Both Sun Yat-Sen and some Marxists interpreted at least certain societies as forms of political or social rebellion.
by Massimo Introvigne
The Qing police did not really try to “interpret” the Tiandihui, and the imperial gendarmes were not interested in questions of origin and ritual. The same cannot be said for the 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-related, and which also explains the large private collections of flags, banners, certificates, and other ornaments of the Tiandihui “lodges,” which can be seen today in local police museums.
Sometimes colonial police officers even had some sympathy for the Tiandihui, which they interpreted according to a “secret society” paradigm developed from Freemasonry, of which they were often members. These authors thought that Freemasonry and Tiandihui, which they sometimes called the “Chinese Freemasonry,” were two branches of a same original proto-secret society, probably Egyptian. Their differences could be explained with the transfer of the same tradition to the West and to the East, respectively.
Indeed, this literature managed to find remarkable similarities between the initiation ceremonies of the Tiandihui and certain Masonic ceremonies. Of course, one may wonder if these similarities were real or if they derived 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 accurate.
What is outdated in their works is the idea of an Egyptian (or Jewish) “proto-Freemasonry,” which the “authentic” school of Masonic studies (i.e., a school relying on historical investigation rather than legends) rejected in the 20th century. Together with the mythology of Masonic origins, the idea of a common origin of Freemasonry and Tiandihui also fell. Moreover, these speculations became less important for colonial officers from the end of the 19th century when Chinese secret societies were increasingly associated with serious crimes.
In the early decades of the 20th 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 the “foreign” power of the Qing in the name of Han Chinese identity. In France, it was Matgioi’s analysis of Sun Yat-Sen’s nationalist movement, which he occasionally compared to the French Revolution, that led him to espouse this hypothesis.
For the republican Sun Yat-Sen, the important thing in the Tiandihui’s motto was the idea of “overthrowing the Qing,” which he interpreted as an aspiration to overthrow an anti-national and corrupt imperial power. “Restore the Ming” would only be utopian if taken literally, and must therefore be interpreted symbolically as “restore a genuine national Chinese 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. While the alliance of Sun Yat-Sen and some Tiandihui leaders in China and in the emigration is certainly not without historical interest, the “proto-nationalist” interpretation of Tiandihui is somewhat anachronistic, and has now been largely abandoned.
If Sun Yat-Sen read the “secret societies” through nationalist glasses, Chairman Mao (1893–1976) was for a moment tempted by a reading of at least some societies as a manifestation, admittedly primitive, of a Chinese “revolutionary spirit.” These words, “revolutionary spirit,” are found in Mao’s appeal of July 1936, on behalf of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, to the Gelaohui (Society of the Elders), another large 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 suppress them after its victory. The official version of the Chinese regime is that the “Triads” survived only in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the diaspora, from where they sought to infiltrate Mainland China again. In fact, they never totally disappeared from the People’s Republic.
An interpretation of the members of the “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” such as the Tiandihui, and some messianic religious movements such as the Taiping, rebelled against a society that oppressed and exploited the peasants. For Sun Yat-Sen, “overthrowing the Qing” meant overthrowing foreigners in the name of nationalism. For this school, it meant overthrowing social oppression in the name of Hobsbawm’s “primitive revolution.”
A risk of this interpretation is anachronism, as it reads 18th-century phenomena in the light of the great Chinese revolutions of the 20th century. I would discuss alternative interpretations in the last article of this series, after having examined in the next installment how Mao’s idea about secret societies inspired their repression in the People’s Republic of China.