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  • The Art of Doing Good: Charity in Late Ming China
  • Wensheng Wang (bio)
Joanna Handlin Smith . The Art of Doing Good: Charity in Late Ming China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. viii, 405 pp. Hardcover $34.95, ISBN 978-0-520-25363-6.

Over the past several decades, most China historians have focused on the study of local society while moving away from the traditional concerns of top-down political history. The Art of Doing Good by Joanna Handlin Smith epitomizes this bottom-up, society-centered approach. It not only portrays an amazingly delicate picture of charity work in late Ming China, but also provides fascinating insights into the state-society relationship and official-elite interactions during this pivotal transitional period. As one of the most comprehensive treatments of traditional Chinese philanthropy, it undoubtedly represents a major advance in scholarship on this and other related topics. In short, this book combines thoughtful discussion [End Page 266] and innovative arguments with extensive archival research, which makes it an important study of local history.

Throughout history, the Chinese have been acutely aware of the significance of charity work undertaken by a wide variety of sociopolitical actors, including the state, religious establishments, and other private organizations. In particular, as this book argues, the late Ming ushered in a period of heightened nonstate philanthropic activities, which developed new forms and took on new roles in Chinese history. For the first time, a network of local elites projected their own status through highly visible philanthropic projects organized by voluntary associations such as "the benevolent societies." This publicized and institutionalized commitment to doing good became a central part of elite identity because it raised the respectability of elites and validated their social standing during a time of extreme anxiety. Charity work, in short, was promoted "as a vehicle for the moral transformation of society" (p. 286).

To put these important changes in a long-term perspective, this book locates late Ming charity in the midst of dynamic demographic, economic, social, and political transformations during the Song-Yuan-Ming transition. On the one hand, Smith examines how these interacted structural changes created proliferating complexity in a rapid changing society that overwhelmed the organizational capacities of the late imperial state. On the other hand, she emphasizes local and individual agency driven by a mix of interests, events, and personalities in the organization of the benevolent societies. The success of late Ming nonstate charity and the way in which it operated in practice, according to the author, were mainly determined within the specific local context.

In addition, Smith investigates the benevolent societies from the broader perspective of how the intricate relationships of state, elites, and populace were defined in local society. She organizes most of the book around five leading charity figures from different backgrounds and takes their extensive writings on philanthropy as a guide. Through impressive archival research and analysis, Smith uncovers their different, even discordant, voices to piece together a rather comprehensive picture of late Ming charity: How and why did local elite groups initiate, support, and manage the benevolent societies? How did these new elite associational organizations win legitimacy in the eyes of officialdom while inserting themselves into local society against other existing alternatives of doing good? How could they elicit voluntary cooperation from varying social strata? What were the principles that governed their financing and operation? What were their intellectual foundations? Most important, how should we understand the great surge of charity work in late Ming as well as its distinctiveness and significance in Chinese history? In addition, this book also sheds light on a host of other, more general, questions that are too rich and varied for a short review here. Therefore, I will take up a number of key themes and examine how they are approached in this book. [End Page 267]

It is well known that the imperial Chinese state had a long-established tradition of organizing paternalistic public services in local society, including water control, famine relief, drug dispensing, and firefighting. After the Yuan dynasty, however, many of these government services gradually declined and were slowly replaced by privately organized groups, beginning in the lower Yangzi and then...


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pp. 266-270
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