Abstract

During the late Ming an entirely new charitable institution, the benevolent society (t'ung-shan t'ang), emerged even though there were already in place channels for charity provided by lineage organizations, religious institutions, and the state. To account for the appearance of benevolent societies, this article attempts explanations in terms of worsening conditions and dynastic decline and then moves beyond such considerations for several reasons. Although China had long experienced much poverty and numerous periods of extreme social unrest, it was not until the late Ming that the responses to these maladies took the form of benevolent societies. Although the benevolent societies were sometimes founded in an atmosphere of social tension, they endured long after any sense of crisis had passed and thrived through periods of calm. The benevolent societies arose because they satisfied—in ways that existing forms of charity could not—the emotional and social needs of the sponsors in an environment altered by commerce. To achieve a harmonious society, officials and gentry acquiesced to the investment mentality of merchants, and by making charitable contributions toward a moral society, merchants justified their wealth. Highly visible and tolerated by the state, the benevolent societies expressed social alliances based on money and a spirit of civic pride.

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