The Green Gang, Chiang Kai-shek, and the Republic of China

In one of my latest posts I talked about China’s traditional secret societies and their role in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty. Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary movement was inspired by secret societies such as the Society of God Worshippers that led the Taiping Rebellion (1850 –1864) – a revolt that almost succeeded in toppling the Qing government.

In this post, I will talk about the way in which one of China’s traditional secret societies, the Green Gang, adapted to the modern world by first serving the interests of foreign powers, and then by cooperating with the Kuomintang one-party-state on the mainland (1927-1949).

The Origins of the Green Gang

The origins of the Green Gang can be traced back to the 15th century, when a spiritual leader named Luo Qing (羅清, pinyin: Luó Qīng) founded a Buddhist sect, the Patriarch Luo Sect. The sect evolved from the famous White Lotus, which had played a major role in the overthrow of the Yuan Dynasty and the establishment of the Ming Dynasty (note). In the 16th and 17th centuries, the sect spread throughout China and became known as the Three Patriarchs Sect, because it was headed by three spiritual leaders (see Brian G. Martin: The Shanghai Green Gang: Politics and Organized Crime, 1919-1937. 1996, p. 10).

The Three Patriarchs Sect was most popular and influential with soldiers and the boatmen that worked on the ships that transported grain tributes on China’s Grand Canal. The sect became a mutual aid organisation that provided various forms of assistance. For example, the sect established a number of temples where the boatmen could stay when they were out of work. These temples are known as ‘hostel-temples’ and they constituted important centres of workship and social networking (ibid., pp. 10-11).

Yet as the power of the sect grew, the Qing state began to worry about the disruptive social and political consequences of such an organisation. Not unlike today’s CCP, the Qing state was anxious whenever people united in religious or political organisations that could challenge state authority. In 1768, during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (乾隆, 1711-1799), the government tore down the Luo Sect’s temples in Hangzhou and confiscated its land properties. This crackdown did not destroy the sect. But it forced it to become a secret society in order to survive.

The sect developed a more structured system of hierarchies, rituals and symbols. Each of the boatmen’s fleet was led by a ship that displayed the banner of the Patriarch Luo. Each sub-group of the sect was named after the fleet to which its members belonged. The sect now created a set of regulations, entrance requirements, secret codes, and it determined the boatmen’s wages (ibid., p. 11). Every boat had a leader who had the power to set up a shrine dedicated to the three patriarchs and to recruit new members. The authority of the leader was so high that even Qing officials had to follow his orders on board his ship (ibid.).

The Suzhou section of the Grand Canal
(source: Wikipedia)

In the first half of the 19th century, the Luo Sect began to decline. Internal and violent rivalries broke out among the different sub-groups of the sect, so much that the Qing government could barely control them. Moreover, the decline of the salt transport on the Grand Canal severely damaged the economic structures of the sect. 

The crisis of the Grand Canal trade in the middle of the 19th century had mainly two causes; first, the numerous uprisings that decimated the population (such as the Taiping Rebellion), damaged commerce and made the transportation routes unsafe; second, due to geological changes in 1855 the Yellow River burst its dykes and changed course. This made transportation on the Grand Canal inefficient and slow. As a consequence, thousands of Luo Sect boatsmen became unemployed. Some of them joined rebel groups, others joined the army or started criminal activities such as salt smuggling (ibid., p. 12-13).  

Although the exact date of formation of the Green Gang is not known, evidence suggests that it originated from various groups of disbanded Luo Sect members that made their living off smuggling and other criminal activities. Some of them founded the Anqing League, which subseqently associated itself with an older secret society, the Gelaohui (which is also mentioned in Sun Yat-sen’s works). This was the nucleus of the Green Gang, whose name began to be used in written records by the end end of the 19th century (ibid., pp. 13-15).

The Green Gang in Shanghai

In the second half of the 19th century Shanghai became the power base of the Green Gang. Following the Opium War, in 1843 Shanghai had been declared a treaty port open to foreign investment and settlement. Within a short time, the city was transformed from a sleepy fishermen’s village into China’s most vibrant, developed and multicultural metropolis.

Shanghai’s Bund in 1928
(source: Wikipedia)

Between 1910 and 1930, the population of Shanghai grew from over one million to three million, and the population of the International Settlement amounted to over a million by the 1930s. Because Shanghai was the most important centre of manufacturing and business in China, people from different provinces flocked to the city, where in 1930 immigrants made up about 90% of the total population (ibid., pp. 27-29).

The Shanghai of the late Qing Empire and the first decades of the Republican era was a city of contrasts. There were foreigners and Chinese living side by side, but often occupying different living spaces. Shanghai was a city of industry, modernity, and luxury, but it was also the city where 19th-century-style capitalist exploitation was dramatic and the working classes lived in utter poverty. The Consul General of the Philippines, Mariano Ezpeleta, described Shanghai in a way that reminds us of present-day PRC:

[Shanghai is] a city of contrasts: the rich were so wealthy they could afford to buy anything at any price; the poor so miserable they had to sell anything, property or person, at any price’. (Bertlin Lintner: Blood brothers: Crime, business and politics in Asia. 2002, p. 19).

As a city that had been created out of the barrel of foreign guns to serve the needs of opium traders, reckless imperialists and capitalists, Shanghai was the perfect place where criminal gangs could pursue their illegal activities. It was in Shanghai that the secret societies adapted to the modern world, turning to businesses like drug trafficking and prostitution.

Flag of Shanghai’s International Settlement
(source: Wikipedia)

There were two reasons why Shanghai offered such a good environment for gangsterism:

1) Shanghai developed into a commercial port, a global business hub connecting East and West, and a major centre of industry. The opium trade, the smuggling of salt and other products constituted lucrative opportunities for the secret societies. The waves of immigrants, alone and displaced in the new metropolis, allowed the gangs to establish important networks of help and assistance for the newcomers, which often degenerated into human trafficking and exploitation. For example, the trafficking of women from the countryside was a major “business” for the gangs.

2) paradoxically, foreign settlements, especially the French, did not have the financial resources or the personnel to effectively control the huge Chinese population; therefore, foreign administrations “subcontracted” the duty of keeping the local population quiet to the gangsters.

Prostitution was thriving in Shanghai. With 35,000 prostitutes in the 1930s, Shanghai had the highest per capita concentration of prostitutes in the world (Lintner 2002, p. 20). In the wealthy Fuzhou Road, the ‘tea  houses’ and brothels were frequented by rich Chinese and foreigners, who were entertained by singsong girls, geishas, and escorts. But the city was also full of cheaper bordellos to satisfy the needs of the less well-off (ibid.).

The biggest and most renowned amusement centre of Shanghai was the Great World, on present-day Yan’an Road. The brothels, bars, gambling houses and other activities of the centre were in the hands of the mob (ibid., p. 22).

The Great World in the 1930s
(source: Wikipedia)

Apart from having the largest concentration of prostitutes in China, it is safe to assume that Shanghai also had the largest concentration of gangsters. There are no official figures, but according to estimates, in the 1920s and the 1930s there were about 100,000 gangsters in the city, or around 3% of the population (Brian G. Martin: “The Pact with the Devil” The Relationship between the Green Gang and the Shanghai French Concession Authorities, 1925-1935. In: Frederic Wakeman Jr./ Wen-Hsin YehShanghai Sojourners. 1995, p.267).

As I mentioned in my previous post, the relationship between state power and secret societies in China has always oscillated between repression and cooperation. Foreign powers continued this tradition and basically allowed the gangs to run their illegal business in peace. In exchange, the gangs had to see to it that criminal activities did not disturb public order, that foreign nationals and their property were safe, and that the Chinese population did not rebel.

Bosses like Gu Zhuxuan in the International Settlement and Jin Jiulin in the French Concession organised criminal activities akin to those of the Sicilian mafia and similar syndicates in the West: protection rackets, drug trafficking, and human trafficking. Moreover, the mobsters served as middlemen between the colonial powers and the Chinese population whenever the latter, for legal or other reasons, had to interact with the former and vice versa. Therefore, foreign officials relied heavily on the gangsters, so that there hardly existed any difference between what was legal and what was illegal (ibid., p. 268).

Two examples of cooperation between the gangs and Shanghai’s authorities are Huang Jinrong and Du Yuesheng. 

Huang Jinrong (黄金荣, 1868-1953) – known by his nickname ‘Pock-Marked Huang’ – was both a criminal boss and a police officer. In 1892 he joined the police forces of Shanghai’s French Concession. Huang had close ties with the Green Gang and other secret societies, though he became a member of the Gang only in 1923. When during World War I several French officers were sent back to Europe to fight, the French Concession had to rely even more on the association with local Chinese people who could guarantee order and stability. Huang Jinrong was promoted chief superintendent (see Lintner 2002, pp. 23-46).

Huang Jinrong

From his headquarters in Ju Bao Teahouse in the French Concession. Huang controlled a series of criminal activities: robbing, kidnapping, gambling, brothels, trafficking of opium and other drugs. The French got a share of the profits and closed one eye, while Huang enriched himself and kept the city stable (Martin 1995, p. 274). Huang outlived both the Qing Dynasty and the Kuomintang government, and he spent his old age in Communist China, where he was persecuted as a “dreg” of the old system. 

Du Yuesheng (1888-1951) was born in a poor family in Gaoqiao village, Pudong, which was in those days an underdeveloped area. He made a living as a fruit vendor before entering the underworld as a petty criminal in the dock area of Shiliupu. At the same time, he worked as an informant for the French police. In the 1910s he joined the Green Gang, through which he was introduced to Huang Jinrong. Du soon became Huang’s protege (ibid. p. 275).

Du Yuesheng (source: Wikipedia)

Through Huang’s support, Du controlled a series of brothels, gambling houses, opium dens and bathhouses, becoming one of the most influential mobsters in Shanghai (Lintner 2002, p. 33). During the Kuomintang era, he became the most powerful boss of Shanghai.*

Chiang Kai-shek, the Green Gang, and the Communists

While he was a student at the Shimbu Gakko, a military academy in Tokyo, Chiang Kai-shek met Chen Qimei, a supporter of Sun Yat-sen’s. It was Chen who introduced Chiang to the Kuomintang elite. Chen also happened to be associated with the Green Gang. He was himself one of the most powerful gangster leaders of Shanghai in the first years of the Republic of China (ibid., p. 37).

Chen Qimei, an early supporter of Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary cause, was member of the Tongmenhui and later of the Kuomintang. He is considered one of the founding fathers of the Republic of China. That he enjoyed such a reputation despite his connections with the underworld shows how normal it was for the KMT elite to be associated with secret societies. Chen Qimei was killed by assassins sent by Yuan Shikai in 1916.

As I have explained in a previous post, Sun Yat-sen himself had close ties with secret societies, and his own party, the Kuomintang, was established as a secret society. The tradition of mutual assistance between the Kuomintang and secret societies continued during Chiang Kai-shek’s ascendancy to the leadership of the KMT and during KMT one-party rule.

The interests of the KMT and the criminal gangs in many respects coincided. The criminal gangs were deeply anti-communist, as they saw Communism and labour unions as disruptive forces that could undermine their own control over the weaker elements of society and the working classes, which had traditionally been the human capital of the gangs. Moreover, Chiang Kai-shek’s regime was far from stable and all-powerful.

Chiang Kai-shek inherited Sun Yat-sen’s position as the leader of the KMT, and he also inherited the methods that Sun had deployed after Yuan Shikai’s coup d’etat and warlordism had ousted the Republican government and repressed the KMT. Sun believed that in order to fight the warlords and foreign powers, the KMT had to create its own army and postpone democracy. Chiang Kai-shek completed the militarisation of the party. He was a military man who ruled by force and did not shrink from coopting warlords and criminal syndicates as long as they supported him (see my post about the struggle for the Republic of China and the first years of the Kuomintang).

Chiang’s attitude may in many respects have been justifiable. He was not in the position to eliminate all the warlords, because their armies were too powerful. His strategy was to defeat some of them, and to ally himself with others. Moreover, the rising Communist cells, the vastness of China, the economic difficulties and foreign intervention hindered Chiang from forming a truly effective, centralised government that controlled the whole country. In this context, criminal gangs were for Chiang, as they had been for the French and the Qing, a useful ally (June Grasso / Jay Corrin / Michael Kort: Modernization And Revolution In China: From the Opium Wars to World Power. 1991, pp. 97 – 101).

In fact, one of the first things that Chiang did after he completed his Northern Expedition for the reunification of the country was to crack down on the Communists, with whom the KMT had allied itself, and he asked the help of the Green Gang to do the job (Lintner 2002, pp. 38, 58).

After communists and labour unions organised a strike in Shanghai, Du Yuesheng and Huang Jinrong mobilised hundreds of their followers. In the early morning of April 12, 1927, they unleashed a ferocious attack against the communists. That day, the mobsters killed seven hundred people, but violence against the Reds continued until August of that year (ibid., p. 75).

On 16 April, 1927, Chiang Kai-shek established a new central government in Nanjing, which Sun Yat-sen had chosen as the new capital of the Republic of China (ibid., p. 39).

In the following years, the Green Gang and the Republican regime continued their cooperation. The gangsters even became part of the new Republican elite, so much so that Du Yuesheng founded his own bank – the Chung Wai Bank -, became director of the Shanghai Stock Exchange and held posts in the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce, the Bank of China, the French Municipal Council, the Chinese Red Cross, and other institutions (ibid. p. 40).

Chiang Kai-shel not only used mobsters to extract money payment from rich industrialists that were forced to “fund” the money-squandering machine of the KMT apparatus, but he also tolerated members of his own family and closest associates to be involved in criminal activities. One of the most emblematic examples of this is the Lin Shiliang case.

Lin Shiliang was an assistant of Chiang Kai-shek’s brother-in-law, H. H. Kung. Lin had met Kung via the Green Gang. When the Smuggling Prevention Office discovered that Lin was involved in the smuggling of goods and that he wasted his money in gambling, drinking and prostitution, Lin protected himself by revealing that Kung was the mastermind of the smuggling scheme. Chiang Kai-shek’s wife, Song Meiling, interceded for Kung, because she was his sister-in-law. Chiang dismissed the case and fired the director of the Smuggling Prevention Office (see Frederic Wakeman: Spymaster: Dai Li and the Chinese Secret Service. 2003, pp. 325-327).

It is not surprising that in 1947, an American military adviser reported to President Truman that the KMT’s defeats at the hands of the Communists were due

to the world’s worst leadership and many other morale destroying factors that can lead to a complete loss of will to fight. The complete ineptness of high military leaders and the widespread corruption and dishonesty throughout the armed forces, could, in some measure, have been controlled and directed had . . . authority and facilities been available. Chinese leaders lack the moral courage to issue and enforce an unpopular decision. (Grasso / Corrin / and Kort 1991, p. 137).

The widespread corruption and injustice of the KMT government, which are symbolised by its alliance with the Green Gang, made its one-party rule so hated that the Communists seemed like the only hope for the future of China (though many would later come to regret it).

After the KMT lost the war and the central government of the Republic of China retreated to its last stronghold on Taiwan, the one-party regime would continue to use gangs to maintain its power on the island.

*After the Communists won the Civil War in 1949, the criminal gangs were wiped out. In 1950, the Communist government launched a Campaign to Suppress Counter-Revolutionaries, against the “dregs of the Old Society, the landlords and their lackeys, reactionary officials and their lackeys, reactionary secret societies, mercenary bandits and thieves and other bullies and hooligans“. These campaigns were followed by many others, during which the urban and rural elites of old China were eliminated or brainwashed.

Huang Jinrong was not executed. For months, he was forced by the Communist government to sweep the street in front of the Great World, the symbol of Shanghai’s depraved and rapacious society and of Huang’s wealth and power. He died as a poor and humiliated man.

Du Yuesheng followed Chiang Kai-shek to Chongqing during the anti-Japanese war. When the Communists won the Civil War, Du fled to Hong Kong (Lintner, 68-69).


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