Triads and the Taiping Rebellion

Dr. Nick Gier of the University of Idaho’s Philosophy Department is working on a book entitled The Origins of Religious Violence. The rough draft of one of the chapters, “By God’s Word and Direct Command: Religious Nationalism, Violence, and Taiping Christianity,” is available on his website. Though the entire chapter (and book) are interesting, the quotes I’ve selected are mostly unrelated to Gier’s main topic of the Taiping Rebellion, instead focusing on the information he provides about the Heaven and Earth societies (more commonly known as Triads).

As my last post alluded to, the Triads are now organized crime syndicates, but their origins were political, and they’ve always had a religious aspect as well. First, though, a quick mention of the impacts of the Taiping Rebellion and why Gier found it noteworthy to include on his book about religious violence:

It is estimated that between 10 and 20 million Chinese lost their lives in a conflict initiated by group of militant Christians led by Hong Xiuquan, a convert to Christianity who came to believe that, after visiting God’s extended family in Heaven in a 1837 vision, he was Christ’s younger brother with a sacred sword to kill all evil doers.

Gier includes information on the Triads for two reasons. First, they preceded the Taiping Christians in combining religion and political violence, but never quite mobilized on the same scale. Secondly, the Triads were initially allies of the Taiping, though that alliance later fell apart. Who were the Triads?

[They served as] a mutual aid society and helped many members during hard times. They were especially popular with the impoverished people of Southeast China with their Robin Hood policy of robbing the rich to feed the poor. Their political slogan of “destroy the Qing to restore Ming” (fan qing fu ming) also resonated well with people who had never accepted Manchu rule. According to Jonathan Spence, the Triads were responsible for 55 uprisings in Guangdong and other southeastern provinces between 1800 and 1840.

Here is Gier’s initial comparison of the Triads and the Taiping Christians:

This paper is a part of chapter of a book investigating the origins of religious violence. The book’s thesis is that there has been far less religiously motivated violence in the Asian religions than in the Abrahamic faiths. As the religious violence in the latter has been well documented, the task of my study is to analyze those conflicts in Asia that appear to have religious motivation. […] I’ve already presented three papers dealing with Muslim conquests in India, contemporary Hindu fundamentalism, and Buddhist militants in Sri Lanka. In the last two cases, I discovered that most of the violence has been committed by Hindus and Buddhists operating in a postcolonial environment in which an exclusive religious identity has been fused with militant nationalism. The same factors appear to come together in Taiping Christian ideology.

Religiously motivated violence had occurred in China, prime examples were the White Lotus School and the Triad Society. The Triads, only quasi-religious [and] usually worshipping the war god Guan Di, were one of China’s most famous secret societies. In contrast, the White Lotus devotees openly preached the imminent coming of Maitreya, the Buddhist Messiah. What is significant here is the presence of an apocalyptic vision radicalized by a Manichean division of the forces of light and righteousness and the forces of darkness and evil. In the first and second sections I will discuss these Chinese precursors in order to determine differences that might have made the Taipings more successful, at least initially, in their religious goals. As Thomas H. Reilly states: “Neither of these movements [the White Lotus and Eight Trigram] demonstrated the kind of creative impulse and constructive energy that the Taiping displayed.”

Where does the name “Triad” come from? Gier explains the origins of the name, and goes on to compare Chinese cosmology to that of both Christianity and the Indian religions:

The Heaven and Earth Society (tiandihui) was an important early ally of the Taipings. They were also called the Triads because of the cosmic triad of heaven, earth, and human beings. The Chinese phrase for the hea­ven-earth-human al­liance is san cai, which means “three powers, three forces, three ori­gins.” Theoretically, each partner in the Cosmic Triad is able to maintain its in­te­gri­ty because each is equiprimordial. While all three are es­sen­t­ially interdepen­dent, none is created by the other. The con­trast with other worldviews is striking. In orthodox C­hris­tianity the universe is created out of nothing, and after being used as an instrument for God’s redemptive purposes, it re­turns to nothing. Nature has no intrinsic value in most Indian relig­ious traditions either. The earth, other worlds, and the bo­dy are also mere instru­ments for spiritual liberation.

As discussed in a previous post about feng shui and environmentalism, the Chinese worldview does not necessarily predicate a practice of ecological preservation. However, Gier argues, it does have other effects:

One would have assumed that the concept of the Cosmic Triad would have motivated the Chinese to protect their environment, but for many centuries it was ruined, primarily because of massive deforestation. With regard to religion, however, I have argued that the Cosmic Triad may have limited instances of what I call “spiritual Titanism” in China to a minimum. One of the tendencies in the Abrahamic religion is a radical transcendentalism that ignores the earth and body and as result distorts the relationship between God and humans.

As we have seen above, the idea that God would lead a heavenly army or any human could arrogate the Mandate of Heaven as Hong did is alien to the Chinese mind. With his grandiose claims, one could say that the Christian Hong was just as much a spiritual Titan as he claims the Qing emperor was. It is significant to point out that while orthodox Christian philosophers had no problem deifying Jesus, no Chinese philosopher ever deified Confucius [Gier’s thesis in a previous essay, which I’m fairly certain is incorrect since Confucius was deified].

Why did the alliance between the Triads and the Taipings fall apart? Their initial collaboration, based on mutual opposition to the Qing Emperor, led to significant successes:

Unlike the Taipings, the Triads were only quasi-religious and they lacked the discipline and moral force that was key to the early Taiping success. Nevertheless, Taiping leaders generally found the Triads an important ally until 1852, although there were alliances of convenience as late as 1855-56. While many Triad members refused to formally join the Taipings, others did happily and some became trusted commanders. Triad forces in cities in the Taiping march north were key to the surrender of those urban centers, including the conquest of Nanjing [which became the Taiping capital] in 1853.

Of course, any alliance with militant Christians (even weirdly heretical ones like the Taiping) is bound to have some areas of disagreement:

Taiping leaders were not completely happy with the alliance even from the beginning. As we have already noted, Hong was not interested in restoring the Ming dynasty; rather, his goal was worldwide empire under his rule. The Triads were also closely connected with organized crime, especially gambling in Canton. In his revision of the Ten Commandments Hong added gambling, wine drinking, and opium smoking to the other prohibitions. Always the strict moralist, Hong eliminated Old Testament stories that told of wine drinking and sexual improprieties by presumably godly people.

In 1852, the Taiping leaders decided that they no longer needed the Triads as allies:

In a close examination of Taiping documents, Vincent Shih notices that positive references to the Triads were deleted in later editions starting in 1852. As Shih states: “The Taipings wanted to get clear of any relation to the Triad Society . . . However, this omission also shows that they must have a great deal to do with that society before this date.” Shih also explains that, in addition to deleting references to the Triads, Hong wanted to “eliminate all traces of traditionalism and intensify the influence of the Bible.”

As it turns out, they were not entirely wrong in doubting the value of the Triads as a military ally:

In the end the Triads proved to be disappointing ally. Commentators note that the later degeneration of discipline in the Taiping army, while generally due to indiscriminate recruiting along the way, was more specifically due to the demoralizing effect of associating with Triad forces. (Alliances with the Nian rebels in the north also had the same effect on Taiping troop morale.) The Triads and the Nians also had a reputation for inconsistency, sometimes negotiating and surrendering to imperial troops.

Be that as it may, the relationship and juxtaposition between the Triads and the Taiping Christians is a very interesting topic, and I’m glad that Dr. Gier is writing about it. For more information on the White Lotus Buddhists and the Nian rebels tangentially mentioned (and the relationship between those two groups), read Elizabeth J. Perry’s Worshipers and Warriors: White Lotus Influence on the Nian Rebellion. That essay will possibly be the topic of a future blog post here.

3 responses to “Triads and the Taiping Rebellion

  • Miss Minnie

    AFAIK the gangs groups are only a small part and deviation of Chinese freemasonry, there actually are a lot of other groups in the masonic traditions outside of triad and gang…

    There were more of these groups in Hong Kong because the British banned Chinese masonry I think. But you can join a Chinese masonic lodge today as well even in North America.


      Absolutely, I didn’t even mention the 堂 (táng or Cantonese “tong”) at all in this post, since the focus of the post was so narrow.

      I have written a little bit about the tongs in California before, though I’m well aware that I’m barely scratching the surface of those traditions.

      Thank you for commenting with this important clarification!

  • tmaxon8

    Just to let you know, Gier has no idea what he is talking about.

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