by Peter Huston
It was only relatively recently in
Chinese history, within the past five hundred years or so, that
relatively modern secret societies (distinct from religious cults)
became widespread. Although there was a great deal of variation from
time to time and place to place, these tended to follow common,
culturally prescribed patterns.
and Organization of a Hung society branch
During the Ching dynasty (1644-1911 A.D.) two styles of secret
society became prevalent. By style we are referring to a certain set
of organizational structures, carefully preserved traditions and
patterns of behavior which their members were expected to follow.
The first of these, the Hung society, was most common in the south.
As most overseas Chinese came originally from the southern provinces
of Fujien (Fukien) or Guangdong (Canton), this is also the style of
secret society most commonly seen outside of China, including in
North America or South East Asia.
The term "Hung" means Red, but it is
also a homonym for the Chinese word for "brave." Although Hung
societies continue to exist today, they are often modified in
various ways. Furthermore, although it might not be exactly correct,
since we are discussing the original version of the Hung societies
for simplicity and clarity this chapter will use the past tense,
except when referring to something that specifically refers to the
The second common variety of secret society are the Ching or "Green"
societies. These are based on a style more common originally in the
North of China. The Ching societies will be covered in full in a
The basic unit of the Hung society was the lodge or local branch. It
was to the local branch that the members of a sworn brotherhood owed
their primary loyalty. This is the group that held meetings and from
time to time called together members of the society. In some
locations, there existed higher levels of organization, but these
had limited duties. These "headquarters branches" or "master lodges"
(as some texts call them) would not normally interfere in the day to
day running of the local chapters of the society. Although members
of these headquarters branches tended to be old and respected
members of the sworn brotherhoods, they were chosen by the majority
decision of the senior officials of the local branches.
It is believed that generally their role
among the local chapters was quite limited and consisted primarily
of arbitrating inter-chapter disputes so as to avoid needless and
unprofitable inter-chapter conflicts. In some places and times, the
headquarters branch had strict regulations preventing all but
themselves from starting additional branches of the Hung society. At
other times, however, just the opposite was true and anyone familiar
with the rituals of the Hung society could start a new branch any
time they were able to recruit sufficient followers.
Although a society member (1) would see those in other chapters as
people who he had a great deal in common with and should help if
possible, it is important to remember that the Hung society
organizations were primarily local institutions based in a
particular place and time. At times, the local chapters of a society
might work together to accomplish certain goals or aid one another,
but it must be understood that the local groups were generally only
loosely united, if at all.
During times of national crisis or a
large scale uprising of some sort, the groups might combine forces.
Nevertheless, when this occurred it was not uncommon for there to be
a great deal of difficulty or friction over the process of choosing
a combined leader. Often this proved impossible and Hung society
uprisings were frequently spasmodic disorganized affairs which bore
more resemblance to a widespread riot or prairie fire than they did
to a military operation.
For example, in Guangdong province in 1854-1855, a Hung-style
organization known as the Red Turbans rose up in revolt against
the Ching government. Although this was a widespread uprising which
spread across several counties and involved tens of thousands of
people fighting in some battles the rebels never developed a
centralized leadership. (2) Similarly, even during the large turn of
the century Boxer uprising, effective centralized leadership of the
Boxers proved to be a problem. (3)
Even the members of the so-called headquarters branch saw themselves
primarily as members of their local chapter rather than as members
of a larger organization. In fact, this localized aspect of the
institution may have been one of the key reasons why the societies
spread so quickly and easily. Frequently, the loose organizational
structure made it surprisingly easy to start a branch of the
society. No centralized permission was needed, merely a knowledge of
the oaths and rituals and the desire to do so. This cell-like
structure meant that if one branch died, became exposed to
authorities or were otherwise destroyed there was little effect on
other branches. No single individual could betray the entire
organization, because no single individual had the ability to do so.
Clearly, it is entirely incorrect to see the many secret societies
of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a single, large,
centrally controlled organization held under the sway of a
tyrannical despot who ruled from hiding. Not only did the technology
prohibit attempts to control the geographically widespread societies
in such a fashion, there was little benefit to the group as a whole
from such centralization.
In many ways, the headquarters branch of the organization was not
really a headquarters at all, but instead more of an "inter-branch
council." Any levels of organization above this tended to be highly
dependent on the personalities of the people involved. Individuals
might arrange for cooperation among the different chapters for a
limited amount of time or a limited enterprise, but this level of
organization was not a normal aspect of secret societies. These
alliances would be more dependent on the power, ability,
experiences, levels of respect, or even favors owed, of the
individuals involved, rather than their official ranks within the
The details of the physical meeting site of the lodge or branch
could vary widely. If a society existed in a place where it was
legal, it could own property or even own an elaborate temple. When a
tong was outlawed, as many were in the former British Crown Colony
of Malya, it might simply hold intricate initiation rituals in
jungle clearings or other secluded outdoor locations. Lookouts were
posted to ensure secrecy and provide warning in the event of a
Ward and Sterling, writing from the early 1920s, have left us with a
detailed description of the Hall run by the "Ghee Hin Society" in
Singapore in the late nineteenth century when the organization was
legal and flourished openly. (It was later banned in the colony of
Singapore.) The hall was located at number 4, China Street and
apparently had two stories.
As Ward and Stirling's book is virtually
impossible to obtain today, and the description is rather
interesting, it seems worth quoting from at length:
"Upstairs, attached to the wall, was
a shrine containing the tablets of the Five Ancestors, (note:
prominent characters in the legend of how the Hung society was
founded.) and before it a table on which was an incense burner
with incense. In front of this first altar stood another, on
which was a second tablet with the incense burner dedicated to
the late brethren, and over this hung a red lamp, i.e. the 'Hung
Lamp.' On either side were two chairs. One for the Master and
the other for the Instructor or White Fan. Along the wall on
either side were ten chairs for other officials.
The temple, or lodge room, was square and had four gates;
-north, east, south and west, -and on the uprights and the
lintels were written verses as follows:
On the Eastern Gate,
'To the East where the element of wood stands it is difficult to
Sun, Moon, mountains, and streams all come from the Eastern
On the Southern Gate,
'The fiery road to the element of fire is hot,
But in the distance Chang, Ts'uen, P'ing and Nankin it is cold.'
On the Western Gate,
'On the narrow road of the element of metal you must be careful,
Of the two paths it is clear that there is no impediment on the
one which leads to the West.'
On the Northern Gate,
'At the sign of Yin-kui the water is deep and difficult to
But in Yun-nan and Sze-Chuen there is a road by which you can
On the top of each door was a
pavilion, surmounted by a calabash, which was an emblem carried
by one of the Eight Immortals. (note: The Eight Immortals are
prominent characters in Taoist mythology and ancient Chinese
The walls were decorated with squares and triangles, and over
the various Gates were hung different types of weapons. The
stones at the bottom of the wall and the boards of the gate were
made to look like dragons' scales. In the middle of the Hall
were three gates, one in front of the other, and beside each
gate two men were stationed who wore red kerchiefs on their
heads and carried swords in their hands.
Beyond these gates stood the Hall of Fidelity and Loyalty,
within which was the genealogical table of the Founders of the
League, which stood in a shrine called Khao-khi, after the
famous temple.... (note: At this point, Ward and Stirling
recount the entire lineage of the society as described in the
genealogical charts on the Lodge wall. We have deleted this
On either side of the names of the
Great Founders is placed two sets of characters. On the right
side as you face the tablet appear the words.
'Yin and Yang united produce everything by metamorphosis': and
opposite on the left,
'Dragons, tigers, tortoises and snakes are assembled!'
Below these, in a line with the Five Tugers Generals, on the
right hand side appears,
'Kin-lan Hall, The Spirit seats of the successive generations of
And opposite, on the other side,
'Mwan-thao Hall. The ancestral seats of the successive
generations of our kindred.'
Downstairs was the common meeting
Hall or place of worship, and it was usually here that the
picture of the God Kwan Ti was displayed. It was in this room
that the Master communicated the traditional history previous to
admitting the candidates into the Lodge." (4)
As the description illustrates, the
lodges of the Hung societies were intended to be much more than a
simple meeting place. Instead, they were designed to emphasize the
proud traditions and heritage of the groups, as well as remind
members of the mystical aspects of these teachings. In fact, much of
the writings on the wall refer to aspects of the traditional legend
of the founding of the Hung society. (This legend will be repeated
and discussed in the next chapter.)
Today, in most major North American cities which have a Chinatown it
is possible to find the headquarters of the tongs, themselves
branches of the Hung society. To someone familiar with their names
and able to read the Chinese characters, these buildings are clearly
marked. Many of them are quite elaborate in their architecture. (See
photo 10-2 of a Tong headquarters in New York City.)
Its best-known work is the
On Leong Merchants' Association Building
in Chinatown, formerly headquarters of the notorious tong.
The architects were not particularly
knowledgeable about Chinese art,
so most of the ornament is their own
fanciful imagination of what Kwangtung art should resemble.
Today in Hong Kong, membership in a Triad society (and the triads
are descendants of Hung societies) has been outlawed and it is
illegal to conduct Triad initiation ceremonies within Hong Kong's
borders. For this reason, many of the initiation ceremonies of the
Hong Kong Triads are held in nearby Macao and the groups meet in
OF A HUNG SOCIETY BRANCH (5)
The Hung society structure is intended to emulate a family of sworn
brothers. In China, however, it should be remembered that not all
brothers are necessarily equal. Although family members are supposed
to love one another and live in peace and harmony, they are not
equals. The Chinese family is hierarchical in nature. The older
brothers are seen as more important than the younger brothers. The
younger brothers are supposed to be obedient towards the older
This respect for elders, even elder
brothers, is a key component of Confucian teachings. Elders, after
all, are perceived as having superior wisdom, and therefore society
benefits when the younger members of society obey and respect them.
In return for this obedience, it is expected that the elders and
superiors will rule with wisdom and compassion keeping the best
interests of their inferiors and society at large in mind at all
It follows that although the Hung society is intended to be an
organization composed of sworn brothers, it does not mean that it is
an organization of equals. Far from it. There is a definite
hierarchy and organizational structure within a Hung society type
organization. Table 10-1 shows the organization of a local branch of
the Hung Society Headquarters or Major Lodge. Table 10-2 reveals the
composition of the local branch. As can be clearly seen, there was a
definite structure to the organization. This structure led to
division of tasks as well as a definite system of ranks and
officers. Although there were many variations on the basic
structure, just as there were many off shoots of the group in many
places and times, this standard structure or some close variant was
common to most Hung society groups.
Each headquarters branch had a leader. Underneath the leader were
two of the most important officers in the group. These were the
Incense Master and the Vanguard. Although these two officers were of
equal rank, their duties differed, and therefore friction,
competition and conflict between them was minimized. Together they
were charged with the organization and performance of all initiation
and promotion ceremonies. Together they were charged with the
organization and performance of all initiation and promotion
The Incense Master was essentially the high priest of a Hung
society. As such he was charged with the responsibility for the
proper performance of all ceremonies and rituals. The Vanguard's
duties were slightly different. Although he had priest-like duties,
his primary concern was administrative. He was charged with the
responsibility of overseeing the expansion of the society and
ensuing that such expansion happened in a manner that would be in
the long term best interests of the group. In accordance with these
responsibilities, he was the only member of the society who could
establish independent branches without the consent of the leader. In
at least some societies, the Vanguard was also responsible for the
storage of all weapons owned by the society.
Underneath these three key officers, there were five primary
officers in a Master Lodge. Each of these had specific
responsibilities and duties. These three officers, the Leader, the
Incense Master, the Vanguard and the heads of each of the five key
sections totaled eight in number.
In traditional Chinese mysticism and
numerology, described more fully later in this chapter, both the
numbers five (as in the five divisions) and eight (as in the eight
officers) had great significance. Within the Ko-Lao Hui (the
Brothers Society), a secret society that used and modified many of
the Hung society institutions, these eight officers were referred to
as the Lodge of the Inner Eight. (6) In other organizations, it
seems that these eight officers did not have such an elaborate
designation, but they were quite respected and their duties
essential to the continuing function of the organization.
Much of this information comes from W.P. Morgan, a sub-inspector in
the Royal Hong Kong Police whose landmark work, Triad Societies in
Hong Kong, came out in 1958. According to Morgan, the officers in
the headquarters branch were chosen by majority vote from among the
senior officials of the various local bodies. These officials not
only had the ability to choose these officers, they also had the
power to remove them from office if they were unsatisfied with their
performance. It should be noted that such a structure, with the
underlings able to remove their superiors when dissatisfied, is
contrary to many stereotypes and would contribute to a much looser
pattern of behavior and control than many would suspect.
These eight officers were not the only members of the headquarters
group of a secret society. They would also have a variety of
assistants and others to help them fulfill their duties and complete
their jobs successfully.
The five administrative divisions were based on function, and for
this reason some, naturally, had more personnel than others. The
leader of each divisions was a Senior official who, although of high
rank, was underneath the group's Leader, Incense Master, and
Vanguard. These were the General Affairs section, the Recruiting
section, the Organization section, the Liaison section, and the
Education section. The five divisions are shown on Table 10-1.
The General Affairs section was responsible for the routine, day to
day matters necessary for the well being of the organization.
The Recruiting Section was responsible for not just recruiting and
related duties, but also official communication with the outside
world. Recruitment included the registration and investigation of
new members. Among other duties were writing and spreading
propaganda. This section was also responsible for social interaction
with the world outside of the group. Ward and Stirling mention that
in Malaya the recruiters were referred to as "Horse Leaders,"
although they do not state why. (7)
Having a special section whose duties included social interactions
with the ordinary public and recruiting showed a great deal of
sophistication. These are exactly the places where many underground
organizations go wrong and find themselves at odds with the
authorities. An underground organization that has lost the respect
or support of the ordinary people around it, will not last long.
Equally importantly, a secret society that hastily recruits the
wrong sort of people will soon find all of its secrets spread far
and wide by talkative recruits.
Nevertheless, it cannot be assumed that
such an organizational structure always existed. Morgan was writing
in the late 1950s in the sophisticated cosmopolitan center of Hong
Kong. Dian H. Murray, a historian at Notre Dame University, studied
the early days of the Tiandi Hui (the Heaven and Earth Society), one
of the most prominent and influential of the Hung societies, and
discovered that, in fact, the organizations eighteenth and early
nineteenth century recruiting practices were rather haphazard.
It was only when the organization was at
its most sophisticated that it could hold firm to this structure. In
the early days, or in places where the group was young and being
spread quickly and rapidly by inexperienced members, often the
recruiting section did not exist. Recruiting and starting new
branches was a job any member could undertake at whim. (8)
The Organization section was responsible for controlling the
activities of the branch societies, as necessary. Among its duties
were controlling the various branches and inflicting punishments,
when required, on members or non-members. When major combined
operations were undertaken, they were controlled by the members of
this headquarters branch.
The Liaison section was charged with carrying out communications
between the headquarters branch and the member branches. At times,
the members of the liaison section had special names, among them
being "grass sandals" or "night brothers." (9)
The Education and Welfare branch was charged with the maintenance of
schools set up by the society for educating its members children. It
was also responsible for general welfare duties, including funeral
arrangements for members and their families. Funerals and burials
have an extremely important place in traditional Chinese culture.
Among Chinese tongs in America, often
one of the most important services to members was the way in which
they would preserve the remains of their members and ensure that
they received proper burial in China. This changed only when the
Communists seized China and put an end to the practice (as well as
interfering with the practice of many Chinese funerary traditions.)
Although each local lodge had its own officers and organizational
pattern. Nevertheless, these tended to follow the same pattern of
five divisions as seen in the headquarters or master lodge. The
chief leader of the lodge was a leader or deputy leader. Each
division, or department, also had its own leader. In 1950s Hong
Kong, all of these leaders were chosen for fixed periods of time and
replaced at the end of their term by fresh appointees.
As the duties of each of the five
divisions of the branch are quite similar to those of the
headquarters' branches, there is no need to repeat them in detail
here. The important thing to remember is that the headquarters'
officers were supposed to coordinate large scale matters, while the
local lodge members were supposed to coordinate things which
concerned their own lodge.
One key difference, though, lay in the structure of the local
branch's organization section. At the local level, this division was
expected to control a number of "fighting sections." Each fighting
section consisted of ten to fifty members under the control of a
"Hung Kwan" official. The number of these fighting sections could
vary widely and together they composed the organization's de facto
There was a great deal of mystical significance in many of the
details of the structure and terminology used by the Hung society.
Within the hierarchy of the organization, each rank had several
names and a number. These numbers had a special meaning. For
example, a leader was also known as a "4-8-9" while a regular member
was known as a "4-9". These titles were pronounced as a series of
digits, not as a single number. I.E "four, eight, nine", not four
hundred eighty nine, or "four, nine", never "Forty nine."
The significance of these digits comes from a variety of sources.
The first is something known as "the Magical Number Square",
illustrated in Table 10-3. This table is quite important in Chinese
Numerological teachings. The numbers can be added together in any
sequence, be it diagonally, vertically or horizontally, and the
result will always be fifteen. This has been considered to be
Secondly, within Chinese numerology, each individual digit has a
special significance. Some numbers are considered to be quite lucky
while others are said to be rather ominous or unlucky. Chinese
cosmology teaches that it is desirable whenever possible to have a
balance between Yin, the passive aspect, and Yang, the dynamic,
active aspect of things. All odd numbers are considered to be Yang.
Conversely, all even numbers are
considered to be Yin. Certain combinations of digits are considered
to be particularly desirable and fortunate. These lead to a proper
balance of Yin and Yang, as well as a beneficial combination of the
digits with their underlying meaning. Some of these digits are more
auspicious when used in certain combinations. The numbers used as
titles for the Hung society ranks conform carefully to this belief.
For instance, every number begins with four which is even or Yin. In
every case, this is followed by a Yang or Odd number.
When the number four is pronounced in most Chinese dialects, it is a
homonym for the word for "death" or "die." It is therefore avoided
whenever possible and not normally used much by Chinese. For
instance, many Chinese hotels do not have a fourth floor, as few
Chinese would wish to stay on it. This is similar t the Western
practice of skipping the thirteenth floor. In fact, in places like
Hong Kong, it is not uncommon for some hotels to skip both the
fourth and the thirteenth floor in their numbering.
Perhaps the use of the ominous number four contributes to the Hung
society mystique. (10)
The Magical Number Square.
1. The bulk of this material comes
from a few primary sources. Morgan's Triad Societies of Hong
Kong.(1960, Crown Copyright Reserved, The Government Printer,
Hong Kong) is an excellent source for information on the
structure and form of Triad societies in Hong Kong shortly after
the second world war. (The author asserted that these traditions
were in decline during the period he wrote and researched the
subject.) Unfortunately, Morgan tends to skimp a bit on the
development of this form.
Ward and Stirling's The Hung Society. (privately published,
London, 1925.) contained the best possible description of the
societies available to the authors. This was based on extensive
research done during their stint as civil servants in the Crown
colony of Malaya.
Dian H. Murray, in collaboration with Qin Biaoqi, produced The
Origins of the Tiandihui -The Chinese Triads in Legend and
History. (1994, Stanford University Press, Stanford California).
This valuable work contains little information on the later form
of the societies, but it does contain invaluable information on
how they were founded and spread. This source describes the
early, haphazard recruiting practices which had apparently been
changed by the time Morgan wrote.
2. Wakeman, Frederic. 1966. Strangers at the Gate -Social
Disorder in South China, 1839-1861. University of California
3. It should be mentioned that the Boxers were based on a Ching
style structure. This would be expected as they orginated in the
north of China. Nevertheless, they shared the same problem of
4. From Ward and Stirling, The Hung Society, Volume I., pp.
14-15. London, 1925. Privately published in a limited edition.
5. Macao is a city located on the Southern coast of China not
far from Hong Kong. There are convenient ferry and hydrofoil
services shuttling between the two locations. Macao was founded
in the sixteenth century by the Portuguese as a base of trade
with China. For centuries it has been a Portuguese colony and at
the time of this writing still is. It is scheduled to be
returned to Chinese rule in 1999.
6. pp. 102-103, "Some Notes on the Ko-Lao Hui in Late Ch'ing
China," by Charlton M. Lewis. In Popular Movements and Secret
Societies in China, 1840-1950. Edited by Jean Chesnaux. The
internal structure of the Ko-Lao Hui is quite interesting and
described fully in the section on this organization in chapter
7. Ward and Stirling, Volume One, Page 16.
8. By way of contrast, see Morgan's description of Hung
societies and compare it to Dian H. Murray.
9. Ward and Stirling, Volume One, page 16.
10. For more details on Chinese
numerology and number beliefs, a good beginning reference is
Chinese Numbers -Significance, Symbolism, and Traditions. by
Evelyn Lip. (1992, Heian International, Inc. Union City,