China has a long tradition of charity and philanthropy. Although many of the tenants of giving in China arose from Buddhist and Confucian tradition, like many of the cultural practices of Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, these tenants have become integral threads in the tapestry of Chinese culture. In order to learn Chinese and study the local language and culture, it is important to understand these concepts as well as their effects in modern life. Today, charity in China has benefitted from “star power”, and many Western celebrities like Kobe Bryant, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett are working to establish modern charities in China, but there are many local traditions that support this system as well.
As students join a homestay and begin to learn in China, it is important to remember that even though they come from far away, students quickly become a small part of Chinese society and a representative of their home culture. Here are a few well known terms in Chinese that center around giving back to your community as you study in China.
Charity in Chinese is “慈善” (císhàn). The two characters literrally mean “compassionate” (慈) and “good” (善). According to Baidu, císhàn was first used in the “Book of Wei”, where it refers to the “benevolence of the sun“. This sort of hierarchy (the sun is dominant and we receive its blessing), is a large part of Confucian practice. Confucian tradition made sense of the world by taking some natural structures as models for the nation and the family: just as the sun and heavens provide for the earth, so does the emperor for his subjects, and a father for his family.
From this, we can see the origins of filial piety. “孝道” (xiàodào, filial piety), to be dutiful to one’s parents and treat the elderly with respect as if they were one’s own parents was vital to traditional society. Before, if someone came under hard times, they often had a network of family to rely upon. This practice was especially strong in southern China, where “family clans” supported up to fifty people. For more on traditional clans see the Wikipedia article (English) or Baidu Baike(Chinese).
Filial piety is one of the most important concepts in Chinese culture, but a traditional practice that continues to undergo drastic changes in modern China. Lotus organizes regular trips to senior care centers (敬老院, jìnglǎoyuàn). Here students studying Chinese often come and experience first hand the importance of providing for our elder generations. As result of the one-child policy, China’s population is rapidly aging, and one grandchild can sometimes come to support two parents and four grandparents. Sadly, this pressure is often too much, and many of China’s elderly are uncared for. Even though these elder’s are not family, students and volunteers often care for them as if they were.
Charity in China is slowly moving away from the traditional family-based support system. Today, families are much smaller and many are fragmented with elders living in villages and many of the young and middle aged flocking to cities to look for work. In today’s world of development and progress when individuals are in trouble they sometimes slip through the cracks.
There are three terms that describe this form of charitable support beyond the family: “舍得” (shěde), we get after giving; “知足常乐” (zhīzúchánglè), to know contentment is to be happy; and “助人为乐” (zhùrénwéilè), helping people is happiness. These terms define the cultural understanding of charitable giving and support. Sadly, many of these traditional terms have been forgotten in modern China, and only recently have individuals and institutions been attempting to revive the Chinese tradition of giving, as Pierre Fuller writes in an Op-Ed in the New York Times.
It is to this understanding that many domestic stars and foreigners have been trying to apply their own efforts towards a stronger system of public charity in China. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett recently held an historic conference in China, inviting the richest individuals in the country to come together and agree to give their massive amounts of wealth to public charities. Other instituions and NGOs are also working with volunteers and donations to pursue a number of different social initiatives. If you are in China studying Chinese, do not hesitate to donate time or money towards the growing movement of charity in China through volunteering or internships.