In Search of Chinese Secret Societies. 4. “Primitive revolutionaries”?

Sun Yat-Sen and some Marxists interpreted at least some societies as forms of political or social rebellion.

by Massimo Introvigné

Article 4 of 6. Read article 1, article 2 and article 3.

Members of the secret society in a British colonial police image, Singapore, early 20se century. Source: Government of Singapore.

The Qing police did not really seek to “interpret” the Tiandihui, and the imperial constables did not concern themselves with questions of origin and ritual. The same cannot be said of English, French and Dutch officials who encountered secret societies wherever they exercised their colonial power over Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. It is to them that we owe the collection and publication of the rituals, with an interest that was not only police, and which also explains the important private collections of flags, banners, certificates, and other ornaments of the “lodges”. Tiandihui,” which can be seen today in local police museums.

Sometimes the colonial police even had some sympathy for the Tiandihui, which they interpreted according to a “secret society” paradigm stemming from Freemasonry, of which they were often members. These authors thought that Freemasonry and Tiandihui, which they sometimes called “Chinese Freemasonry”, were two branches of the same original proto-secret society, probably Egyptian. Their differences could be explained by the transfer of the same tradition to the West and the East, respectively.

Indeed, this literature has succeeded in finding remarkable similarities between the Tiandihui initiation ceremonies and certain Masonic ceremonies. Of course, one can wonder if these similarities were real or if they stemmed from the attitude of authors who looked at the Tiandihui through Masonic glasses. The fact remains that this “school” has preserved crucial documents, and that its reconstruction of the ceremonies is generally considered to be quite faithful.

What is outdated in their works is the idea of ​​an Egyptian (or Jewish) “proto-Freemasonry”, which the “authentic” school of Masonic studies (i.e. a school which relies on historical investigation rather than legends) rejected in the 20e century. Along with the mythology of Masonic origins, the idea of ​​a common origin of Freemasonry and Tiandihui also fell. Moreover, these speculations lose their importance for the colonial officers from the end of the 19e century when Chinese secret societies were increasingly associated with serious crimes.

Tiandihui membership certificate, excerpt from the book
Tiandihui membership certificate, from the book “The Triad Society”, published in 1900 by Hong Kong police officer William Stanton.

In the first decades of the 20e century, a second interpretation of the Tiandihui emerged in the circle of Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925). According to this father of modern Chinese nationalism, secret societies were part of a proto-nationalism that challenged Qing “foreign” power in the name of Han Chinese identity. In France, it is Matgioi’s analysis of the nationalist movement of Sun Yat-Sen, which he sometimes compares to the French Revolution, which led him to adopt this hypothesis.

For Republican Sun Yat-Sen, central to the Tiandihui motto was the idea of ​​“overthrowing the Qing,” which he interpreted as an aspiration to overthrow an anti-national and corrupt imperial power. “Restoring the Ming” would only be utopian taken at face value, and must therefore be interpreted symbolically as “restoring genuine Chinese national power”.

Several authors have tried to give an academic basis to these “insights” of Sun Yat-Sen, and they are still at work in Taiwan. If the alliance of Sun Yat-Sen and certain Tiandihui leaders in China and in emigration is certainly not without historical interest, the “proto-nationalist” interpretation of Tiandihui is somewhat anachronistic, and is today now largely abandoned.

If Sun Yat-Sen read “secret societies” through nationalist glasses, Chairman Mao (1893-1976) was for a moment tempted to read at least certain societies as a manifestation, albeit primitive, of a “spirit Chinese revolutionary. These words “revolutionary spirit” are found in Mao’s July 1936 appeal, on behalf of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, to the Gelaohui (Society of Elders), another great secret society, asking it to support his struggle.

Indeed, the “secret societies” will have the most diverse positions vis-à-vis the Communist Party which, for its part, will try to repress them after its victory. The official version of the Chinese regime is that the “Triads” only survived in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Diaspora, from where they sought to infiltrate back into mainland China. In fact, they never completely disappeared from the People’s Republic.

Jean Cheneaux.  From Twitter.
Jean Cheneaux. From Twitter.

An interpretation of members of “secret societies” as “primitive revolutionaries” in the sense of Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012) was developed in the West by Jean Chesneaux (1922-2007) and his students. From a perspective influenced by Marxism, both “secret societies” like the Tiandihui and certain messianic religious movements like the Taiping rebelled against a society that oppressed and exploited the peasantry. For Sun Yat-Sen, “overthrowing the Qing” meant overthrowing foreigners in the name of nationalism. For this school, this meant overthrowing social oppression in the name of Hobsbawm’s “primitive revolution”.

A risk of this interpretation is anachronism, as it reads 18e-century phenomena in the light of the great Chinese revolutions of the 20e century. I will discuss alternative interpretations in the final article of this series, after examining in the next installment how Mao’s idea of ​​secret societies inspired their repression in the People’s Republic of China.

Thelma J. Longworth