Religion and Charity

The Social Life of Goodness in Chinese Societies

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Robert P. Weller, Julia Huang, Keping Wu, Lizhu Fan
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , October
     246 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What does it mean to be good, and to do good? How does religion inform ideas of goodness, and how do these change over time? These are among the questions animating Religion and Charity: The Social Life of Goodness in Chinese societies, by Robert P. Weller, C. Julia Huang, and Keping Wu, with Lizhu Fan, which examines faith-based philanthropy in Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China, and the ethnic Chinese enclave of Malacca, Malaysia. The book analyzes what the authors portray as a puzzle: the increasing convergence across these societies and within different religions in how “the good” is conceived and realized. To this end it explores the social processes and relationships through which modalities of religious charity are transmitted and reproduced. In doing so, the book considers why this convergence is so far only partial, and why alternative approaches to charity persist.

The convergence in question involves the growing prevalence of what Weller, Huang, and Wu term “industrialized” philanthropy. In China, Taiwan, and Malacca, charity increasingly is carried out by large, bureaucratic organizations that mobilize individual volunteers to serve broad populations of anonymous recipients. This convergence crosses religious boundaries, and the book provides examples drawn from Buddhism, Daoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and to a lesser extent, popular or “temple” religion. Convergence is seen also in the programs groups conduct: organizations associated with different faiths employ similar strategies to address similar social needs. They provide large-scale, even transnational disaster relief, operate old age homes, found modern hospitals, and so on, often in partnership with governments. This “industrial” model diverges from traditional forms of Chinese charity that tended to serve and be embedded in limited communities, such as native-place and kinship groups. Such charity typically bore the imprint of rituals and beliefs, and many ways of “doing good” made sense only within the framework of a particular religious tradition. Given this, standardization in how, why, by whom and for whom charity is conducted points to a concomitant standardization in how Chinese adherents in different societies and religious traditions understand what it means to do and to be good.

Although cognizant of the impact of broad processes of globalization, the authors highlight the role of governments in facilitating this convergence. The three societies examined in the book are all culturally Chinese; however, they differ politically as they include a former authoritarian regime turned liberal democracy (Taiwan); a communist party-state (China); and a nominal, electoral democracy in which civil liberties are constrained (Malaysia). These differences notwithstanding, the authors argue that interactions between states and religious groups have contributed to the convergence they describe. They point to political imperatives that require groups to curry favor with and seek support from officials and state agencies. To be successful, the authors argue, charities and other religious groups must engage in what they term “political merit-making,” an allusion to traditional Chinese ritual practices through which believers accumulate karmic rewards. The quest for political “merit” has induced religious charities in Taiwan, Malaysia, and the PRC to adopt a broad, civic orientation in their programs and adhere to standardized, state-imposed rules concerning transparency and accountability.

Gender also figures into the explanation of philanthropic convergence (and its absence). The authors note that women have played a key role in facilitating innovations in religious charity and their transnational dissemination. Such women include the Venerable Cheng Yen, the charismatic founder of the Taiwanese Buddhist charity Tzu Chi that serves as a paradigmatic case and promoter of “industrialized” philanthropy. Such women also include economic migrants who have established new charitable organizations—in many cases offshoots of Tzu Chi—in communities to which they have relocated. Paradoxically, it is the weakness of these women’s social ties—the relative paucity of their social capital—that has enabled them to bridge communities and act as carriers of philanthropic innovation. In contrast, charities rooted in dense, multi-stranded, and typically male-dominated networks operate in more traditional, parochial ways, evincing little of the innovation and convergence with which the book is concerned.

The theoretical scope of this book is ambitious. That said, some of the concepts need refining. In particular, the concept of “political merit-making” is not well-defined, and encompasses an overly broad range of phenomena. Confusingly, temples and other religious entities are portrayed as doing charity in order to earn political merit, while religious charities are portrayed as needing political merit in order to do charity. To this reader, the activities of political merit-making appear too dissimilar from those of religious merit-making for the analogy to work. In Buddhist and other religious merit-making, adherents interact with an impersonal yet dependable karmic order with the expectation that their acts of goodness will generate karmic benefits. That is, there is a calculability and reliability to religious merit-making lacking in the political realm, where efforts to curry favor with the state may succeed or fail depending on competition from other groups, the personal interests of local officials, and forces beyond those officials’ control.

Despite these concerns, the book is a valuable contribution to the growing literature on Chinese religious charity. It is the first cross-national, anthropological study of such charity in different faith traditions. The co-authors have each published extensively about religions and religious charity in Chinese societies, and the book combines new research with findings from prior scholarship in illuminating ways. Chapters are authored collectively and organized thematically, and the result is a genuinely collaborative product. The multi-authorial approach results in some choppiness; in places the text hopscotches from case to case, and the writing is occasionally uneven. Overall, however, this is a richly-detailed, thought-provoking analysis that will appeal to scholars of anthropology, sociology, and religious studies interested in Chinese religions, gender and religion, and religious transnationalism. The authors position their work within a burgeoning scholarship on “the anthropology of the good,” and to it they contribute valuable insights drawn from diverse yet distinctly Chinese religious milieus.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Susan K. McCarthy is Professor of Political Science at Providence College.

Date of Review: 
March 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert P. Weller is Professor of Anthropology and Research Associate at the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University.

C. Julia Huang is Professor of Anthropology at National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan.

Keping Wu is Associate Professor of Anthropology in Sun Yat-sen University, Guangdong.

Lizhu Fan is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Globalization and Religious Studies program at Fudan University, Shanghai.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.