According to the Confucian ideal, the Emperor of China rules the ‘Middle Kingdom’ through a mandate conferred by Heaven. The eighteen provinces of China, too spread out to be effectively ruled from a central authority, have typically been administered by outlying representative governments, reporting back to the ‘Son of Heaven’. This widespread network has always been open to abuse and corruption has typically been encountered. Where marginalisation of sub-groups, or draconian provincial measures were enforced, rebels arose in opposition.
At times, omens such as comets, famines or plagues revealed to various individuals that Heaven had withdrawn its favour from the Emperor and they met to form hidden cabals whose goals were ultimately to remove the current dynasty from power. Periodically throughout Chinese history these organisations set in motion revolts which toppled empires, only to be themselves hunted down as bandits by the very administrations they helped to put in place. The earliest of these secret societies was the ‘Red Eyebrows’, identified by the peculiar habit of painting their eyebrows in preparation for battle; but many others followed with equally colourful names such as the ‘Iron Shins’, the ‘Copper Horses’ and the ‘Big Spears’. When not in open revolt against their chosen oppressors, these organisations acted as ‘governments within the government’, meting out local justice and collecting taxes that would otherwise be sent to the capital.
During the Han Dynasty, a secret society arose called the ‘Yellow Turbans’ led by a mystic named Chang Chueh. He brought to the organisation a brand of Taoist magic called t’ai p’ing tao which was used to inspire courage, protect the adherents from harm and heal everything from wounds to illness. Sect followers wore special talismans that were supposedly able to ward off damage in battle, a feature that resurfaced some 1,700 years later during the Boxer Rebellion. A hallmark of this magic was the renunciation of illness-provoking sin, which largely entailed fanatical adherence to the dogma of the sect. Chang Chueh’s stated aim for his society was to overthrow the Han Dynasty, at which point the blue ‘Han’ sky would be replaced by a yellow sky of heavenly approval.
The Yellow Turbans were largely successful in laying the ground for the disintegration of the Han Dynasty (if not in changing the colour of the sky) but lost their gains in the aftermath due to schisms and squabbles. The defeated Han generals went underground to plan their revenge: three of these generals – Liu Pei, Kwan Yu and Chang Fei - escaped persecution and met again later in a peach garden where they swore a blood oath of brotherhood to each other. Liu Pei eventually became Emperor of the Kingdom of Shu during the Three Kingdoms period that succeeded the Han Dynasty; Kwan Yu was killed by Liu Pei’s enemies in battle and was eventually deified as the god of loyalty and righteousness; Chang Fei, a great general during the struggles of the Three Kingdoms period but known for his cruel treatment of his troops, was eventually cut down by his own men. This notion of the blood oath – while historically not an element of the Yellow Turban’s worship per se – informed later sects and it became an essential part of the ritual component of such groups thereafter. Interestingly, after this period, Buddhism, which had been introduced into China by this stage, was periodically suppressed and allowed to flourish, forcing Buddhists to join or create their own societies: this led to the introduction of many Buddhist rituals into later hidden sects.
The longest-running secret society in China’s history was the ‘White Lotus Society’, also variously known as the ‘White Lily Society’, the ‘White Yang Society’ and the ‘Incense Smellers’, which arose during the Sung dynasty (960 to 1279). They were connected to other powerful sects of the time such as the ‘Eight Trigrams’ and the ‘Heaven & Earth Society’ and were persecuted for practising a form of Nestorian Christianity which been introduced at the time. This faith teaches a Manichaean belief of opposing forces of Light and Darkness and preaches personal redemption of a kind which prefigured the Gnostics in Europe. Elements of these rituals and beliefs were also infused into sect structures. This secret society was instrumental in overthrowing the succeeding Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279 to 1368) and its leader, Han Shan-tung, would have been the next Emperor except that he and his son died before he could ascend the Dragon Throne. Instead, his fellow rebel, a Buddhist monk named Chu Yuan-chang, became the Hung Wu Emperor and established the Ming (or ‘bright’) dynasty; ironically, the subsequently outlawed White Lotuses were motivated into action once more after 1629 to oust the tyrannical Mings and pave the way for the incoming Manchu dynasty, the Ch’ings.
At some point in the 1600s, a secret society in the southern province of Fukien established itself but unlike other such groups it moved deeper into the woodwork and lent its aid to other organisations with more straightforward political goals. This was the ‘Hung Society’ which adopted aliases (under the pressure of Imperial displeasure) becoming the ‘Heaven & Earth Society’ and finally the ‘Three United Society’ under which name they became known to the West as the ‘Triads’. Similar to the Yakuza in Japan or the Mafia in the US, the Triads were more simply predicated on the organisation of local crime; however, they inevitably lent their support to other hidden groups where it suited their purpose.
Structure of the Triad Societies
The Triads had their own rigid hierarchy, rich in numerological symbolism and strict ritual adherence. New recruits were threatened with all manner of violence if they broke harsh laws of silence and brotherhood and these were generally effective (not only due to the threats but also because of the high levels of ill-feeling against the political enemies of the secret society). The head the society was the Shan Chu and his lieutenant was called the Fu Shan Chu. After these two figures came a roll call of shadowy office-bearers for each lodge of the Society.
Prime among these were the Heung Chu (‘Incense Master’) and the Sin Fung (‘Vanguard’): they were responsible for the ritual and mystical activities of the society, especially the induction of new members and the meting out of punishments. The Cho Hai (‘Messenger’) was responsible for communications between the various lodges of the Triad and also for collecting debts owed to the society. The Hung Kwan (‘Red Pole’) was responsible for martial training and for leading the warriors of the Triad into battle against rival societies, the government, or other enemies. Occasionally there was a Treasurer known as the Cha So. Subordinate lodges to the main society had their own leaders called the Chu Chi and his lieutenant the Fu Chu Chi. The rank-and-file members were called Sze Kau.
Most sinister of all was the shadowy Pak Tsz Sin (‘White Paper Fan’) the often anonymous adviser to the Shan Chu often equated to the consigliere of the Mafia organisations. His role was to advise on tactics and policy for the Triad. The role had a significant mystical and ritual component as White Paper Fans were often promoted to the position of Heung Chu.
Numerology, especially derivations of the number three, were important to the Triads. Each office bearer was known by a numerological reduction of their title. Thus the Shan Chu was known as the ‘489’, or sometimes the ‘21’ (since 4+8+9=21); the Fu Shan Chu, the Heung Chu and the Sin Fung were all of equal rank with the designation ‘438’; the Cho Hai was a ‘432’, the Hung Kwan was a ‘426’ and the Pak Tsz Sin was a ‘415’. The ordinary member was a ‘49’.
Initiation was a drawn-out process which took three days. The prospective new members must first find a sponsor from within the ranks and pay this individual a fee for the introduction. After further payments to the Triad, the Incense Master and the Vanguard undertook extensive checks on the nominees in order to assess their suitability. If all went well, the initiates were dressed in Buddhist robes and brought to a ritual room with symbolic gates on each of the four walls. There they were introduced to the office bearers. They were made to swear an oath to the Triad and also to the god Kwan Yu (transformed by the Triad rituals into the god of secret oaths) and then made to suffer threats of terrible punishments if these oaths were to be foresworn. At some point, blood taken from all prospective members was drunk and scenes of ritual death and injury were performed as object lessons to the newcomers. Afterwards, as new members, the recruits were taught secret hand signals and signs that would reveal their new status to their other associates. In a similar fashion to the Freemasons, a Triad member could reveal his status to others in the know by the way he held his chopsticks or by the way he paid money to a stranger.
Qing agents arresting members at a meeting of their secret society
The Triads also had their martyrs to inspire and drive their efforts. In 1674 the Ch’ing sent a great army to the province of Fukien to destroy a monastery of monks in the mountains there. They lay siege to the building for several months but were repeatedly driven off by the unarmed martial skills of the monks. Eventually, a traitor on the inside allowed some Imperial agents into the compound disguised as coolies and a rout began. Of the original 128 Shaolin monks, only eighteen escaped; of this remnant, only five escaped eventual capture in the months that followed. These five are referred to as the ‘Five First Ancestors’ in both Triad and kung fu lore and the incident served to underscore the increasing anti-foreigner sentiment of the Triad policies and goals.
The Society of God Worshippers
In 1846 Hung Hsiu-ch’uan, a sickly - most likely, mad - failed student, established his secret band of the ‘Society of God Worshippers’. Largely supported by the local Triads, this group formed the basis of the Taiping Rebellion which wrought havoc across China for the next 15 years. Their battle-cry was “Defeat the Ch’ing; restore the Ming!” and their attempts, while futile in the short term, were to lend impetus to the defeat of the Ch’ing dynasty and the abolishing of the whole Imperial system.
Hung Hsiu-ch’uan cobbled together his manifesto from a poorly remembered set of Christian tutorials provided by Jesuit teachers, mixed in with Taoist mysticism, ancestor worship and concepts borrowed from Buddhism. Organising this system from the shadows was the hidden hand of the Triads, with their own set of rituals and administration which lent substance to the madness of the Taiping’s leader. His later suspected suicide has speculatively been suggested as a convenient removal by the Triad leaders, once his usefulness came to an end.
The Small Swords
Under the aegis of the Taiping Rebellion a local Triad group, the ‘Small Swords’, broke out into open revolt in the city of Shanghai. Less interested in the overthrow of the Manchus and more keen to wrest rising industrial competence and infrastructure from the foreign invaders, the Small Swords’ aims were only tangential to the whole Taiping push. As part of their uprising they occupied the Old City of Shanghai, Nantao. From this nest of tangled alleyways they sallied forth to wreak havoc upon the foreign devils. Within the walls of the old town they held the Chinese populace kidnapped, berating them for working with the foreigners and attempting to weed out ‘collaborators’. As a consequence of this action, the Chinese in the old town, along with the refugees from outlying districts who had fled here to avoid Taiping outrages, rushed in to the foreign enclaves and settled in the streets. Opportunistic taipans and their compradors saw an opportunity: they bought up land in Chapei and other local districts and subdivided their own properties in the settlement areas. These they converted into slums for willing buyers, throwing up street after street of lilong housing to accommodate the displaced crowds – the property boom in Shanghai had begun.
The city’s populace decided to take matters into its own various hands. The Shanghailanders formed themselves into a reservist force - the Shanghai Volunteer Corps (SVC) - and worked with other local organisations to oust the Small Swords from the city environs. Ironically, the French Concession and the International Settlement were assisted by two local tongs – the Green Gang initially and afterwards the Red Gang – to put down the Triad. The Greens used the opportunity to capture the Old City as their new headquarters, across the river from their traditional ‘turf’ of Pootung and thus gained a valuable foothold in the criminal underworld. This co-operation of forces helped pave the way for a tradition of ‘continued assistance for mutual benefit’ right up until the Communist takeover in 1949, a sentiment not lost on the two later leaders of these tongs, ‘Pockmarked’ Huang Jinrong and the sinister ‘Big-eared’ Du Yue-sheng. The SVC itself also gained a cachet of glamour from the incident and was a feature of Settlement life until the mid-20th Century.
The Boxer Rebellion
Perhaps the most well-known of the Chinese secret societies was the group called I Ho Ch’uan (‘Fists of Righteous Harmony’) but known as the ‘Boxers’ to the Westerners. With the, initially, tacit assistance of the Imperial Court, they led an uprising against the ‘foreign devils’ and besieged the Foreign Legations in Peking for a period of 55 days in 1900.
Borrowing heavily from the t’ai p’ing tao of the Yellow Turbans, the Boxers practised sorcery to inspire and protect their troops. Records show instances of new Boxer recruits being shot at point-blank range with pistols, rifles, even cannon and suffering no injuries; battlefields strewn with the Boxer dead would miraculously be cleared by the next morning as the corpses healed their injuries and revived overnight. The fan kuei had their own pedestrian explanations for the way in which these miracles were accomplished but the Chinese people, even the Dowager Empress, were largely impressed and rallied to the Boxer cause.
The Tcho-tcho and the Triads
The degenerate peoples of the Plateaus of Sung and Tsang have a way of insidiously infiltrating ‘normal’ society and nowhere have they been so successful as in China. As early as the 1600s they set about consolidating power in the new Triad societies being formed and over time have directed and codified their beliefs and practises. Note that not much is known definitively about the Triad organisations, given their cell structures and ability to fade into the background; but this is also standard practise for the Tcho-tcho wherever they choose to operate.
The ritual aspects of Triad ‘worship’ and their secretive nature appeal strongly to the Tcho-tcho. The blood-drinking and stylized sacrifices of the Triad ceremonies fit well with their worldview and their profane worship and it wasn’t long before they began to exert a shadowy presence behind the leadership of the Triad organisations. Many a Tcho-tcho master inveigled their way into the position of White Paper Fan and from there to Heung Chu or Sin Fung, codifying worship for their particular organisation.
The impact of these blasphemous cannibals was seen nowhere more clearly than in the various rebellions of the Nineteenth Century. The t’ai p’ing tao of the secret societies became infused with the obscene magicks of the Mythos and such spells as Blight / Bless Crops, Create Zombie, Enchant Lance and Flesh Ward began to be seen on the battlefields against the foreign troops. The foreigners had their own rationales to explain the incongruous events they were witnessing but then the human mind is capable of fooling itself into believing almost anything.
In general however, the Tcho-tcho backing of the secret societies of China did little to consolidate their worship and power. This is because the Tcho-tcho themselves are so factionalised and divided between different deities, modes of worship and internecine fighting that they couldn’t focus their resources strongly enough to make a decisive attack at any stage.
The Hsi Fan
The one exception to this state of affairs was the Hsi Fan. This secret society formed in an ancient lamasery in Tibet close to Yian-Ho and the Plateau of Tsang. Under the aegis of powerful though corrupt lamas, possibly informed by the teachings of the Book of Dzyan and the Ghorl Nigral, their Tcho-tcho emissaries brought them information about the secret cabals of China and they formed their own society. Not much is known of them apart from whispered rumours: it is said that the lowest order of masters within the sect is composed of twelve mystics known as the Order of the White Peacock; the sect is said to command great power in the form of alchemical artefacts; and Dr Fu Manchu is, at this time, one of their most loyal servants.
Triads on the High Seas
Amongst peasant workers on the waterways throughout China it was customary to observe a tradition called chiu chao or ‘brotherhood’; this loosely translated as a sharing of benefits when times were hard and of watching each others’ backs in the face of oppressive authority. A strong family feeling suffused these connexions and entry into the clique became a difficult thing. The tradition was particularly strong in the south of China to where many families and peoples had been displaced due to purges enacted by the central government. These affiliations plied the waterways and oceans of the world, trading, fishing and salvaging. Occasionally, they indulged in a little piracy.
For piracy to be successful, there are several things that are required: an intricate coastline with many river entries and islands; a remoteness from organised central authority or a fractured local government; access to established trade routes; and a jaded bureaucracy able to be bribed. Southern China had all of these things in abundance. Since the 1600s the South China Seas have been host to many pirates, great and small, including Koxinga, a bastard son of the Imperial dynasty and Ching Shih, perhaps the world’s most formidable pirate queen, who commanded 80,000 pirates in her fleet. This region is still plagued with pirates today.
Of interest especially to us however, is the notion of family ties in sea-going communities, particularly in a country where veneration of Nyarlathotep in his form of the Bloated Woman is relatively common. The Cult to this excrescence is known to encourage the Deep Ones in its rites of worship and many pirate communities arose, composed of half-Deep One hybrids dedicated to the deity’s dark worship. Their main temple was said to be located on a ‘lost’ island near Shanghai, hidden by silence and ancient magicks, called Grey Dragon Island...