The Chinese Famine of the 1640s

By Anita Mah

This research paper in Global Giving will study the relief efforts during the 1640s famine in China, towards the end of the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It illustrates instance of giving outside the Western Tradition, which is focused on individualism(self-reliant action), family traditions, and the Catholic religion.

During the late 16th century in China, there were different types of charitable institutions and organizations to release animals from captivity, to provide medicine or food, to bury the poor, to look after the orphans and the widows, etc. These organizations were managed by members of the local elite, which included retired officials, scholars, wealthy individuals. This research paper will study the famine relief in Shan-Yin Hsien between 1640-1642 . The findings are based on writings by scholarly elite who made extensive recordings of charitable deeds during the famine. These writings expressed thoughts about the virtues of aiding the poor by the local elite.

By 1640 when the famine hit Shan-Yin in China, the late Ming empire was crumbling, resulting in the shift of duty for social order and welfare from the imperial government to the local elite.Residents of the area faced the problems of food distribution and the poor were the much affected group, while the wealthy household stored up large volume of grain.

One local official called Ch’en decided to restore order among the hungry residents in the famine area by asking the wealthy household to issue grains and to help maintain price stability in sales price. Ch’en recruited young graduates and students to help him oversee the food distribution and price stability programs. In addition, he secured public funds to buy grains from neighbouring prefecture to feed the residents in Shan-Yin. Ch’en was successful in not only saving lives in Shan-Yin ,but also in restoring social order by preventing riots from the mass of hungry poor. It is generally viewed that the 1640 famine documents gave a good story for achievement of beneficence.

What motivated the feelings of beneficence among the local elite are the following ideals. Firstly, the thought of Confucius which value the well-being of common people and the moral responsibility for the have-nots. Secondly the religion of Buddhism also influenced the feelings on beneficence as it preached the principle of causation (yin-kuo). This principle believed that good deeds without thought of rewards could earn merit for donors, who could have re-birth in their next lives to a better status or place. Buddhism encouraged its followers to share worldly possessions and to shoulder the responsibility to give for aiding the poor. The religion also lauded the wisdom of giving among the local elite in Shan-Yin. Thirdly, there were outright competition to establish a “good name” and to enhance individual’s reputation by doing good deeds. The donors would have their names on inscribed banners to publicly elevate their status as benefactors in society. Accordingly, there we re united effort and wide scale cooperation to distribute food efficiently during the famine of the 1640s in China.

The famine’s philanthropic records are different from the Western Tradition as the instance happened in China. Donations were made out of Confuciusm and Buddhism, as opposed to Christianity which does not preach re-birth. The famine relief efforts were co-ordinated on a united front and on a large scale, as opposed to individualism from the western tradition of giving. However, there is one similarity to Western Tradition in the recognition of donors in public records or names on inscribed banners during the famine period. The Western tradition of stewardship for donors have similar practices as some donors like to enhance their reputation as benefactors for social networking purposes . In conclusion, philanthropists in Ming China and in today’s western society believe that the common welfare needs to be looked after as they believe in providing social safety net to keep social order.

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