Guest Post: Charity with Chinese Characteristics

This is a guest post by our commenter Xilin.

Charity with Chinese Characteristics: Nourishing Africa’s Indigenous Culture?

The Amitofo Care Centre (ACC) is a charity working in association with a number of other organisations in Taiwan and South Africa. It was founded by Master Hui Li after he visited Africa in 1992 and witnessed firsthand the suffering caused by AIDs and the plight of the orphans it had left behind. Among other activities, the ACC has built and run a number of orphanages in Africa.

The following is taken from the ACC’s website:

The main principles of ACC are based on local African culture, Chinese culture and Buddhist philosophy which are given to the orphans in need. This is considered a unique and remarkable characteristic of ACC although it must be stressed that none of the orphans have taken refuge to Buddhism, as we respect their religious freedom and will allow them to choose their own religions as they enter adulthood.

Now here is a translation of a section from a speech given by Master Hui Li in Malaysia, the original of which is available here on the ACC website:

And we all deeply agree that the obvious benefits from the orphanages in the three countries of Malawi, Swaziland, and Lesotho, are that they have helped raise over three thousand orphans, and besides providing basic food, accommodation and education, have passed on Buddhism and Chinese culture to the children, allowing the bodhi seeds of Buddhism and the spiritual civilization of Chinese culture to shine in Africa. We look forward to raising a new generation of Africans, and lighting the heart light of benevolence, wisdom, the power of vow, and gratitude in them and then from this foundation we can start a virtuous circle and change the bitter fate of Africa’s needy, war, savagery and disease.

Giving details of the education and care of the children, the following is a translation of part of a newspaper article, the original of which is available here on the ACC website:

They receive a trilingual education here. Everyday, besides their mother tongue (Nyanja) and English, they also have two hours of Chinese classes. Master Huili himself teaches ‘Standards for being a Good Pupil and Child’ [弟子規] , ‘The Three Character Classic’ [三字經] [both Qing dynasty Confucian works], poems from the Tang and Song dynasties, and other Chinese culture. He wants to use ancient and broad Chinese culture to nourish Africa’s indigenous culture. He has even invited an wushu coach from China to pass on to the children orthodox Shaolin wushu in order to train the children’s bodies so that they all have strong physiques and vigorous spirits.

If you are interested in seeing the results of ACCs work in Africa, you can check out one of their videos on youtube. In it, you can see the children learning Chinese, meditating, reciting Buddhist scriptures, eating a vegetarian diet (which includes eggs and milk), using chopsticks and practicing Shaolin wushu.

Other videos online show the orphans performing at fundraising concerts in Taiwan. You can check them out if you want to see the children singing or doing Shaolin Wushu.

The ACC’s mission to help these orphans is commendable, but what of the cultural and religious elements of ACC’s work? Is it right, or even necessary, to try and ‘use Chinese culture to nourish Africa’s indigenous culture’ (‘中華文化去滋養非洲的本土文化’).

Finally, here is a translation of Master Hui Li’s own thoughts on what Chinese culture can offer the world:

And only by carrying forward Chinese culture can we bring genuine peace for humanity and for the world and get rid of the disasters of confrontation, division, and of all humanity set against each other, caused by five hundred years of white supremacist-lead European colonialism, might, and Euro-American pride, discrimination and plunder.

The translations above are all my own. If you have any questions about certain words or how I have translated them, please post a comment.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 9 Comments

God (allegedly) loves Man; Man (definitely) lovers alms. 神爱世人;世人爱神的救济品。

Most Chinese (more than 90%?) truly do not have a religious culture in the sense of truly fearing a God. (Yes, to have faith is to fear the retribution of the God.). But the Chinese are in fact quite practical and plays multiple sides where it comes to faith. Most “Christian” Chinese that I know also believe in the most prevalent Chinese religious belief: “举头三尺有神明” (there is a greater power watching over you [so don't do bad things]).

Most Chinese I know are more agnostic than atheist. They suspect that there is something more enduring and more powerful than humanity. But they are not sure where that would be.

Besides, Taiwan is hardly “representative” of Chinese characteristics where it comes to religion. For example, much of Christianity in Taiwan is built around “bearing witness”, and often that drifts back to alleged “experience” of escaping the CR and somehow surviving the ill-treatment by the Red Guards on the Mainland. You would hardly find that in religion in China.

December 30, 2012 @ 10:30 am | Comment

Well well, it seems that Western Christians are not the only ones setting up charities which help Africans, and foist their own culture onto them at the same time.

This seems like a good counter-balance. Rather than just learning English or French, African children can now start to learn Chinese.

January 2, 2013 @ 11:14 am | Comment

It’s interesting to see that this group is trying to undo the damage done by European cultural colonialism by imposing Chinese culture on these children in Africa. Seems like they are substituting one form for another. This kind of kind of fund raising by showing off African children performing in Mandarin is reminiscent of similar scenes in Victorian London.

January 3, 2013 @ 11:28 am | Comment

Brainwashing is an essential part of many missionary programs – that’s probably why I don’t find this initiative too remarkable. That said, cultural initiatives that are “heavy with awareness” are usually not very sustainable. When I was a child, Bruce Lee was an idol for me and my friends here in northern Germany – commercial movies that care about selling, rather than about proselytizing, will usually do a much better job than over-intentional approaches.

Judging the matter from my individual perspective, I believe that children, as they grow up, will rather resent stuff like Master Li’s, than remembering it fondly. But obviously, that’s just my guess.

The problem with these approaches is that they think of themselves as the only possible “spiritual world” (even if they pay lip service to “diversity” – diversity meaning, in their context, that everything is “westernized and not pluralistic”. Their reality is bound to clash with too many other realities.

January 3, 2013 @ 4:40 pm | Comment

@Zhu,

‘Most Chinese I know are more agnostic than atheist.’

Are you saying that this is the case amongst the Chinese comy in America? In Taiwan and Chinareligion is alive and well. I agree with you that religion in Taiwan is not representative of that on the mainland.

January 4, 2013 @ 8:26 am | Comment

@Jixiang, it should be noted that Christian missionaries have been in Africa for a much longer time and that, as far I know, this is the only Chinese charity carrying out this kind of ‘cultural missionary’ work.

‘This seems like a good counter-balance. Rather than just learning English or French, African children can now start to learn Chinese.’

I don’t know if you’re being ironic. I hope you are.

@JR,

You may not find this initiative remarkable, but perhaps you should. We are constantly being told, by those who will it so, that if China becomes a/the dominant super power, the world order will be different and China/the Chinese will not behave like previous powers. This example shows that at least one Chinese person is not immune to feelings of cultural superioty in an asymettrical power relationship.

@Dafuwong,

I assume from your comments that you saw the videos of the children singing and doing Shaolin Wushu. At least I’m not the only one who can see certain historical parallels.

@Zhu,

I meant ‘Chinese community in America’. I was typing on my phone. Religion in Taiwan is not representative of that on the mainland for a lot of reasons. Taiwan did not experience the CR. Furthermore, many missionaries came to Taiwan after 1949 when it wasn’t possible to go to the mainland. Lastly, religion is free in Taiwan: there are no state-run religions and, as far as I am aware, no religions are banned.

But the post is not just about Chinese religion. If you read the monk’s comments, you’ll see that he often refers to ‘Chinese culture’. For example, he is trying to instill Chinese ethics and morality through the rote memorisation of Qing dynasty works. And there are other changes to the children’s everyday lives – too many to mention here – which can be seen in their promotional video.

But, Zhu, what do you think about this charity and their aims?

January 4, 2013 @ 9:13 am | Comment

Xilin:

It is clear to me that religion is between a Man and his God. Beyond that, you may call it religion, but it is really just association of MEN. In Taiwan, just as in the U.S., religion is BIG BUSINESS. They copy what the evangelists do in the U.S. – give away bibles and books, but ask for and get donations that are much more than what the publications are worth. The purpose? Allegedly to build more organization – both hardware and software, to proselytize even more.

It is also clear that there is no such thing as pure religion – most religious practices and teachings are affected by and infused with local culture. So it is not unnatural to mix the religious message with Chinese ethics.

January 4, 2013 @ 3:20 pm | Comment

You may not find this initiative remarkable, but perhaps you should.

I’m not contesting the relevance of your post, Xilin, in terms of feelings of cultural superiority, and the universal way power (perceived or real power) works. But if you know me and my comments here, you can take it for granted that I’m aware of such feelings. Obviously, I’m commenting from my personal perspective, not from the position of a CCP apologist.

January 4, 2013 @ 6:13 pm | Comment

Zhuzhu, contributions to the missionaries are totally voluntary. I’ve been given free bibles as well as the Book of Mormon and was never, ever asked for money. People rarely are handed the book and immediately take on the religion and give money on the spot. Their goal is to win people over to a religion they believe in and get them to worship at their temple/church. There, as with any religion, they are asked to contribute voluntarily to the church, as these are institutions that exist through member donations. For the record, I am no fan of aggressive religious recruiters and avoid them when I can. But describing them as snake oil salesmen is not accurate. They truly believe in what they are doing and see it as beneficial to people who join. Missionaries are not like salesmen, working on commission.

January 5, 2013 @ 3:11 am | Comment

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