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Sun Yat-sen, the Kuomintang and China’s Secret Societies

In my previous post, I wrote about Zhang Anle, the former leader of Taiwan’s notorious Bamboo Gang. Taiwanese and foreign media have reported that over the last few days Zhang’s followers showed up at the sites of the Sunflower Movement, trying to intimidate the protesters. Furthermore, Zhang organised his own demonstrations to support the KMT-government’s proposed trade agreement with China. Zhang is openly pro-unification, has founded a political party to achieve this goal, and is said to have close ties with both KMT and mainland Chinese political circles. Some KMT opponents have argued that Zhang’s pro-trade-pact intervention and his menacing demeanour may signal a return to KMT’s gangster politics.

But how can a political party have ties with gangsters? And why has the KMT been accused of colluding with the mob? In this post, I would like to show that the KMT has indeed a history of co-operation with criminal syndicates, and that the nucleus of the KMT itself was an illegal secret society.

Secret Societies in Chinese History


Secret societies have a long history in the Chinese-speaking world. Some of the most famous secret societies in Chinese history are the White Lotus (白蓮教 pinyin: báiliánjiào), the Tiandihui (天地會; pinyin: Tiāndìhuì, literally Heaven and Earth Society; also known as 洪門, pinyin: Hóng mén ), the Society of God Worshippers (拜上帝會 pinyin: Bài Shàngdì Huì) led by Hong Xiuquan who organised the Taiping Rebellion; the Big Swords Society (大刀會; pinyin: Dàdāohuì), and the so-called Boxers (義和團; pinyin: Yìhétuán, literally ‘Righteous and Harmonious Band’).


Seal of the Hongmen secret society, from Xiamen, China’s Fujian Province.
19. century (source: Wikipedia

In old China, secret societies could have various forms. The simplest of them consisted of fraternities of people from the same or neighbouring villages that, for the sake of mutual aid, formed an association. These fraternities had a loose structure. Some of them could develop religious, political, military, or criminal characteristics, in which case they can hardly be distinguished from religious sects or groups of bandits. But there were also more complex societies, which had a system of blood oaths, rituals and secret codes that made them somewhat similar to the Western freemasonry (see David Ownby: Brotherhoods and Secret Societies in Early and Mid-Qing China: The Formation of a Tradition. 1996, pp. 2-3). 

Throughout Chinese history, the relationship between secrets societies and the state has been ambiguous. The White Lotus, for example, was a Buddhist religious sect, but it played a major role in the overthrow of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). The founder of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, was a poor monk who became a military leader in an army of rebels closely associated with the White Lotus. But after the successful revolution, Zhu, who took up the Emperor title Hong Wu, realised that the very religious sects and secret societies that had led the revolution threatened his fledgling dynasty, and he turned against them (Victor Purcell: The Boxer Uprising: A Background Study. 1963, p. 149).

During the Qing Dynasty, secret societies were a major factor of instability. They were the vehicle through which different people, often social outsiders or members of marginal religious sects, organised powerful social groups that could at times challenge state authority (not unlike Mafia syndicates in the West).  

In the 18th century, the most influential of them was the Tiandihui*. Research suggests that the society was formed around 1761 and 1762 in the Goddess of Mercy Temple, Gaoxi township, in Zhangpu county, Zhangzhou prefecture, southern Fujian (Ownby 1996, p. 58). The society had religious and secret rituals, such as burning incense, passing through a gate of swords or knives, and worshipping various gods. There were also blood oaths, with which the members pledged loyalty to the group. During the ceremony, the initiated drank chicken blood or human blood mixed with liquor, and were threatened with death if they betrayed the society.


A branch of the Hongmen (or Tiandihui), in Toronto.
(Source: Wikipedia)


The Tiandihui is important for the history of Taiwan under Qing rule. In fact, one of the many rebellions of 18th Qing Empire took place in Taiwan, and it was the first one in the whole of China which was organised by members of the Tiandihui.

The Tiandihui came to Taiwan in the 48th year of the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1783-84) when a man named Yan Yan, a cloth merchant and a member of the society, moved from Pinghe county in Fujian’s Zhanghzhou prefecture to Taiwan. He settled in the city of Zhanghua (彰化), where he opened a shop. There he met Lin Shuangwen (林爽文, pinyin: Lín Shuǎngwén), who came from the same county in Fujian as he. Lin Shuangwen asked to join the secret society and he was initiated by Yan Yan (ibid. p. 62). Lin seems to have used the Tiandihui for illegal activities, and in 1777 he led the bloodiest rebellion in Taiwan’s history.

Lin was a notorious criminal, who is said to have been arrested several times by the local yamen (imperial office). After the failed uprising, Lin, Yan Yan, and many other people involved in the revolt were arrested and interrogated by Qing prosecutors. Their confessions and testimonies belong to the most fascinating historical documents of the bygone Chinese Empire.

Lin’s wife stated in her confession: 

My husband has a crude and violent nature, and was never peaceful with me. The year before last when [he] wanted to rise up, I urged him several times not to, but he wouldn’t listen, and took a knife and said he was going to kill me. I didn’t dare say anything more (ibid., p. 66).

The confessions of other people associated with Lin confirm his violent nature. 

The revolt that Lin and other members of the Tiandihui organised lasted for about a year. According to estimates, around 100,000 imperial forces were needed to suppress the uprising, nearly half of which was shipped to Taiwan from the mainland. Out of a total population of about 1 million, around 650,000 people ended up as refugees of war. These figures show the vast scale and the social consequences of the uprising. In 1788, Lin Shuangwen was captured and executed in Beijing.

Other major uprisings organised by secret societies were the Taiping Rebellion, which threatened the very existence of the Qing Dynasty and caused between 10 and 20 million deaths, and the famous Boxer Rebellion. The ‘Righteous and Harmonious Band’ was used by the Qing Dynasty to fight the Western powers and Japan, in the hope that the enraged rebels would kill and expel the foreign devils. This, again, shows that secret societies could both be used for the sake of the governing dynasty, and as a means to overthrow it. And while Empress Dowager Cixi sought to eliminate the foreigners with the help of the Boxers, a young man called Sun Yat-sen dreamed of toppling the Qing state through his own secret society.


*It is also interesting to note that the Tiandihui or Hongmen still exists today. This is their Taiwanese website.

Sun Yat-sen and Secret Societies


Sun Yat-sen, the Father of Modern China, to whom mausolea and museums are dedicated in mainland China, Taiwan, and the whole Chinese-speaking world, and whose portrait has been seen by people in the entire globe, since it hangs in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, was an amdirer and founder of secret societies.

Portrait of Sun Yat-sen in the Legislative Yuan of the Republic of China (Taiwan) during the
recent students occupation (source: Wikipedia)


In his most famous work, the Three Principles of the People, Sun Yat-sen sees himself as a successor of the great anti-Qing revolts led by secret societies. He wrote:

The [Hongmen Sanhehui; note that Sanhehui is the Chinese word for Triad] was one among [those secret societies] whose aim was to oppose the Manchus and restore the Mings. It cherished a strong nationalistic spirit (Sun Yat-sen: The Three Principles of the People – San Min Chu I. 1927, p. 57).


According to Sun Yat-sen’s own ideological interpretation, the secret societies were driven by nationalism and he therefore saw them as agents of revolutionary change. He believed that the Qing Dynasty had tried to destroy the Chinese national consciousness in order to subjugate the Han race, and – Sun thought – the last remnants of national spirit had been saved by far-sighted men who had created secret societies and propagated the national spirit among the lowest strata of society (ibid., p. 58). 

[N]o matter how despotic the Manchu government became in the last two centuries, the national spirit was kept alive in the verbal codes transmitted by these secret societies (ibid., p. 59).


From this point of view, Sun Yat-sen was not merely a Westernised revolutionary; he was also the successor of a long Chinese tradition of popular anti-dynastic rebellions and revolutions. 

This is also shown by a speech that Sun held in 1912, shortly after the successful revolution had overthrown the Qing Dynasty:

Ever since China was defeated by the Manchus, there have been countless attempts to recover China from the invaders. Everywhere there were associations and societies whose aim was to realize the principle of nationalism. Fifty years ago, the T’ai-p’ing Celestial Kingdom represented a purely nationalist revolution. But a purely nationalist revolution is no guarantee that it will not be followed by an autocratic form of government … Eight or nine years ago, a small number of comrades started the T’ung-men-hui in Japan and resolved upon three great principles (Sun Yat-sen: Prescriptions for Saving China: Selected Writings of Sun Yat-sen. 1994, p. 63).


Zheng Shiliang
(source: Wikipedia)
One of Sun Yat-sen’s closest followers was Zheng Shiliang (鄭士良), the impoverished scion of a wealthy merchant family. Zheng was also a member of the Tiandihui. Sun relied on secret societies to recruit anti-Manchu revolutionary fighters. At the end of the 18th century, Sun went to Taiwan, where Zheng Shiliang organised a group of 10 000 Triad members to be deployed on the mainland, though this attempt subsequently failed (Bertlin Lintner: Blood brothers: Crime, business and politics in Asia 2002, p. 52).

On November 1894, Sun founded in Hawaii the Revive China Society. This was a self-proclaimed patriotic organisation that counted just a few hundred members. Like in other secret societies, the new members had to swear a secret oath, with one hand placed on the Bible (Marie-Claire Bergere: Sun Yat-sen. 1998, p. 50). 

The Revive China society was the first nucleus of another, bigger secret society, the Tongmenhui, which after the 1911 Revolution became the Kuomintang.

The symbol of the Revive China Society was “The Blue Sky and White Sun” flag (see picture below). It was designed by the first ‘revolutionary martyr’ of Sun Yat-sen’s revolution, Lu Haodong (陸皓東; pinyin: Lù Hàodōng, 1868–1895). This symbol remains the official emblem of the Kuomintang, and it is also part of the flag of the Republic of China on Taiwan.


The Blue Sky and White Sun flag (source: Wikipedia)

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