Confusion and ambiguity in the use of “fandong huidaomen” (reactionary secret societies) and “xie jiao” (heterodox teachings) has persisted to this day.
by Massimo Introvigne
Readers of Bitter Winter are familiar with the expression “xie jiao.” It is often translated as “evil cults,” but a more exact translation would be “heterodox teachings.” Today, being active in a xie jiao is a crime punished by Article 300 of the Chinese Criminal Code. However, the expression xie jiao has been used in China since the 7th century to designate religious groups perceived as dangerous for the Empire and targeted for eradication. It has also been used in Republican China and Taiwan, before becoming part of both the law and propaganda of the People’s Republic.
What do xie jiao have to do with secret societies? In fact, when the Qing police discovered the Tiandihui in Taiwan in the 18th century, it claimed it had identified just another xie jiao. In their first reports to Beijing, local Qing officers in Taiwan consistently used “xie jiao” to designate the Tiandihui and include it in a known legal category of forbidden organizations. After all, the Tiandihui had its own “religious” rituals.
Historian Robert J. Antony has claimed that the use of xie jiao for the Tiandihui was short-lived. In the 19th century, Qing judges distinguished between two different crimes: being part of a xie jiao and “jiehui shudang,” i.e., “creating associations and forming cliques.”
This, however, did not mean that the two categories were totally separated. In fact, the Qing acknowledged that they had two essential elements in common: they were potential sources of opposition to the government, and they were secretive (although in some cases their secretiveness was exaggerated). Around the end of the Empire in the 20th century, the Qing started using “secret societies” (“mimi shehui” or “mimi jieshe”), a term they had borrowed from the British colonial police in East Asia. The problem is that they used “secret societies” for both “associations” or “brotherhoods” such as the Tiandihui and religious movements labeled as xie jiao such as Yiguandao.
Chairman Mao and the Communists created a terminology of their own, but did not solve the confusion. They invented the term “huidaomen,” which put together characters included in the names of different associations and movements called hui, dao, or men. One can argue that the group whose names included “dao” were more religious, but there was no real difference. In fact, once again, religious movements such as Yiguandao and brotherhoods with criminal or violent activities such as the Tiandihui were called with the same name, “huidaomen.”
Admittedly, the distinction was not easy. The Chinese Communist Party devoted considerable time, including at its Second Congress in 1926, to study a group with several million members called the Red Spears (Hongqianghui), which had been accused of banditry in Qing and republican China, and whose armed members practiced magical rites to achieve invulnerability.
While there were different opinions within the CCP, in the end the 1926 congress called the Read Spears “one of the most important forces in the national revolutionary movement,” directing Party cadres to seek alliances with them and avoid any criticism of their “superstitious beliefs.” In 1926, Mao believed he could seek similar alliances even with the Tiandihui, and I have mentioned in the previous article his 1936 appeal to the Gelaohui, of which one of the top CCP leaders, Zhu De (1886–1976), was a member.
As David Palmer has written, however, “the CCP’s embrace of secret societies was purely opportunistic.” As soon as it went to power, the Communist Party decided that the secret societies had exhausted their role. Those who did not accept to disband were labeled “fandong huidaomen,” “reactionary secret societies,” or “fengjian huidaomen,” “feudal secret societies,” saving Mao’s early analyses and implying that not all huidaomen were reactionary or feudal. There was no tolerance, however, for those who were. Starting in 1949, increasingly draconian laws, studied in the 2020 doctoral dissertation by Jiao Yupeng at University of California San Diego, made participation in reactionary or feudal huidaomen a crime, punished in many cases with the death penalty or life imprisonment.
To those who might have noted a contrast with Mao’s early praise of some secret societies, it was explained, in the words of a Ministry of Public Security document quoted by Palmer, that huidaomen had “played a clearly progressive role” with their anti-Qing struggle but later “were gradually coopted and controlled by the reactionary ruling classes to become counterrevolutionary political groups protecting the dominant class.”
Although the Tiandihui was listed among the banned secret societies, in fact the most targeted group was Yiguandao. Police statistics claimed that in the anti-huidaomen campaigns of the 1950s 820,000 “leaders” and thirteen million followers of Yiguandao were detained. The figures appear as too high, and probably members of different huidaomen were registered under the label Yiguandao.
Yiguandao was targeted because of its large following, which also included CCP members and governmental officers. As Sébastien Billioud reports in his 2020 Oxford University Press book “Reclaiming the Wilderness: Contemporary Dynamics of the Yiguandao,” when the repression started in one of the main districts of Beijing 23% of the police officers were members of the movement. In rural areas, that 10% of the population or more belonged to Yiguandao was not uncommon.
However, Yiguandao was clearly what Western scholars would call a new religious movement, and in fact xie jiao and reactionary or feudal huidaomen continued to be used more or less as synonyms. By the 1980s and 1990s, xie jiao had become again the preferred term, and groups like the Tiandihui were repressed simply as organized crime.
On the other hand, the terminological confusion seems to be perpetuating itself, if one considers that, as Bitter Winter Chinese correspondents have reported, the 2020s have witnessed a renewed use of “fandong huidaomen” and “fengjian huidaomen,” used by the CCP interchangeably with “xie jiao,” to designate “old” new religious movements that have reappeared, in some cases decades after their final eradication had been announced.