Secret Societies of All Ages: Vol 2 - Charles Heckethorn

I. Chinese Societies

513. Earliest Secret Chinese Societies.—The earliest notice we have of a secret Chinese league is towards the close of the Han dynasty (A.D. 185). Three patriots, having then associated themselves, defended the throne against the "Yellow Cap" rebels, a society numbering among its members the flower of Chinese litterateurs. From that time until the establishment of the present Tartar dynasty (twelfth century), the League showed few signs of vitality. But at the beginning of the eighteenth century five monks and seven other persons bound themselves by an oath, which they ratified by mixing blood from the arm of each, and drinking it in common, to overthrow the Tsings, the present Tartar dynasty, and restore the Mings, the dispossessed Chinese dynasty. The name of the society they founded was Pelin-kiao, or the White Lily. The members relied on a prophecy that one of them should be emperor of China. The leaders were Wang-lung and a bonze named Fan-ui. The former made himself master of the town of Shoo-changhien, but was soon driven thence, and eventually captured, and executed with many of his followers. In 1777 the Pe-lin-kiao again appeared, only to be defeated again; the heads of the leaders, including those of two women, were cut off and placed in cages for public inspection.

In 1800 a sect called the Wonderful Association, and another, called the Tsing-lien-kiao, supposed to be the Pe-lin-kiao under a new name, conspired against the ruling dynasty, but unsuccessfully. Under the reign of the Emperor Kia-King (1799-1820) arose the Th'ien-Hauw-Hoi'h, that is, the family of the Queen of Heaven, spread through Cochin-China, Siam, and Corea, with its headquarters in the southern provinces of the empire. The society on being discovered and, as it was thought, exterminated, arose again under the name of the Great Hung League; Hung literally means flood, and the leaders adopted the name to intimate that their society was to flood the earth. To avoid the appearance of all belonging to one society, they gave different names some borrowed from previously existing sects to the branches they established. Thus they were known as the Triad Society, the Blue Lotus Hall, the Golden Orchid District, and others. These soon attracted the attention of Government, and for some time they were kept in check.

About 1826 the chief leader of the League was one Kwang San. It was reported that, to make himself ferocious he once drank gall, taken out of a murdered man's body, mixed with wine. He resided chiefly at the tin-mines of Loocoot, where the brethren then swarmed. The directing power was vested in three persons; the chief, with the title of Koh, i.e. the Elder; the two others took that of Hiong Thi, i.e. Younger Brothers. In the Malacca branches the three chiefs were called Tai-Koh, eldest brother, Ji-Koh, second brother, and San-Koh, third brother. The oath of secrecy was taken by the aspirant kneeling before an image, under two sharp swords. Whilst the oath was being administered, the Hiong Thi had also to kneel, the one on the right, the other on the left of the aspirant, and hold over his head the swords in such a fashion as to form a triangle. The oath contained thirty-six articles, of which the following was the most important:— "I swear that I shall know neither father nor mother, nor brother nor sister, nor wife nor child, but the brotherhood alone; where the brotherhood leads or pursues, there I shall follow or pursue; its foe shall be my foe." The aspirant, with a knife, then made an incision into his finger, and allowed three drops of blood to fall into a cup of arrack; the three officials did the same thing, and then drank the liquor. In order further to ratify the oath, the newly-sworn member cut off the head of a white cock, which was to intimate that if he proved untrue, his head should be cut off.

514. More recent Societies.—In 1850 Tae-ping-wang, the noted revolutionary leader, made a fresh attempt to restore the Ming dynasty, from whom he pretended to be descended. With his defeat and death the League again subsided into obscurity. In the spring of 1863 a quantity of books were accidentally found by the police in the house of a Chinaman, suspected of theft, at Padang (Sumatra), containing the laws, statutes, oaths, mysteries of initiation, catechism, description of flags, symbols, and secret signs of the League, all of which were published in English in a 4to volume at Batavia in 1866. But this discovery showed the League to be still in existence, and about the year 1870 it started into activity again; in Sarawak it assumed such a threatening aspect that the Government made a law decreeing death to every member ipso facto.

The disturbances at Singapore in 1872 also were due to the secret societies of the Chinese in the Straits Settlements. On that occasion the Sam-Sings, or "fighting men," were the chief rioters, taking the part of the street hawkers, against whom some severe regulations had been issued. Murder and incendiarism, torturing and maiming, are the usual practices of the League, which again made itself very obnoxious in 1883 and 1885. The section of the "Black Flag," the remnant of the Taepings, as also the "White Lily," were the most active in their demonstrations against the Tsing dynasty. The last police reports from the protected state of Perak, in the Malay Peninsula, say that in 1888 secret societies "caused endless trouble and anxiety," although in 1887 four members of the Ghee Hin Association were sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment for conducting an agency for their society. Half the Chinese in Perak are members of secret societies, tickets being found upon them whenever the police have occasion to search them.

The Straits Times of the 17th September 1889 contained full particulars of the trial of a number of prisoners who were proved to be members of the Ghee Hin or Sam Tian secret society at Sarawak. The six leaders were shot; eleven, being active members, carrying out orders of the leaders, beating, frightening, or murdering non-members, were sentenced to receive six dozen strokes with a rattan, to have their heads shaved, to be imprisoned during the Rajah's pleasure; seven others, against whom no specific charges were made out, were dismissed on swearing to have no further dealings with the society.

Towards the end of the year 1895 a number of Mohammedans rose against the Chinese Government and captured the capital of the province of Kansu; the secret societies in Central China joined the Mohammedan insurgents. Their success, however, was of short duration; in the month of December of the same year the insurrection was crushed, and some fifteen of the leaders were captured and beheaded. Others made their escape. Among these was Sun Yet Sun, or, as he is also called, Sun Wen, a medical man, well known in Hong-Kong. His being made a prisoner in the house of the Chinese Ambassador in London in the month of October 1896, until, at the instance of Lord Salisbury, he was released, is no doubt fresh in the memory of the reader. He asserted that he was kidnapped by the Chinese Ambassador's people, by being induced to walk into the Ambassador's house; but it is a curious circumstance that San Wen, who evidently knew something of London, should not have known where the Chinese Embassy was located, especially after all the excitement caused by Li Hung Chang's visit to the Continent and to England.

In justice to the Taepings and other secret associations in China, it must be stated that the insurrection was and is the war of an oppressed nationality against foreign invaders. The Manchoos or Tsing dynasty are an alien tribe, ruling over the vast Chinese empire; their government is one of the most despotic the world has ever seen; their laws are so ruthless and unjust, that it would seem they could never be carried out, did not the blood of millions, perishing by every kind of frightful death that the most diabolical cruelty could invent, attest the fact of their being obeyed. Yet British ministers did sanction the enlistment of British officers—Bible Gordon being their leader, what a satire!—and men in the service of the Mantchoos, whom they further supplied with arms and artillery.

515. Lodges.—From the book published at Batavia, and mentioned above, we extract the following information:—

The lodge is built in a square, surrounded by walls, which are pierced at the four cardinal points by as many gates; the faces are adorned by triangles, the mystic symbol of union. Within the enclosure is the hall of fidelity and loyalty, where the oaths of membership are taken. Here also stand the altar, and the precious nine-storied pagoda, in which the images of the five monkish founders are enshrined. The lodges, of course, only appear in out-of-the-way places, where they are safe from the observation of the Mandarins; in towns and populous neighbourhoods the lodge is dispensed with; the meetings are held at the house of the president. The instruments of the lodge are numerous. First in importance is the diploma; then there are numerous flags; there is the "bushel," which contains among other articles the "red staff," with which justice is done to offenders against the laws of the society; the scissors, with which the hair of the neophytes is cut off; a jade foot measure, a balance, an abacus, etc.

516. Government.—The supreme government is vested in the grand masters of the five principal lodges, and the affairs of each lodge are administered by a president, a vice-president, one master, two introducers, one fiscal, thirteen councillors, several agents, who are otherwise known as "grass shoes," "iron planks," or "night brethren," and some minor officials, who, as indicative of their rank, wear flowers in their hair.

In times of peace the ranks of the society are filled up by volunteers, but when the League is preparing to take the field, threats and violence are used to secure members. The neophyte, as in Royal Arch Masonry, is introduced to the Hall of Fidelity tinder the "bridge of swords," formed by the brethren holding up their swords in the form of an arch; he then takes the oath, and has his queue cut off, though this ceremony is dispensed with if he lives amongst Chinese who are faithful to the Tartar rule; his face is washed, and he exchanges his clothes for a long white dress, as a token of purity, and the commencement of a new life. Straw shoes, signs of mourning, are put on his feet. He is then led up to the altar, and offers up nine blades of grass and an incense stick, while an appropriate stanza is repeated between each offering. A red candle is then lighted, and the brethren worship heaven and earth by pledging three cups of wine. This done, the seven-starred lamp, the precious imperial lamp, and the Hung lamp are lighted, and prayer is made to the gods, beseeching them to protect the members. The oath is then read, and each member draws some blood from the middle finger, and drops it into a cup partly filled with wine. Each neophyte having drunk of the mixture, strikes off the head of a white cock, as a sign that so all unfaithful brothers shall perish. Then each new brother receives his diploma, a book containing the oath, law, and secret signs, a pair of daggers, and three Hung medals. The secret signs are numerous, and by means of them a brother can make himself known by the way in which he enters a house, puts down his umbrella, arranges his shoes, holds his hat, takes a cup of tea, and performs a number of other actions.

Henry Pottinger, in a despatch to Lord Aberdeen (1843), perhaps alludes to a secret society, saying:

"The song being finished, Ke-Ying, the Chinese commissioner, having taken from his arm a gold bracelet, gave it to me, informing me, at the same time, that he had received it in his tender youth from his father, and that it contained a mysterious legend, and that, by merely showing it, it would in all parts of China assure me a fraternal reception."

517. Seal of the Hung League.—Every member of the Hung League is provided with a copy of its seal, which is printed in coloured characters on silk or calico. The original is kept in the custody of the Tai-Koh. Various descriptions of it have been given, and as they differ, it may be presumed that there are more seals than one. But all of them are pentagonal, and inscribed with a multitude of Chinese characters, the translations given showing no real meaning; the whole is a riddle, which it is scarcely worth while attempting to solve. To give but one sample. In an octagonal space enclosed within the pentagon there are sixteen characters, which, according to the interpreters, signify:

"The eldest brother unites to battle-order; every one prepares himself (at the) signal (of the) chief. (The) swollen mountain stream spreads itself (into) canals; ten thousand of years is (he) this day."

By many members it is worn as a charm, and great care is taken to conceal its meaning from the uninitiated. As a charm, the seal may be as effective against wounds or death in battle as were the amulets furnished in the fifteenth century by the hangman of Passau, until a soldier had the curiosity to open one, and read, "Coward, defend thyself!"

518. The Ko lao Hui.—The secret society which at the present day seems most powerful in China, is that known by the above name. It was at first a purely military association, whose object was mutual protection against the plunder and extortion practised by the civil officials in dealing with the pay and maintenance of the troops. It is believed that the initiation consists in killing a cock and drinking the blood, either by itself, or mixed with wine. It is also believed to use a planchette, whose movements are attributed to occult influence; gradually persons not connected with the army were admitted; the ticket of membership is a small oblong piece of linen or calico, stamped with a few Chinese characters. The possession of one of these, if discovered, entails immediate execution by the authorities.

The society is anti-foreign and anti-missionary, and is believed to be at the bottom of all the riots against foreigners, and especially against foreign missionaries, which have lately occurred in China. Of course, as long as missionaries, instead of making it their business to convert the heathens at home, will go among people who don't want them, and in China will establish themselves outside Treaty limits, they ought to be prepared to take the risks they voluntarily incur, but whenever attacked, they make the Chinese Government pay them liberally for any inconvenience or loss they may have suffered—of course, with the assistance of English gun-boats. In 1891 the Ko lao Hui, which is also anti-dynastic, caused inflammatory placards to be posted up in various parts of the empire, which the authorities immediately tore down, only to be posted up afresh; the society also distributed anti-missionary pamphlets, with titles such as this: "The Devil Doctriners ought to be killed," wherein the missionaries are charged with every kind of crime against morals and life; the Roman Catholics are more severely handled than the Protestants.

In September 1891 it would appear that the society was organising a rising against the Government, and a Mr. O.W. Mason, a British subject, and a fourth-class assistant in the Customs at Shanghai, was implicated in the project, he having been instrumental in introducing arms and dynamite into the country for the use of the conspirators. He was sentenced to nine months' imprisonment with hard labour, and he was further, at the expiration of that period, to find two sureties of $2500 to be of good behaviour, and failing in this he was to be deported from China. This latter happening on his release, he was sent out of the country in September 1892.

In November 1891 a famous Ko lao Hui leader named Chen-kin-Lung fell into the hands of the Chinese Government. He had been staying at an inn with about thirty of his followers. Gagged and bound, he was taken on board a steam-launch kept ready to start, and carried to Shanghai. His examination was conducted with the greatest secrecy by the magistrate and deputies of the Viceroy and the Governor. On his person were found several official documents issued by the Ko lao Hui, and a short dagger with a poisoned blade. He was addressed in the despatches as the "Eighth Great Prince," and was evidently the commander of a strong force. Three examinations were held, but Chen preserved the strictest silence. Torture was employed, but in vain; the only words that could be extracted from him were, "Spare yourselves the trouble and me the pain; be convinced that there are men ready to sacrifice their lives for the good of a cause which will bring happiness to this country for thousands of generations to come." Then more gentle means were employed, but with what result is not known. The Hui League has various offshoots, which being known to be in reality mutual aid societies, are secret societies in name only, and therefore attract but little attention from the Government. One of the largest of these offshoots is the "Golden Lily Hui," which flourishes in the western provinces of China. Its members are divided into four sections, respectively marshalled under the white, the black, the red, and the yellow flag.

That the popular feeling against Christian missionaries in China is very strong cannot be denied, and for the last two or three years has displayed itself in frequent attacks on their persons and property. Even at the present time such outbreaks are almost regularly reported in the European press. A pretty plain intimation was given to Sir Rutherford Alcock on his bidding adieu to a high Chinese official. "I wish," said that functionary, "now you are going home, you would take away with you your opium, and your Christian missionaries."

A law passed in 1889 in the Straits Settlements for the suppression of Chinese secret societies, according to a report issued in 1892 by the Protector of Chinese in those settlements, has led to the disappearance of those dangerous organisations. But it is admitted that it will take many years for the Triad element to become extinct; the action of the Hung League is merely suspended, and out of it have sprung many minor societies, as offshoots from the parent society, who send gangs of roughs to brothels, coolie-depots, music halls and shops, demanding monthly contributions, under threat of coming in force and interrupting the business of the establishment. The fighting men of these societies are kept in the lodges by the head men on the proceeds of the exactions thus levied. The expulsion of the head men, as the speediest remedy of these evils, has been tried, with as yet only partial success.