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

  • Introduction
  • Overview of Rural Social Work Development
  • Rural Social Work Education
  • Rural Social Welfare
  • Indigenous Practice Models
  • Green Social Work and Rural Development
  • Disaster Social Work in Rural Areas
  • Culture and Rural Social Work
  • Women and Rural Social Work
  • Rural Social Services

Social Work Rural Social Work in China
Hok Bun Ku, Qi Huadong, Zhang Heqing
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0276


In this article, “China” refers to “mainland China.” Social work as academic discipline was first introduced to China’s most important universities, such as Yenching University, in the 1920s. However, social work, like other social science disciplines, was labeled as “bourgeois pseudo-science” and removed from Chinese universities in the 1950s, based on the idea that there were no social problems in socialist China, and thus no need for social work education. After the introduction of the Open Door and Economic Reform policy in 1978, social science disciplines were gradually reestablished in universities in mainland China beginning in the late 1980s, after a lapse of over thirty years. China’s rapid social and economic transformation has created different social problems since the late 1970s. As a measure to alleviate emerging social problems, the return of social work programs was advocated by the Ministry of Civil Affairs and by leading academics, who saw the need to develop professional social workers to handle the increasingly complex social problems arising from rapid social and economic transitions. Thus, the Chinese government reintroduced social work education programs to the universities in the late 1980s, for the clear political mission of establishing social stability and a harmonious society. Peking University was the first higher educational institute to launch a social work program at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels in 1988. Gradually, other universities and cadre training colleges in China followed its lead. In China in 2018, there were 348 undergraduate social work programs and 150 master’s of social work (MSW) programs. In China’s specific context, rural social work is one of the major subfields of social work. As social work was developed in the Western urban context, when it was reintroduced to China, some of the Chinese social work educators were aware of the differences in cultural and societal context between China and the West. They emphasized the indigenization of social work in China, and rural social work was regarded as the major component of this effort. They also thought social development and poverty alleviation should be a major factor. For example, Professor Wang Sibin, a leading social work scholar from Peking University, opined that social development and poverty alleviation should be the primary focus of social work education in China, and that individualized practice should only constitute a supplementary and secondary role in the social work curriculum. This is the context and direction of rural social work development in China since it was reconstructed in the 1980s. However, even today, rural social work is underdeveloped in terms of academic research and publication. Most of the bibliographies are in Chinese, and very few academic papers have been published in English in the area of rural social work in China. Nonetheless, in this bibliography, priority will be given to English academic papers. Only important and high-quality Chinese articles will be cited.

Overview of Rural Social Work Development

A number of general overviews of China social work development have been published over the years. They include a doctoral dissertation, Wang 2012, as well as a book chapter, Yuen-Tsang, et al. 2014. But, as Meng, et al. 2019 states, due to the urban-based development of social work, the specific problems of rural China are often overlooked. Therefore, academic literature on the history of rural social work in China is rare, especially in English. A paper written by Meng and colleagues (Meng, et al. 2019) is the only English academic paper providing an overview of developmental issues and the emergence of social work practices in this context. Rural social work is very locality- and context-specific, and it needs to be critical to the application of a global definition of social work. There is a lack of fit between Western models and the local Chinese sociocultural context (Meng, et al. 2019). Several English articles on rural social work practice present the creation of indigenized knowledge and intervention to address context-specific problems. Literatures on rural welfare development in China are also reviewed and discussed by Western scholars. Therefore, as Meng and colleagues state, “Western knowledge and standards cannot be uncritically imported into China.” When developing rural social work in China, it must situate “Western remedial approaches within a broader framework of social development and community-based participation to devise local solutions for local problems” (Meng, et al. 2019, 8). Research-based social work practice in rural China, they argue, must effectively meet the needs of rural Chinese communities. Another overview of rural social work can be found in Bin 2009, which echoes the above view that rural social work in China is still in the exploratory stage, and its theory and method are underdeveloped. Guo and Li 2017 also reviews the historical development of rural social work in China, from different perspectives. Guo and Li used two keywords—“social work” and “rural social work”—to search the Chinese literature from 1 January 1990 to 31 December 2014, using the most powerful Chinese journal database (CNKI). They found 9,751 related articles, but only 108 serious academic papers related to rural social work in China. The topics include indigenous study on rural social work (23 articles), new rural development (21 articles), theory and method (14 articles), the rural social work practice model (12 articles), rural poverty alleviation (6 articles), rural pension (4 articles), peasant livelihood (4 articles), rural left-behind children (2 article), women’s development (1 article), and others (22 articles). Some scholars in China have also reviewed the research on rural social work. Li and Zhang 2017 explores the years 2006 to 2016. The authors found the main themes in rural social work research in China to be social work profession construction and research on practice models. They also discovered that “lack” and “strength” are two major perspectives in rural social work research. A cultural perspective has been developed by local scholars. Major debates in rural social work development revolve around the issues of professional mission (conciliation or reform), professional role (expert or partner), and practice approach (service-based or community based). Some scholars have discussed the future of rural social work in general.

  • Bin, X. 2009. The future for rural social work in China. Rural Society 19.4: 280–282.

    DOI: 10.5172/rsj.351.19.4.280

    This is another short article that overviews rural social work development and two key rural social work practice models in China before 2009. It also highlights possible paths for rural social work intervention, directions for research, and education in rural social work.

  • Guo, Z., and Z. Li. 2017. The present situation, problems and prospect of rural social work in China (中国农村社会工作的发展现状、问题与前景展望). Social Construction (社会建设) 4.2: 45–57.

    This is one of the few representative Chinese articles that points out the main challenges and opportunities existing in the development of rural social work in contemporary China.

  • Li, Q., and H. Zhang. 2017. Baby learn to walk: A review of rural social work research in China for ten years (2006–2016) (社工“学步”:中国农村社会工作研究十年评述2006–2016). Social Construction (社会建设) 4.1: 31–41.

    This Chinese article reviews rural social work research in China from 2006 to 2016. It also highlights the main themes, perspectives, and debates of rural social work in China.

  • Meng, Q., M. Gray, L. Bradt, and G. Roets. 2019. Emergence of social work practice in rural China: A way forward? International Social Work 62.2: 933–943.

    DOI: 10.1177/0020872818755859

    This is an important article that critically reviews rural social work development in the socioeconomic context of China, and criticizes employing a Western-based social work approach. The paper also introduces the socioeconomic issues and challenges in rural China, which it argues are difficult to respond to using a Western approach.

  • Wang, S. 2017. The comprehensiveness and development of rural social work in China—Some thoughts on “great rural social work” (我国农村社会工作的综合性及其发展 — 兼 论 “大 农 村 社 会 工 作”). China Agricultural University Journal of Social Sciences (中国农业大学学报社会科学版) 34.3: 5–13.

    DOI: 10.13240/j.cnki.caujsse.20170427.001

    This Chinese paper comprehensively discusses the development of rural social work in China. It calls for a concept of “greater social work in rural areas” that follows a professional standard and flexibly uses professional skills to better serve rural residents and communities.

  • Wang, Y. 2012. A study of the professionalization process of social work in the Chinese mainland: Interaction of the state, the society and the academic community (1978–2006). PhD diss., Hong Kong Polytechnic Univ.

    In this doctoral thesis, author uses the perspective of state-society to interpret the professionalization of social work on the Chinese mainland. The study provides a macro understanding of social work development in China.

  • Yuen-Tsang, A. W. K., H. B. Ku, and S. B. Wang. 2014. Social work education as a catalyst for social change and social development: Case study of a master of social work program in China. In Global social work: Crossing borders, blurring boundaries. Edited by Ca. Noble, H. Strauss and B. Littlechild, 283–300. Sydney: Sydney Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv1fxm2q.24

    By using a joint social work master’s degree program between Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Peking University as an example, the authors discuss how social work education promotes social change and social development.

  • Zhang, H. 2012. Rural problems and rural social work of China in the context of globalization (全球化背景下中国农村问题 与农村社会工作). Social Science Front (社会科学战线) 8:175–185.

    This highly quoted Chinese paper puts China’s rural social work development in the context of globalization. It discusses the structural factors that have caused rural poverty and proposes an alternative model of rural social work practice.

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