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Responsibility, legitimacy, morality: Chinese humanitarianism in historical perspective

Research report

Written by Hanna Krebs

Research report

Humanitarianism is deeply engrained in China’s history. Starting with hydraulic systems for flood control in ancient China through to civil aid societies, Buddhist monasteries and Western missionaries in later centuries, an array of influences have shaped the country’s culture of care and its distinctive ‘humanitarian’ identity.

Yet despite the different cultural influences in China, no other philosophy has moulded China’s state and people as fundamentally as Confucianism. Investigating China’s understanding of humanitarianism in a historical perspective, this working paper argues that throughout imperial times, the Republican era, and even during the height of Maoist years, it was this Confucian concept of responsibility and legitimacy which has forged China’s understanding of humanitarianism. 

In trying to understand China’s approach to humanitarianism it is essential to understand how this ideology has underpinned its political culture and how its history and cultural values have given it the unique identity it has today. 

The research findings are also available as a policy brief: “The 'Chinese way'? The evolution of Chinese humanitarianism”.

Hanna Krebs