored televised charity gala raised over US$200 million in one night from donations. Similar galas in Taiwan and Hong Kong raised comparable amounts. For a nation still classified as a developing county, such an outpouring of charitable giving was remarkable and marked a fundamental change in domestic Chinese attitudes towards philanthropy. The communist state’s monopoly on welfare and aid was challenged for the first time by non-state philanthropy. In the aftermath of the quake, from 2009 to 2017, charitable giving within China increased from US$6 billion per annum to over US$23 billion.

As with so many areas of Chinese change in the last 20 years, the shift from a state-led welfare model to one of the world leaders in philanthropy was remarkable. Not just because of the speed of the change, but also how it quickly dismantled one of the most persistent myths about Chinese culture. This myth, long held by many Westerners, was that Chinese gave purely on a personal basis—with charitable giving based on individual networks (guanxi), the primary beneficiaries being one’s own family and community. This was often contrasted with “Western” concepts of philanthropy which sought to address the root causes of societal problems for the benefit of all.

The recently published academic collection Chinese Diaspora Charity and the Cantonese Pacific 1850-1949 aims to challenge this narrow conception of Chinese giving and add more detail to our understanding of Chinese diaspora charity. The book focuses on the largely Cantonese-speaking populations that migrated from Southern China to the east and south Pacific from the mid-19th century until the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. This mass emigration was initially spurred by the discovery of gold in places such as Victoria in Australia and California in the United States but continued to mature even after the gold rush subsided.

The focus on Cantonese philanthropy is important as this is one aspect of Chinese philanthropy which has remained constant over time. For over a century, the southern province of Guangdong and its Cantonese-speaking philanthropists have played the central role in the developing China’s concept of charitable giving. Guangdong remains China’s most charitable province, home to more of the country’s large donors than any other and donating the most in terms of total donations. This fact is not a coincidence. Rather, it draws upon the long-established philanthropic tradition established by diaspora Cantonese in the mid-19th century. Although the exact scale of charitable giving during the period nominated by the book is hard to quantify, the book’s articles are more concerned with the charitable process and its importance within the Chinese and diaspora societies in which the giving took place.

In a pre-internet world, Cantonese diaspora networks were able to transmit everything from funds to human remains from one side of the world to another, often relying upon a combination of private and charitable organisations and individuals. Over time, the complex chains of Chinese charitable giving were increasing accompanied by processes of accountability and transparency to better ensure that money was spent as intended.

Various chapters of Chinese Diaspora Charity and the Cantonese Pacific 1850-1949 detail the institutions that formed or evolved to assume these responsibilities, including Chinese benevolent associations (huiguan), churches and hospitals. These organisations acted as hubs connecting the Cantonese diaspora from Vancouver to Sydney, and providing them with a responsible, accountable actor to translate their charitable funds into good works. They were often based in Hong Kong—which acted as the West’s entry-point to mainland China—although many were also established within the diaspora countries themselves. Many of the book’s chapters use the history and archives of specific institutions to explore how Chinese diaspora charities operated. There is some overlap between the content of the chapters, but this is to be expected from a collection of this kind. The editors do their best to construct a sense of thematic unity among the disparate articles.

The charitable institutions and systems of administration that developed among Chinese diasporas in these countries were necessarily influenced by their dominant cultural norms, laws and values. This included an increased role for women in the operation of charities and an expansion of charitable responsibility beyond elites to the entire community. These newer, more inclusive charitable endeavours helped bond diaspora communities in ways that individual giving did not. They also played a key role in raising the profile of Chinese communities and countering racial prejudice in their new home countries. See for example the case of the Chinese community in 1900s Victoria who became a cornerstone of the country’s charitable sector through their operation of colourful fetes and parades. These incredibly popular activities afforded local Chinese an entrée into mainstream Australian society by raising money for benevolent causes outside their own community—thereby raising their value and esteem in the eyes of white Australia.

However, the book’s authors still identify several commonalities that Cantonese-speaking communities brought with them in the way they conceptualised and applied the idea of philanthropic obligations. This included an ethical duty for the well-off to help the disadvantaged and a tendency towards mutual assistance to achieve common goals. Motivations of Chinese philanthropists necessarily shifted according to time and context. For example, while the sending of remittances to one’s family or home community took precedence during ordinary times, in times of crisis such as war or natural disaster Chinese diaspora communities were quick to act. Religion and beliefs were also important motivating factors for many diaspora charities, whether in the form of Christian institutions delivering services to the vulnerable or individuals doing charitable acts as a form of spiritual merit. In the early 20th century, nationalism also took on growing importance in Chinese diaspora communities as the creaky Qing Dynasty was replaced with a modern state. In fact, many Cantonese were inspired to return from Australasia and North America to apply their skills and contacts to deliver charitable services in this new China—often in direct competition with existing Western charities already operating in the area. While many of these institutions did not survive long past the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, in many ways the charitable traditions they represented merely lay dormant until the 2008 Sichuan earthquake allowed them the opportunity to re-emerge.

With the bulk of the world’s individual wealth tilting towards China, the focus on Chinese philanthropy will only heighten. Chinese Diaspora Charity and the Cantonese Pacific 1850-1949 expands our common—often incorrect—understanding of Chinese charity, and the historical foundations that allowed China’s charitable sector to now administer billions of dollars in aid. However, it is also important not to underestimate the relevance of this field of study to our development of more accurate and inclusive histories of the 19th-century Anglo-colonial societies of the Pacific. This book rightly recognises Chinese charitable institutions’ important role in building bridges across both countries and cultures, and makes a valuable contribution to the underexamined study of Chinese charitable traditions.

How to cite: Bird, Joshua. “Building Bridges Across Both Countries and Cultures: A Review of Chinese Diaspora Charity and the Cantonese Pacific 1850-1949.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 12 Jan. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/01/12/chinese-diaspora-charity.

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Joshua Bird.jpg

Joshua Bird has been working and living across the Asia-Pacific region for almost two decades. His research interest focuses on human rights and ethnic minorities in Asia, and he was awarded the first PhD from the University of Sydney’s China Studies Centre. He writes regularly for the Los Angeles Review of Books’ China Channel and the Asian Review of Books. His first book Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and Identity Along China’s Multi-ethnic Borderlands was recently published by Routledge.

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