Theses Doctoral

Adopted by the World: China and the Rise of Global Intimacy

Neubauer, Jack Maren

This dissertation examines the histories of international adoption and child sponsorship in China from the 1930s to the 1950s to illustrate China’s crucial but unrecognized role in shaping the politics and practices of global humanitarianism. After the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, Chinese child welfare organizations developed a new form of humanitarian fundraising in which private citizens across the world “adopted” Chinese children by funding their lives at orphanages in China. Under the adoption model, Chinese children and their foreign “foster parents” built personal relationships through the exchange of photographs, gifts, and translated letters that used familial terms of address. The relationships forged between children and their foster parents constituted a new mode of affective and material exchange across national, racial, and cultural boundaries that I call “global intimacy.” At the same time, the adoption plan was also deeply ideological, embedding the relationships between children and their sponsors within the politics of WWII and the Cold War. At once emotional and economic, humanitarian and political, the adoption plan transformed the emotional loyalties of children into a key battleground on the affective terrain of these global conflicts.

The emergence of the adoption plan as one of the most successful methods of humanitarian fundraising in China precipitated a broader “intimate turn” in global humanitarian practice. During WWII, Chinese child welfare organizations developed new discursive and material practices—as well as new global administrative structures—that made the adoption of Asian children into a distinct form of humanitarian rescue. After the war, an American organization called China’s Children Fund utilized the rhetoric of Christian love to transform the adoption plan into one of the largest humanitarian programs in Asia, systematizing the transnational flow of gifts and letters to create a paradoxical bureaucracy of global intimacy. When the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, rather than dismiss the adoption plan as a tool of the reactionary Nationalist Party and their American imperialist allies, they instead sought to transform it into a centerpiece of a new form of “revolutionary humanitarianism.” However, during the Korean War the CCP ultimately decided to dismantle all foreign humanitarian institutions in China, leading transnational aid organizations to again remake the adoption plan as a lynchpin of a new “Cold War humanitarianism” across East Asia.

“Adopted by the World” sheds light on the global history of humanitarianism, the intertwining of intimate relations and international relations during the WWII and Cold War eras, and the political significance of children in modern Chinese history. By analyzing how Chinese child welfare institutions utilized children’s letters to mold international opinion of China, I show how children were enlisted as key actors within the political campaigns of both the Nationalist and Communist parties. Engaging with recent scholarship that has argued that the provision of global humanitarian aid served the Cold War foreign policy interests of Western powers, this dissertation explores how the recipients and critics of humanitarian aid in China both shaped and challenged the post-WWII global humanitarian order.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Lean, Eugenia Y.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 16, 2019