The old Western notion of “Chinese secret society” owes much to a French esoteric author who died in 1939, Albert de Pouvourville.
by Massimo Introvigne
Article 1 of 6.
“China is the land of secret societies; and the Yellow is a born conspirator, who cannot take a cup of tea outside his home without shaving the walls and exchanging passwords. He applies the system of the secret society to all his ethnic, political, and social needs, and even to his pleasures.” These words appeared in “La Revue de Paris” for March 1, 1912, in an article on “La Révolution et les Sociétés secrètes en Chine” (Revolution and Secret Societies in China) signed by Albert de Pouvourville (1861–1939), known in the esoteric world under the pseudonym of Matgioi (“the eye of the day”).
Chinese secret societies are part of a little-known world that is surely of interest for readers of Bitter Winter. They are in part criminal organizations, in part esoteric groups with a long tradition. Chronicle, about these Chinese groups, often ignores history. Matgioi is an important character in this story, as he shaped the early Western perception of “Chinese secret societies,” more than it is usually acknowledged.
French scholar of esotericism Jean-Pierre Laurant published “Matgioi, un aventurier taoïste” in 1982 (Paris: Dervy). The book also discusses Chinese secret societies.
This was a delicate topic, because Matgioi and the “esotericists” were opposed to academic circles on this point, as on several others. There was also a controversy about Matgioi’s contribution to the knowledge that the leading French esoteric master René Guénon (1886–1951) had of this subject and that he expressed in particular in his last work, “La Grande Triade” (The Great Triad) published in 1946.
As Laurant shows, in 1946 Guénon no longer considered Matgioi either as a friend or as a reference author. It seems that a pious Catholic work published in 1936 by the former anti-clerical and Taoist Matgioi, “Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux protectrice des peoples,” had provoked the rupture, and led Guénon to affirm that “if Albert de Pouvourville is still alive, Matgioi is dead.”
Guénon did not quote Matgioi in “The Great Triad” and preferred, as far as Chinese secret societies were concerned, to rely on the 1933 work of Lieutenant Colonel Benoît Favre (1874–?) “Les Sociétés secrètes en Chine. Origine. Rôle historique. Situation actuelle” (Secret Societies in China: Origins, Historical Role, and Present Situation), at the time well received by academics. Of course, Guénon did not care about the opinion of the academia, where even in 1946 his idea that Chinese secret societies emanated from a single (Taoist) center was no longer accepted.
Laurant mentions the influence that Matgioi had on Guénon on this matter well before “The Great Triad.” In 1910, thirty-six years before the publication of this work, the young Guénon, signing as “Tau Palingenius,” bishop of the Gnostic Church, called Matgioi “our Master” in matters of Taoism in an article in the review “La Gnose.” It is true that some followers of Guénon, after his death, insisted that this was a formula “of mere courtesy.”
Indeed, in 1910, Nguyen Van Cang, the youngest son of the Taoist initiator of Matgioi in Vietnam, Master Nguyen Van Lu, who had become a French soldier, had come to France, and even collaborated with esoteric journals. Guénon could therefore have received information (and an initiation) directly from this character, without passing through Matgioi. Paul Chacornac (1884–1964), esoteric publisher and biographer of Guénon, wrote that, “Guénon, even on the Taoist side, received more than Albert de Pouvourville ever did.”
Without insisting here on the process by which, in Laurant’s words, “Matgioi’s influence [on Guénon] was minimized” by some Guénonians, even though it was “impossible to eliminate,” it is important to point out an aspect in which the colonial officer Pouvourville was closer to contemporary academic research than the esotericist Matgioi. Indeed, esotericists were only slightly interested in the political, or even criminal, side of Chinese secret societies; for them, this aspect was not important, or else it was just a deviation.
But Matgioi, or rather Pouvourville under his hat as a colonial officer, had published relevant analyses of the political situation in China. It is likely that he had even engaged in espionage. He was thus in a position to make the connection between secret societies, organized crime, and republican nationalism in China, and to recognize the importance of the xenophobic and anti-Manchu sentiment of the ethnic Han Chinese in their origins.
But Pouvourville was also Matgioi, and he therefore realized that politics (and criminality) did not exclude, even in the early 20th century, the presence of esoteric elements in the same societies. And it was precisely this co-existence of politics, esotericism, and criminality that was the most surprising aspect of the situation of which Matgioi had direct knowledge in his colonial experience. In this sense, Matgioi raised a question that has returned to the center of academic concern in the more recent literature on Chinese secret societies, how criminality and esotericism interacted in that underworld.
Indeed, if in Matgioi’s and Guénon’s time there were few religious scholars or historians to take an interest in this theme, considered rather a matter of political science or criminology, already in 1993 David Ownby claimed that the bibliography on Chinese secret societies was so large that it had become “oppressive.” Since 1993, more important works have been added to it. Historians and sociologists, however, have not found an agreement on the interpretation of this phenomenon.
I will continue this series by summarizing the historical and sociological points on which there seems to be some agreement. I will also examine the most important interpretations of Chinese secret societies and the related controversies. My sources include literature published since the 19th century in English and French; court and police documents, including Italian court rulings; interviews with police officials in several countries, including the United States, China, Singapore, and Italy. Although dozens of secret societies emerged in China from the 18th century onwards, I will focus here on the best known of them, the Tiandihui, or Heaven and Earth Society, which itself is divided into several more or less independent branches.