In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Social Work in China

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Government Documents
  • Data Sources
  • History
  • Social Welfare Theory
  • Field Education
  • Practice
  • Ethics

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Social Work History of Social Work in China
Peter Szto
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0198


The history of social work in China is both long-standing and emerging. It was first introduced in the 1920s when American missionaries established social work in several university-based sociology programs. After the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, the new government abolished social work, viewing it as an instrument of Western bourgeois capitalism. The government, however, reestablished social work in the 1980s in response to social problems that accompanied the economic reforms and modernization efforts of the same period. While social work education and professional practice remain nascent, their numbers are increasing at an unprecedented rate. Currently there are over two hundred social work programs, and the central government has established the goal of graduating two million social workers by 2020. This ambitious goal demonstrates China’s commitment to social work as a means of sustaining economic development and actualizing a “harmonious society.” Social work’s reintroduction in 1984 also prompted an emergent literature—in both Chinese and English. Still evolving, the literature is historically self-conscious as to cultural context and seeks to generate an indigenous model of professional practice.

General Overviews

The academic literature on the history of social work in China is young and developing. The early history from the 1920s through 1949 had few observers recording and reflecting on those days. In contrast, interest in the return of social work in the 1990s drew numerous observers curious about what ideology, knowledge, model of education, and practice skills would prevail in China. Leung and Nann 1995 is an invaluable text on how to understand the return of social work to China. One of the more poignant themes is the debate between developing indigenous knowledge versus importing Western forms of social work. A major work that addresses this debate is Tsang, et al. 2004, which skillfully analyzes China’s early and more recent social work beginnings. Yan and Tsang 2005 provides a follow-up snapshot but with more recent insights. And an even more current snapshot is Tsang, et al. 2008. Chi 2005 is a guest editorial that summarizes and contextualizes China’s social work history. The details of this history are organized and clearly laid out in Ngai 1996. A point of contention throughout the literature is to what extent foreign knowledge should be imported or whether social work should be an exclusively indigenous-based profession. Tsang and Yan 2001 outlines a path to move beyond the cumbersome East-West construct. Looking to the future, Xiong and Wang 2007 projects government policy initiatives to modernize how social work is practiced.

  • Chi, Iris. 2005. Social work in China. International Social Work 48.4: 371–379.

    DOI: 10.1177/0020872805053456

    A guest editorial on a “contextualized overview” of social work in China since 1922. The theme of change is noted throughout its history. Insights on China’s political economy and sociocultural dynamics explain the role of government and nongovernmental entities. Special attention is given to social work education and Hong Kong’s impact on China.

  • Leung, Joe C. B., and Richard C. Nann. 1995. Authority and benevolence: Social welfare in China. Hong Kong: Chinese Univ. Press.

    This is an excellent primer text that articulates a framework for exploring the history and cultural context of social work in China. The authors outline in clear terms the ideological shifts, political-economic underpinnings, and development of social work in China since 1922. The book also situates the historical narrative within Chinese thought and sensitivities.

  • Ngai, Ngan-Pun. 1996. Revival of social work education in China. International Social Work 39 (July).

    The historical timeline of social work education in China is detailed. It begins with the introduction of social work in 1922 with the establishment of sociology in Beijing and proceeds to the present. Of note is the role of the international social work community in analyzing how China incorporated and developed social work education.

  • Tsang, A. Ka Tat, Rick Sin, Cunfu Jia, and Miu Chung Yan. 2008. Another snapshot of social work in China: Capturing multiple positioning and intersecting discourses in rapid movement. Australian Social Work 61.1 (March): 72–87.

    DOI: 10.1080/03124070701818740

    The history of social work in China has been one of unprecedented change. The article analyzes the changes to understand future possibilities. The analysis weaves through stimulating insights into the role of Chinese identity from a multiperspectival stance.

  • Tsang, A. Ka Tat, and Miu-Chung Yan. 2001. Chinese corpus, Western application: The Chinese strategy of engagement with Western social work discourse. International Social Work Journal 44.4: 433–454.

    DOI: 10.1177/002087280104400404

    This is a comparative philosophical analysis of major social work themes in China and the United States. It explains critical differences and areas of common ground to develop an indigenous discourse. The analysis is mindful of China’s dynamic history, culture, and values. Its goal is to move beyond a false East-West dichotomy.

  • Tsang, A. Ka Tat, Miu Chung Yan, and Wes Shera, eds. 2004. Social work in China: A snapshot of critical issues and emerging ideas; Proceedings of the International Colloquium in Beijing 2000. Toronto: Faculty of Social Work, Univ. of Toronto.

    Proceedings of a seminal international conference on social work in China were organized into this major work. Over forty-five authors provide insight, analysis, and ideas on how social work in China could develop.

  • Xiong, Yuegen, and Sibin Wang. 2007. Development of social work education in China in the context of new policy initiatives: Issues and challenges. Social Work Education 26.6: 560–572.

    DOI: 10.1080/02615470701456210

    This is an analysis of the relationship between government policy initiatives and social work. In the recent past the government endorsed social work to sustain economic reforms and promote social stability. Future policy initiatives involve curriculum and field placement standards, the role of professional organizations, and tension between Western and indigenous models.

  • Yan, Miu Chung, and A. Ka Tat Tsang. 2005. A snapshot on the development of social work education in China: A Delphi study. Social Work Education 24.8: 883–901.

    DOI: 10.1080/02615470500342314

    The first systematic study of China’s social work educators, the findings of which underscore the political and tentative nature of social work. The Delphi method identified organizational dynamics, power differences, and personality issues in the social construction of curriculum and practice models.

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