Consuming “the unfortunate”: the violence of philanthropy in a contemporary Chinese state-run orphanage

Linliang Qian*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Following the Tocquevillian tradition and driven by a neoliberal concern, many China scholars interpret the rise of philanthropy in contemporary China as a sign of the growing “civil society” that will help to democratize the country and improve its citizens’ social well-being. However, this paper shows that philanthropy in the Chinese context works to reproduce social inequalities between philanthropists and the subjects they claim to help. My ethnography focuses on philanthropic activities in a state-run orphanage in southeastern China. In these activities, characterized primarily by donations and volunteer work, middle- and upper-class philanthropists label orphans as “the unfortunate” or even “the abnormal unfortunate” to create a clear-cut “they/unfortunate–we/fortunate” dichotomy that stigmatizes these children. Furthermore, they utilize this dichotomy as a tool to transmit class consciousness to their own children, “touristify” the orphanage, and even exploit the orphans for marketing or commercial purposes. The pragmatic rationale reflected in these representations and practices also provides an alternative to the current anthropological studies on humanitarianism, which have mostly focused on religious, ethical and moral motivations among philanthropic agencies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)247-279
Number of pages33
JournalDialectical Anthropology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2 Oct 2014


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