Caritative networks

Caritative networks: Religions and welfare in late imperial and republican Sichuan

André Laliberté

This project wants to examine the role of different religious institutions in the provision of social services before 1949, and explore the extent to which they used it for ‘compassionate communalism’ or to attract new followers. Although we know that Sichuan did not experience social unrest with characteristics of religious intolerance similar to the Taiping and Boxer rebellions, we know far less about the attitude of its provincial authorities’ attitude towards the local communal religions, the sectarian movements that emerged in that period throughout the country, and the missionary religions such as Christianity and Islam that were active there, during the late Qing dynasty, and under the Republican period up to 1949.

Before the establishment of the communes by the People’s Republic, the provision of social welfare by the gentry and local elites was limited in its scope and in its generosity, reflecting similar approaches by government in the Western world. In the latter, churches had been major providers of social services, such as hospitals, orphanages, schools, and poorhouses. As the modern state expanded its reach in the Western World, it gradually wrestled from organized religions the management of social services, thereby introducing the notion of universality of access to social services. We know very little about these kinds of processes in China.

Besides the role of Protestant and Catholic missions, we know far less about the role of local Buddhist and Taoist institutions in the provision of social services in Sichuan. While others have paid attention to the role of redemptive societies for their activities in philanthropy and social work in China during the Republican era, we know very little about their activities in that province. To what extent all these religious actors were reinforcing communal divisions or seeking to convert/educate the beneficiaries of their services? What was the attitude of the provincial governments and various competing authorities towards these groups during the period of activities by warlords? To look into this issue, I will be investigating the official legal framework that various authorities sought to establish and in which religious groups practice. Using the framework of legal pluralism, I propose to look at the intersection between the obligations towards others imposed by laws, regulations, and decrees promulgated by central and local government authorities, and the definition of the community deserving of salvation and compassion in the doctrine and actual practices expressed in Chinese customary laws and the different religious institutions active in Sichuan.