PART I. THE BIG PICTURE
The farther back one goes in history, the harder it is to say anything for sure about any given event. Natural distortions blend with myth and we are
lost, tumbling end-over-end. Yet more documentation exists for ancient China than any other culture I can think of. Their long history of literacy and
careful record-keeping provides a powerful telescope to the past. It doesn’t give us certainty, but it gives us wonderful detail
Origins of the secret societies
As long ago as the Zhou dynasty (started 1027 BC), there is evidence of tension between merchants and the government. This tension was to ebb and flow
in fits and starts over the next millennium. As civilization gradually become more complex, money and trade assumed more importance, eclipsing the
priorities of an earlier age in which raw force had held all the cards. The military and government, feeling their power ebbing, made trade with the
world outside China illegal, and put extreme regulations on internal trade, hoping to curtail the wealth and influence of the traders. This new
illegality made rare goods from abroad all the more valuable, and trade all the more enticing. But since it was illegal, trade demanded
. Secrecy, of course, is the primary essential element of all secret societies, Chinese or otherwise.
Above: A man of the warrior class, Chin Dynasty (221 BC-207 BC). His social type didn’t take so kindly to ancient merchants.
Periodically, groups of pesky merchants were banished by the military class to obscure corners of China or even cast outside the empire, where they
established the first “Chinatowns.” Networks of banished merchant Chinese living in remote parts of the empire or places as far-flung as Korea,
Indonesia, and Siberia quickly sprung up. These networks in turn bolstered the ability of merchants operating on the shady side of the law at home to
pull in greater profits from smoother, more organized illicit trade systems and routines. Reinvestment of profits in graft and further streamlining
made for even more profits, and so on. Strait-up street economics 101 even in our day and age in every country, if you think about it, my friends. The
virtuous cycle of vice, if you will.
Desires for material comfort, followed swiftly and logically by bribes and graft, began to penetrate the world of the greedy officials, blurring the
lines between the two opposing camps of government and trade. But rather than having a simplifying or unifying effect, this blurring birthed
: A feature is very hard to eradicate once it sets in in any society, and one which is highly conducive to the flourishing of
As the system grew still more complex, we begin to see records trade guilds, groups of associates originally from the same areas of China but now
scattered, people sharing similar religious views, groups of merchants specializing in the same goods or types of business — these were
“proto-secret societies:” naturally-growing networks for mutual benefit, almost always with at least some involvement in dangerous, socially
unacceptable, or illicit trade (hence the “secret” in “secret society”). Perhaps they used hand signals, words, phrases, indications on
clothing and so forth to identify each other like later Chinese Secret societies would do. Or perhaps they were not at this stage of complexity
Above: Merchants of Han Dynasty China (206 BC – 220 AD)
The Red Eyebrows (赤眉- Chimei): The first Chinese secret society known by name
In addition to the merchants-versus-government dynamic, there were other forces at work. Open rebellion, for one. Chinese history is a series of
dynasties that usually last for some decades or centuries, only to vanish in turmoil and be replaced with a new dynasty. The early first century AD
was a period of turbulence between dynasties.
The Red Eyebrows were thus-known because they used red eyebrow coloration as war-paint. Their leader was Fan Tsung, who saw his organization as a
conservative, patriotic group (think “militia”) that sought to restore the recently-overthrown Western Han imperial dynasty, following its fall in
the year 9 A.D. They were victorious in their struggle, ushering in a short-lived revival of the old dynasty. But after triumph, the society found
itself idle, and soon turned to banditry and other forms of criminal activity. They were eventually crushed by the very same government they had
helped bring to power. This type of story is repeated frequently in the annals of Chinese secret societies down through the millennia.
Aboove:Han Guang Wudi, the emperor restored by the Red Eyebrows.
Other secret societies from around the same time included the Iron Shins, Copper Horses, Big Spears, and Iron Necks.
The Yellow Turbans (黃巾 – Huangjin): Throwing religion into the mix
Above: A modern-era painting of Chang Cheuh and the Yellow Turbans
We first saw how economic and trade conditions gave rise to the “proto-secret societies” of Ancient China. The Red Eyebrows gave the phenomenon a
more tightly organized, political twist. With the next major secret society to arise, we come to the third fundamental ingredient in the Chinese
secret society cocktail: religion.
To simplify grossly, China has had three major religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. But these have often been blended and warped in
heterodox ways by small sects and cults, movements coalescing around charismatic leaders, and so forth. The more “mainstream” religious-political
establishment was forever trying to put down these wild, rambunctious groups, for reasons that will shortly become apparent. At least some or perhaps
sometimes all of the following were typically involved: florid, complex secrecy, esoteric rituals and incantations, complex theologies blending ideas
from different traditions, fortune-telling and psychic-type traditions, alchemical and magical-type work, “dark arts,” rank superstition, deep
energy-work rituals, valid medicinal knowledge, and so forth.
They also drew the same kind of crowds as the more economic or political secret societies did, which is why the authorities feared them and drove them
Naturally, they fell in with their fellow travelers, the trade- and politics-based secret societies, as they had
much in common. The lines between them all blurred, as did membership rolls, and it became difficult in many cases to tell where religion and ritual
left off and politics and economics began. (Anyone who has spent any time at all on ATS should have an immediate, intuitive understanding of
how this dynamic works…)
The Yellow Turbans were formed around 180 AD by a charismatic religious figure from the north known as Chang Cheuh. He claimed to be a direct
descendent of Lao Tse, the legendary founder of Taoism. His movement spread by wildfire, growing to include 36 fanatical generals and scores of
followers across Northern China. This phenomenon was less political and more a mix of religious fanaticism tinged with personal greed. They were not
out to topple the government per se, but because of their massive size and the rapacious greed of the movement’s leaders, China was soon plunged
into anarchy as the militarized sect began skirmishing with government troops on multiple fronts.
The White Lotus Society (白蓮之交 – Bailianshe): The Mother of the Modern Chinese Secret Society
According to hazy legend, this society claims roots in the fourth century AD, with the “White Lotus Sect,” a form of heterodox Pure Land Buddhism.
In the centuries ahead, “White Lotus” became a kind of “meme” for Chinese secret societies of all sorts. Think of the “White Lotus” as a
kind of concept or set of traditions rather than a solid, specific group, and you will be getting close to the scenario in its early form. The actual
specifics and arcana of White Lotus Buddhism and associated secret societies are far beyond my limited knowledge, but I am aware it is a vast universe
indeed. White-Lotus-type groups survived many persecutions by changing names and outward forms whenever necessary for increased secrecy, always
evolving, always fascinating, and of course operating in the same kind of rough-and-tumble world as Chinese secret societies from other streams and
Names of groups associated to one degree or another with the “White Lotus phenomenon” down through the centuries include the following:
The White Yang Society
The Incense-Smelling Society
The White Lilly Society
The Eight Diagram Sect (AKA The Celestial Principles Sect)
The Nine Mansion Sect
The Three United Society (doesn’t that sound awfully close to “triad,” loyal reader?)
Above: Temple to The Unborn Venerable Mother, the central deity of the Way of Former Heaven, one of the many sects to emerge from the White Lotus
The White Lotus constellation of traditions seems to find more solid footing in the 14th century with the arrival of “the” White Lotus Society,
founded in 1344 AD. (Or at least the group most people are actually referring to when they say “the White Lotus Society” with capital letters).
This powerful organization became instrumental in toppling the Mongol rule of China — the iron yoke of Genghis Khan and his descendents. The White
Lotus Society was one of a number of powerful groups (most of which were more straight-up military coalitions rather than secret societies per se)
that had a major role in finally forcing out the Mongols in 1368 and returning China to native-Chinese rule. After victory, the White Lotus Society
was given the high honor of naming the new dynasty, which it dubbed the Ming.
Above: The White Lotus Society in action
For the next three centuries, this secret society was to remain a powerful force in China, although was said to be “neither officially recognized
nor officially prohibited.” Over the years it came to have a troubled and sometimes even violent on-again, off-again relationship with its old
comrades, the Ming government and military. It was, after all, a secret society, with its own multiple agendas.
As we approach more modern times, the White Lotus Society seems to splinter and fragment into a number of smaller sects before fading away completely.
One of the more important of these mutations was the Hung Society, which, in time-honored fashion, changed its name and outward form many times for
survival purposes. The name it eventually took on was the Heaven and Earth Society. In this form, the group was to become quite significant — so
significant, in fact, that it gets its own section, below.
Above: A Hung Society member and family
Heaven and Earth Society(天地會 - Tianduhui): Schemes n’ dreams
The Heaven and Earth Society was rooted in the White Lotus tradition, as described above, and it had its lofty political and religious aspects. It
came of age in the mid-1700s, a time when “the system” was having all kinds of troubles. One interesting parallel with our own age: China was
producing a number of people who were over-educated and over-qualified, with high expectations of success, but actual available jobs were limited and
the road to prosperity was tortured. You thus had a vast population of over-educated, underemployed people who had often invested a years of time and
effort to master an arcane system of classical education that, while intellectually beautiful, was utterly useless in any practical sense. This sort
of thing might sound all too familiar to many young people in today’s “information society”…. And many of these disaffected, intelligent
people with nowhere to apply their talents and anger turned to the arcana, lore, mystery, romance, and potential financial rewards of secret
Above: Heaven and Earth Society initiation ceremony.
In addition to those types, an earthier clientele gradually came to fill the ranks of the Heaven and Earth Society: more common, less educated
citizens simply looking to band together for protection in a tough old world. The membership benefits of the Heaven and Earth Society were good for
the average Joe — if you needed to borrow money for a big event like a wedding or an emergency, you could do so through the society. If you were
traveling in a strange part of the empire, you could use secret verbal cues, hand gestures, and other indications to find members of the society who
might help you. Bandits who were members of the society were forbidden to rob fellow members, and since so many bandits were members, many common folk
thought it prudent to join for “protection.” It could help you resolve conflicts and take revenge when the often-corrupt courts failed, too. It
offered the pageantry, mystery, and romance of secrecy in what were often dull, hard lives. The organization swelled, becoming enormous.
The society was not without serious problems. Financially, it was essentially a pyramid scheme, counting on the fees from recruiting new members to
pay out the sums that existing members wanted to borrow. The best way to keep the money flowing was to increase membership, but as every single member
arrived wanting more than they had to give, eventually the thing was bound to hit a wall. To plug the gap, the society took on darker and darker, more
and more criminal tones, emphasizing violence and extortion to get the needed dough against innocent bystanders, other secret societies, and general
non-members, and also by squeezing its own members for more and more while in actuality providing less and less.
There is a lesson for the United States and the other “developed economies” of today in that cheery tale. Are you listening, people?
Despite this situation, Heaven and Earth lumbered on by relying more and more on violence and outright illegality, spreading its terror farther and
farther (including abroad), and marching through a series of violent convulsions and perpetual conflict with all and sundry that culled the weak and
sometimes enriched the strong before they, too, met the reaper. Death is certain, life is not.
The Heaven and Earth Society, particularly from the south, was to form one pillar that would go on to make up the Triads in their truly modern
Secret Societies and the Fall of Imperial China
Before we finally get to the Triads themselves, there are a few other phenomena that need to be noted. In the 19th century, Imperial China was coming
apart at the seams. Harassed by foreigners with new, effective ways of conducting business and war, it seemed stuck in past glories, complacent,
befuddled by opium addiction and corruption, and aflame with turmoil and the ravages of secret societies and others. The following phenomena are not
100% strictly secret-society-related, but they share aspects of “secret society culture,” with of course much overlap and involvement from Heaven
and Earth members and those of other secret societies of the day, and they give a sense of the turbulence from which the modern Triads were to
The Taiping Rebellion: This captivating episode in Chinese history deserves its own thread. Hong Xiuquan was a typically overeducated and
undermployable young man who turned to a form of heterodox Christianity after reading garbled translations of the Bible and early Christian missionary
tracts. He claimed to be Jesus Christ’s younger brother, destined to found a paradise on earth, a kind of Chinese “Promised land” based on his
idiosyncratic view of the wanderings of Moses and so forth. Starting out with a small band of ragged followers, went on to control most of Southern
China, establishing a capital for his earthly Christian-oid kingdom at Nanjing. At the height of his power, he commanded 30 million people. Much of
the trappings of Hong’s “Christianity,” as well as general organizational principles, were borrowed straight from the traditional Chinese secret
society playbook. But the fall of the Taiping movement was as swift as its rise. By 1864 the “Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace," as Hong called his
nacient empire, was in ruins, and over twenty million chinese had died in the conflict or from related starvation as the basic state fell apart in
conflict. Yes, you heard that right: over 20 million, making it one of the highest death-tolls in all history.
Above: Throne of Hong Xiuquan, the self-proclamed “Younger Brother of Jesus.”
Above: The death toll of the Taiping Rebellion would not be equaled anywhere again on earth until the World Wars of the twentieth century.
The Red Turban Revolt
: By the mid-1800s, common people were being pressured by government officials seeking to squeeze more taxes, general
unrest from the Taiping Rebellion and other woes, and falling living conditions. In 1854, a mobs of “normal people” who had had enough donned red
turbans and turned violent against the government. Many secret society members and units joined in. The revolt spread to inflame all of Southern
China. Yet the Red Turban leaders were unable to hold their grassroots army together, and the area soon fell to squabbling and anarchic infighting.
The Red Turbans were finally decisively defeated by a heavy-handed and by-now-quite paranoid imperial government, which, still quivering from the
aftermath of the Taiping Rebellion, unleashed a reign of terror on common people in the area as well as secret societies.
Opium, Foreigners, and Christianity
: All disruptive elements that came from outside. The secret societies, with their deep roots in foreign
trade and general shadiness, took to the opium trade like fish to water, often becoming staggeringly wealthy in the process. Drug lords tend to follow
that brutal arc, you know, At the same time, the patriotic, nationalistic roots of the Secret Societies made them loathe foreigners. They were quite
aware of — and angry about — what was happening to their country. But like most human beings in all times and places, greed and general
convenience eventually got the best of abstract principles. Yet the foreigner-Chinese underground relationship was never a stable one. Mistrust was
the default mode, and violence was never far.
Above: The Chinese and the British have it out in the First Opium War
The secret societies (as well as the orthodox authorities) had a particular fear of Christian missionaries, which were swarming across China in the
19th century. The societies actually felt that Christianity was the one thing that had the potential to undermine their own authority among the local
people, because it offered essentially the same things. Christian missionaries promised converts free food (and occasionally free opium. Yup, this did
happen) to converts, as well as protection, a new narrative, and the same sorts of spiritual and ritual trappings that defined the secret societies
and bound their members to tradition.
NEXT UP : PART II - The Triads Themselves: A Closer Look
And now at last we have some background that will enable us to turn to the Triads and take a closer look. To be continued in my next major post in
this thread, hopefully within a week. In the meantime, feel free to comment, and I’ll try to answer any questions.
edit on 5/10/11 by silent thunder because: (no reason given)