Sichuan Tragedy Sparks Cultural Shift

In the aftermath of Sichuan's devastating earthquake last May, which killed 69,181 people and injured 374,171, individuals and companies from all over the world have donated money and supplies in huge numbers to the victims. Even more significant perhaps, an unprecedented number of individuals in China have volunteered to help in the earthquake zone or contributed money, as well.

In a nationwide campaign, students and even children have been encouraged to donate portions of what little they might have to earthquake relief in what appears to reflect shifting public attitudes toward charitable giving.

According to a 2008 story in Time magazine, it has long been argued that under traditional Confucian ideals, the Chinese have valued their own families above all else and have been reluctant to get involved and give contributions to non-family members. Paul Mooney, a freelance journalist, who has had 23 years of experience reporting in Asia, said he saw little evidence of any student interest in volunteerism when he previously taught at a Chinese university.

"This is the first time that the Chinese have responded so willingly to a cause like this," Mooney said. "Most young people seem more concerned about getting ahead than donating their time to help others. China volunteerism is just in the infancy stage."

Li Yangbin, a 24-year-old student at Hangzhou's Zheijiang University of Technology, said that although young people today may be more materialistic, they "also have to keep [their] minds on pressing national issues, adding, "We are acting very supportive to our country."

Throughout China donor lists detailing who has donated how much money to the earthquake victims are posted in neighborhoods and on university campuses.

Li Kike, a 21-year-old student at Shanghai's Donghua University, thinks the late spring snowstorms that snarled nationwide travel and transport earlier in the year, combined with protests abroad over the progress of the Olympic torch, and most lately the Sichuan earthquake, have helped changed how China's youth feel and how older Chinese feel about them.

"This generation is very unique," Li said. "We don't have very hard times in politics or lifestyle. Now we are just being more and more supportive to our country and we really want to help people who were in the earthquake."

Li recalled reading an online message board, or what is referred to in China as a BBS, on which some called his generation the "ruined generation." But the earthquake, he said, gave older Chinese a chance to reconsider the role of Chinese youth in society: "Our reactions and responsibilities changed people's minds - they reconsidered our strength."

In recent years, older Chinese have characterized the the country’s youth as the “Me Generation,” one that, according to a 2007 story in Time magazine, is characterized by its "self-interested, apolitical pragmatism."

Yet the "Me Generation"'s generous response to aiding earthquake victims may be the start of something new. One recent poster on the China Daily’s BBS asserted her willingness to donate to the earthquake victims despite describing herself as "a poor college student." "I donate[d] several hundred yuan to the earthquake," she said. "It is tiny, but we have 1.3 billion [people] like me. The Chinese are unconquerable."

It may be too early to say whether or not there will be a major rise in the willingness of Chinese citizens across the board to make donations and volunteer on a long-term basis. But if the reaction to the earthquake is any indication, a more long-lasting change could be on the way.