Volunteering, care and the self in a Chinese metropolis

Charlotte Bruckermann:

With China’s increasing integration into global capitalism after the demise of high socialism, feelings of moral decline and even moral crisis have taken hold throughout the country. In the ensuing decades, individual philanthropy and volunteering spread, crystalizing in the popular media during mass events, especially in the wake of disasters such as the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 or even in the responses to the Coronavirus in 2020. Such mobilizations for social support defy concerns over a “missing” civil society in China and break with explanations tracing comparable phenomena to the demise of the welfare state under neoliberalism anthropologists traced elsewhere. I have written about this in relation to housing in small cities and villages in North China where the use of online media fostered and accelerated social support in response to a perceived housing crisis (see Bruckermann 2020).  Nonetheless, assumptions about the novelty of such phenomena in China are debatable, given historical narratives replete with persons exhibiting exemplary behavior, ranging from benevolent imperial bureaucrats to Maoist model workers.

Beyond the spectacular flow of altruism orchestrated during cataclysmic disasters, you uncover the underlying rhythms of social support that pattern and punctuate everyday life in urban China. You show how Guangzhou residents provide social support to each other as part of the mundane yet ethical struggles to forge sociality under conditions of heightening urban pressure in the new millennium. These intimate and personal accounts of the motivation to care for the families, neighbors, and even strangers in their midst, reveal a dense moral tapestry difficult to capture in quantified statistics, metrics, and big data. As corporations and governments in China, and indeed the world over, seek to identify and measure “good deeds” for the distribution of trust, credit, and credibility, for instance in the emerging “social credit system” in China, the book lays the groundwork for important current issues of public concern, anthropological and otherwise.

I believe your 2018 book Soup, Love, and a Helping Hand: Social Relations and Support in Guangzhou, China provides an accessible, yet substantive, ethnographic account of the massive transformations Chinese urbanites face in providing and receiving social support, as well as their moral motivations in fostering sociality and reshaping the social contract with the state. How did you come to write this book? What were your main aims and challenges in writing it?

Friederike Fleischer:

The book is the result of my post-doctoral research in Guangzhou, China, between 2006 and 2007. In my first book, Suburban Beijing, I examined reform-period urban transformations, especially the expansion and privatization of housing, and how residents of Wangjing, a Beijing suburb, had been affected by these changes. One of the major issues that came to the fore was the effect of spatial transformations on interlocutors’ social relations, both positively and negatively. Some enjoyed the newly found privacy and anonymity in modern middle class residential compounds, while others lamented the loss of neighborly solidarity and support. It is through this that I came to be interested in exploring how urban, social, economic, and political transformations have affected social relations in urban China. That is, in the context of rapidly expanding and increasingly stratified cities, a curtailing of state provided social services and support, and the one-child policy, how do people go about organizing their daily lives in an exploding, rapidly transforming, dynamic city like Guangzhou? Who do they interact with, relate to, and rely on when they need help or support? How are families, friends, work affected by the new urban landscape?

Whereas the new urban middle class played an important role in Suburban Beijing, in this project I was especially interested in the laobaixing, the “common people”. That is, those who have not directly profited from the socio-economic reforms but have not completely lost out either; those who managed to get by but would be seriously challenged by any unexpected turn of life. Age-wise, my prime focus was on the “sandwiched” generation, i.e. those who have adolescent, or young-adult children and elderly parents they tend to support – with money or practical help. This is (or was at the time) also the generation who had been especially affected in their youth by the Cultural Revolution. Thus, they are not only strongly marked by Maoism but also have to shoulder many of the negative socio-economic effects of the reform period.

The main challenge for the research was – as often in urban anthropology – that I did not have a specific locale, a place, where I could go and hang out in order to meet and mingle with interlocutors. Organizing meetings and interviews in an expanding city like Guangzhou is time-consuming and physically exhausting. As for the book, the main challenge was how to integrate the different realms of inquiry: the family/ neighborhood, the church, and the volunteers.


Your spatial insights into urban China certainly provide a fascinating thread across both books, with your first book exploring a Beijing neighborhood of diverse middle class urbanites, retirees, and rural-to-urban migrants living side-by-side as a community (Fleischer), and now with your second book focused on this demographic that sees itself as “the common people” across different Guangzhou areas, yet experiences residential communities breaking apart to the extent that they feel compelled to forge new socialities. It almost seems counterintuitive, that it is these middle-aged homeowners who become so unsettled, and even anxious, by the changes to their social context that they reach beyond their networks for social fulfillment. Did this come as a surprise to you, or did you expect to find that homeowners felt this erosion of a proximate community living side-by-side so keenly?


That’s a great question, thank you, but not that easy to answer. On the one hand, no I was not surprised because already in my Beijing research this middle generation of lower-income home-owners appeared to be the ones most worried about the effects of the socio-economic reforms. They grew up during Maoism and its promises of a basic security net, including health care, job security, pensions, and (eventually) some form of housing. To see all that falling away obviously is an intimidating prospect. All the more so since they have the additional responsibility to care for the elders, while also providing for the offspring. At the same time, this should not suggest that not a few of my interlocutors experienced the breaking apart of the previous collectives as something positive. “Finally I have some privacy,” I recall well a woman complaining about her snooping neighbors in her previous residential compound. How they evaluated the situation depended a lot on their financial standing. What did surprise me, though, in the Guangzhou research was where interlocutors sought new socialities – the taijiquan group and especially the Church. I never planned on doing research on religion but that was something that really emerged from the field.


Your focus on the personal and spiritual search for new socialities provides an intriguing way of rethinking a number of key tropes in the anthropology of China, including perceptions of moral crisis and individualizing modernity in the post-Mao Era. The taijiquan practitioners, church goers, and NGO volunteers in your book put intimate quests for meaning center stage in their motivations in creating sociality. As you say, they now finally feel they have some privacy. But you also show that there is a political dimension to this, as common values and meanings based in high socialism fell apart without being replaced in post-Mao China, and citizens had to reorient their lives around new priorities. It seems that these Guangzhou residents are much more dedicated towards rebuilding, even expanding, their social, rather than political, lives. Are they simply tired of politics? And is this specific to China? What broader insights could your research provide into solidarity, altruism, and collective action elsewhere?


I am not sure if I would say that people were tired of politics, maybe more frustrated or resigned. But I find it really hard to generalize about this issue as it depends so much on the individual and their personal experience. At the same time, among interlocutors in this project there were important differences between the generations. The older generations, who experienced the Cultural Revolution, were very focused on their everyday lives. Most acknowledged that overall life was much better than during Maoism. Even those with grievances in the present day had little expectations from the government and rather sought to knit their social networks of support and embedding. Among the younger generation there appeared to be something more of a political project of building a better society. But again, given the political, social and economic realities of present-day China, apart from the few people I met who had aspirations in the Communist Party, interlocutors focused on their own practices and immediate social environment. One factor that is important, I think, and which I also observe in my other field research site Colombia, is a lack of trust – in (political) institutions and strangers. That’s why I think spaces such as the church and the sustained volunteering efforts (the long-term, personalized engagements) are so important. This is where trust can be established and lasting social relations, and thus solidarity, can be formed. Beyond this, I think the research shows that the simple distinction often made between altruism or solidarity and self-realization falls short. At the same time, we can see the power of the (Chinese) state to set or influence discourses and practices. Yet this is never absolute; people will always “resist” even if it is not explicitly political.


The book itself gradually broadens its outlook on urban life, beginning with the family and relatives, then moving on to the neighborhood and community, before delving into institutional settings of religious organizations and NGOs. In classic social theory, this might imply a continuum from more intimate, personal, proximate connections to more public, formal, distant settings, often associated with the world of strangers. But your ethnography shows that the connections forged in the exercise groups, church communities, and volunteer associations, are at least as intimate, personal and private as those embedded in family or residential arrangements. They are actually deeply entangled with participants’ sense of self. Why do you think this is the case? Is this because they are more intentional and purposeful than relationships that are specified, or sometimes even imposed, by the world? Or is there something about the contemporary moment that makes these relationships of faith, ethics, and a common cause, so important?


Great question. I actually think that the issue among interlocutors was that the familial world has become strange/ filled with strangers – including family members, friends, and colleagues. That is, since new paths, life styles, desires, and ideas about a “good life” have opened up in the last 30 years, interlocutors experienced more divergences, more rifts, and even open conflicts. So the familiar has become (more) strange. As a result, it appeared to me that there was a lot of “soul-searching” going on among interlocutors in Guangzhou. Maybe apart from the oldest generation, they looked for a way and place to be in the world. For those who were financially end emotionally secure, it was more a matter of trying out new things, identities, past times, etc. But for those with bad experiences and worries about the future, there was an almost existential element to the searching. Then again, young people – the volunteers – transmitted such a sense of lack and need to improve themselves; they clearly did not seem to see their parents’ generation as a source of guidance. They were very explicit about the weight of responsibility they felt was put on them, by their families and society at large, that they would not only have to care for their elders, but that they were also the backbone of society, the new China. So, yes, I think this is (or was at the time of my research) a particular moment. I would be curious to find out how this search for meaning has changed in recent years.


Absolutely, me too! This is definitely a space to watch. Is this where your current research is heading or are you exploring another direction?


I have been working in Colombia in recent years and been a bit disconnected from China, but would actually like to go back to revisit some of these issues. Especially from a more comparative perspective. Even though changing my field site has been a challenge, I have found it inspiring to distance myself a bit from the sometimes quite insular China field of studies. My research in Colombia has highlighted the complex and important role that the state plays in Chinese people’s everyday lives, and how that affects personal relations but also ideas and practices about the future.


Agreed, there is so much to be gained from anthropological comparison beyond narrow regionalism, and your work certainly shows how comparative insights accrue, and transmute, while researching different locations, both in China and now Colombia. I very much look forward to reading more of your work!



Bruckermann, Charlotte. 2020. Claiming Homes: Confronting Domicide in Rural China. Oxford/New York: Berghahn Books

Fleischer, Friederike. 2018. Soup, Love, and a Helping Hand: Social Relations and Support in Guangzhou, China. Oxford/New York: Berghahn Books

Fleischer, Friederike. 2010. Suburban Beijing: Housing and Consumption in Contemporary China. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.



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