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Social Hierarchy and Merchant Philanthropy as Perceived in Several Late-Ming and Early-Qing Texts

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Following the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644, literati questioned the social hierarchy, acknowledged merchants as philanthropists, and revised their understanding of gifts and donations. Using several texts (by Tang Zhen and Wei Xi, in particular), this paper proposes that early-Qing literati reconceptualized some of the goals of philanthropy. Where late-Ming philanthropy aimed (among other things) to spread moral instruction and affirm the superior status of scholar-officials, the early-Qing Wei Xi condoned merchant use of philanthropy to build social connections. Thus, the high moralizing of late-Ming philanthropy gave way to perceptions that the recipients of aid were directly obligated to their benefactors. The weakening of the moral purpose of philanthropy and the intensification of donor-beneficiary relations sparked a trend to routinize philanthropy (through forced donations and quasi-taxation), thereby diminishing the room for and significance of individual initiative.

Affiliations: 1: Cambridge, Massachusetts


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