The birth and evolution of Chinese secret societies is an often discussed, but poorly understood aspect of the history of Hung Gar. Nearly every practitioner of Hung Gar knows that the birth of Hung Gar had some connection to the secret societies, but very little more is said.
Secret societies have existed all over the world. But in China they reached a baffling level of power and influence. One reference sites the beginning of the Christian era in the west as the same time as the beginning of the secret societies in China. These were the Chih Mei (Carnation Eyebrows), so named for their rite of painting their eyebrows with vermillion. The Chih Mei were defeated during the Han era when a commander dressed his soldiers like Chih Mei, painted eyebrows and all, and ambushed the group, killing their leader.
During the time of the decline of Han dynasty, there were other secret societies which were active as well, such as the Tung Ma (Copper Horse) and the T’ieh Ching (Iron Shins).
The Yellow Turbans were a huge group who acted in rebellion in 184 A.C.E. They had a vast number of soldiers which were divided up under thirty-six generals. They swept throughout the northern regions and “subdued the whole north of China”. This was the group who played the largest roll in the downfall of the Han dynasty, and bringing about the start of the Three Kingdoms era.
The Three Kingdoms was an important era in the development of Chinese martial arts, as well as secret society activity. It was during this time when Gwan Yu, Liu Pei, and Chang Fei (who were leaders during this time of rebellion and instability) took an oath to “fight and live and die together”. Similar oaths are taken within the modern Triads.
In a historical romance titled Shi Hu Chuan, a more extensive oath was taken by the 108 rebels. According to the Shi Hu Chuan, the oath was as follows;
“We are one hundred eight persons assembled in this hall, who regard stars as our brothers, and Heaven and Earth as our Father and Mother, and though unlike in features, we are alike in stateliness. We possess one hundred eight hearts, and every heart is spotless. We bind ourselves to share each other’s happiness and bear each other’s burdens. We arrange our names before Heaven, and must not become a laughing-stock for men. The information of one day being found reliable must be acted upon with lifelong courage. Should any of us harbor unkindness in our hearts and sever ourselves from our great cause, or say one thing at home and another abroad; or begin without continuing to the end, may Heaven look down on us as devils by our sides watch us; may knives and swords cut our bodies and thunderbolts blot out every trace of us; may we everlastingly sink into hell and not be reborn as human beings for a myriad ages. May such be the retribution of those of us who break our oath. Let Heaven and all the Gods look down on us as we swear.”
Following the oath, they drank one another’s blood mixed in wine.
It would only be about two hundred years later that another secret society made itself known and felt throughout China, the Bai Lien, or White Lotus Society.
Kublai Kahn crushed opposition within China to establish the first foreign group to rule all of China, the Yuan Dynasty in 1280 A.C.E. By all accounts, Kublai and his successor were both powerful and wise and were able to crush both opposition and rebellion. But with the death of Wu Tsung the empire fell into the hands of much weaker stock, and left China essentially being ruled by ministers and eunuchs. The Chinese people began to stir, and rebellion was coming. One source states that children in Honan and Hubei had been singing a children’s song which had the line, “When stirs the one-eyed man of stone, the dynasty will be overthrown” (or something along these lines). Of course, the Chinese of the time believed strongly in omens and signs. In 1344, in a place called Huang Ling Kang, a stone image of a one-eyed man was found, or may only have been rumored to have been found, but word spread quickly.
The large and powerful White Lotus Society was stirred into action. The leader declared the “advent of the Mayitreya” (the Buddhist Messiah). The soldiers of the White Lotus Society wore red turbans as their distinguishing mark. The White Lotus started the rebellion in the hopes of restoring the Song Dynasty. But in the end another group established their own dynasty.
The rebellion grew, and as it did other groups sprouted. Among the groups that did were the followers of Chu Yuan Chang. Chu was recognized as being very gifted in war craft and government (much more so than any of his rivals). In the end it was Chu who ascended to the throne, and became Hung Wu, the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty.
The intrigues and usurpations of the various dynasties are well documented in the previous section, so only a passing reference to some of the major event to tie into the Secret Societies timeline will be made.
The White Lotus Society did not really do much for quite some time after failing to achieve their goal of reaching the throne. After about 250 years of luxury, the Ming were becoming weak and lazy. Again, the country was essentially being ruled by eunuchs. Through misrule, and many natural disasters, discontent was rampant. It was in the reign of the Ming Emperor Tien Ki that one of the many rebels, Su Hung U, sought and gained the aid of the White Lotus Society. Su had actually made it so close that he had proclaimed himself Emperor when he was defeated and killed in battle. The White Lotus Society seems to have lost heart at this time and fell into the background.
Although there were other revolts and uprisings, the White Lotus Society seems to have been relatively quiet throughout most of them, until around 1761, when the Emperor Kien Lung began to issue edicts outlawing the White Lotus Society. There were edicts issued against other secret societies as well, including the Ming Tsuen (Illustrious Worthies), and the Bai Yuen (White Cloud). It was in 1775 when the leader of the White Lotus Society, Liu Sung, was banished from Anhwei after sending people to the area performing magic and “healing the sick” in an attempt to gain followers and support in the western regions of China. Many people were joining and the society was rapidly growing until 1794 when it felt the time was right for rebellion. This rebellion was a stain on the otherwise bright reign of Kien Lung.
The White Lotus Society set up a youth named Wang Fa Cheng, declaring him to be a member of the Chu family, and a descendent of the Ming Emperors. Liu Chi Hieh claimed that when Wang was but a child, he hid him outside of China to keep him safe.
This rebellion grew rapidly under the leadership of Liu Chi Hieh, among other leaders. One of these leaders was a woman of the family name Wang. Eventually there were around 100,000 armed rebels. The Imperial soldiers were equal in number, and through the vast territories of China each side was able to claim some varying degrees of success. There were points where it would look as if the rebels would win the throne, and then at some twist of fate, the imperialists would turn and crush them. The war dragged on like this for six years when Liu was captured. This should have ended the war, but as soon as one leader was captured or killed, another would rise up in his place. Too, when the Imperial troops could claim victory in one place, the rebels would rise up in another.
By the end, the war had lasted over ten years, and tens of thousands of Chinese lay dead.
Wang Fa Cheng never was the rightful heir to the throne of the Ming Dynasty. He was a pretender who was little more than a puppet being used by the White Lotus Society. Nothing is known of his end. He simply and quietly disappeared.
There was another failed insurrection in 1814 which was credited to the White Lotus Society, but was probably the work of a different group (some give the credit to “The Three Incense Sticks”, “The Eight Trigrams”, or the “Rationalists Society”). Most likely would be the Eight Trigrams Society, as the person sited as the leader of this failed attempt (which actually took place within the walls of the Imperial Palace) was Lin Ching, who was a leader of the Eight Trigrams in Fukien. This insurrection was actually planned by Li Wan Cheng and Lin Ching. These two claimed to be able to read the future through astrology. Through bribery, they were able to place some of their own operative within the walls of the palace. The operatives were to allow the rebels into the walls of the palace, and the coconspirators were to identify one another by wearing a white handkerchief on their head.
However, once the attack began, it all started so easily, that once inside the palace, the rebels were at a loss as to what they should do. This allowed the Imperial Guards who had remained loyal to regroup and hold off the rebels until assistance arrived.
In all of their planning, the rebels overlooked or were unaware that the emperor would not be in the palace on the day of the attack. However, the son of the Emperor, who was to become Emperor Tao Kwang, led the charge in defeating the rebels. There is a story that he even loaded his own musket, tearing a silver button from his jacket and ramming it into the barrel in place of a bullet (there were widespread beliefs that some people were immune to bullets through the use of magic amulets, but very few people would think to keep a magic amulet against buttons).
Lin Ching was not present for the attack. He was sent a false message that the attack had been successful, and made his way to the Palace, where he found out he was tricked, and then he was promptly executed.
The coconspirator Li Wan Ching was captured, and his feet were cut off. In a violent response, nearly three thousand members of the society attacked and killed the official responsible for the act.
General Yang Yu Chun was called in, and crushed the rebellion, beheading nearly two hundred rebels. In a short time, he instilled such fear in the rebels that upon sight of him, many would drop their arms and run. In short order he reclaimed Tao Kan and burned ten thousand rebels to death.
All that has been stated above is indicative of the typical behavior of the Chinese secret societies. It was this type of activity which prompted such harsh reactions from the Chinese dynastic governments.
The story goes as follows; the monks from the Shaolin monastery had done some service for the Emperor Kanghi. There had been an invasion from the state of Silu. The Imperial troops had been unsuccessful, but the monks from the southern Shaolin were successful. The monks were rewarded for their aid, but as is a running theme in Chinese history, the Emperor became fearful of such powerful fighters in one place. He had his troops surround and burn the monastery at night. Only five escaped, and within the Chinese secret societies, these five are known as the Five Ancestors. Eventually, the five who escaped met Chen Chin Nan, a former minister who had been dismissed. It was Chen who proposed the formation of the Tien Ti Hui, the Heaven and Earth Association. The Heaven and Earth Association were also called Hung Family. The character used by this Hung Family is the same as the one used in Hung Gar kung fu (洪). There are those who state that the Hung Family was not established until 1749. Regardless, all agree that the beginning was caused by the atrocity of destroying the southern Shaolin Temple. That the origin of the Hung Family Triad and the origin of the Hung Fighting system are the same incident give one pause.
It is said that the founder of the Ming Dynasty was raised in a monastery, and the monks there foretold his greatness. So, with this as a traditional belief, it is no wonder that the five monks who escaped the destruction of the temple would work now to overthrow the usurper and restore the dynasty predicted within the walls of the monastery.
It is also said that when escaping from the monastery, the five monks stopped to drink from a stream. There they are said to have found a bowl floating in the stream with the words “overthrow the Qing, Restore the Ming” written on it. They eventually made their way to Guangdong and made their oath in the Red Flower Pavilion. While they were making their oath they felt that because the sky was red (Hung), and because the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty was named “Hung”, that the heavens were on their side. They then named their society “Hung Mun” (Hung Society).
The rituals which are used by the triads are adapted from various Buddhist and Taoist ceremonies. The ceremonies are commonly used by the Chinese in connection with celebrations, blessings, remembrance, forging allegiance, etc. Modern initiation and promotion ceremonies are less elaborate and very simplified (even makeshift altars are used). Ceremonies, which took days to complete, are now over in less than an hour. Triad poems, once used to identify one’s affiliation and rank, have been simplified and modernized when they are passed through word of mouth from generation to generation. Tony Lee, a retired police agent who spent a career investigating triads was quoted as saying “Generally, a ‘triad expert’ knows more of the history and practices than an active triad member.”