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The Aporia of Chinese Volunteers: Moral Breakdown and Ethical Moments

  • David A. Palmer
Tuesday 6 March 2018
China Seminar
Matthias de Vrieshof
Matthias de Vrieshof 4
2311 BZ Leiden

Following the Beijing Olympics and the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008, the past decade has
seen the large-scale development and institutionalization of volunteering in China, which
has taken various forms ranging from projects sponsored by the Communist Party Youth
League to serving in grassroots NGOs. Based on participant observation at a school for
children of migrant workers in Beijing and on interviews with educational volunteers in a
range of organizations, this paper will explore the dilemmas faced by volunteers when
confronting social expectations about their motivations and goals in volunteering. Devoted
volunteers distance themselves from the two dominant discourses of utilitarianism and
revolutionary collectivism that frame volunteering in China today, preferring to use an idiom
of self-expression, of a personal choice that warrants no justification. Drawing on Joel
Robbins’ and Jared Zygon’s analysis of moral discourses in times of societal moral
breakdown, the paper analyses how, faced with contradictory ethical demands, volunteers
struggle to make sense of their own engagement.

Dr. David A. Palmer is an Associate Professor of Anthropology in the department of Sociology and in the Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Hong Kong. His books include the awardwinning Qigong Fever: Body, Science and Utopia in China (Columbia University Press, 2007); The Religious Question in Modern China (University of Chicago Press, co-authored with Vincent Goossaert 2011; awarded the Levenson Book Prize of the Association for Asian Studies); and Dream Trippers: Global Daoism and the Predicament of Modern Spirituality (University of Chicago Press, co-authored with Elijah Siegler, 2017).

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