The Art of Doing Good: Charity in Late Ming China (review)

The American Historical Review, Volume 115, Issue 2, Page 514–515.

By Helen Dunstan

The importance of private philanthropy in premodern China has long been recognized by historians, but for monographs on the subject one has had to turn to works in East Asian languages. Joanna Handlin Smith's The Art of Doing Good will not satisfy readers who require a chronological account of charity in China, but it provides an extraordinarily detailed account of benevolent societies in east‐central and northern China in the last decades of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). One might equally well describe the book as a contribution to the study of premodern China's social elite, the so‐called “gentry,” whose core consisted of men qualified for bureaucratic office through examination success, but considered in their role as members of their home communities, where they were not permitted to hold bureaucratic posts. The book deepens our understanding of gentry identity by portraying a few gentry philanthropists through their own eyes and projects. Although by no means neglecting the various ways in which being charitable served class and personal self‐interest, the author generally constructs a strikingly empathetic account of her protagonists, who are credited with authentic philanthropic spirit as well as other motivations, such as self‐importance. It is good to see some unabashed acknowledgement of philanthropic instincts in this very careful work of scholarship.

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(Something interesting I found)Posted: Monday, May 3, 2010 by cait
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