The White Lotus Society was a syncretic Buddhist-Daoist-Manichean secret society (or series of secret societies) that participated in rebellions as early as 1352 and as late as 1804. Elizabeth J. Perry’s Worshipers and Warriors: White Lotus Influence on the Nian Rebellion examines the uncertain degree of their influence upon the Nian Rebellion of 1851-68. Perry begins by noting the geographical concentration of popular uprisings in certain regions:
In examining China’s two-thousand-year history of peasant revolt, one is struck by continuities in both location and organizational style […] the overriding impression is of a tenacious persistence of certain patterns of revolt in particular geographical regions. One such hotbed of peasant unrest was the Huai River valley, scene of the first great popular revolt in Chinese history […] in 209 B.C. (4)
She acknowledges the role of oral history in transmitting stories and memories of resistance before advancing her thesis that organizations such as the White Lotus Society provided an additional historical continuity between different rebellions:
It is sometimes claimed that peasants are unrevolutionary because they lack a sense of history. Modern revolutions, according to this argument, must be led by an educated class with a notion of historical mission. Actually, however, the peasantry too had its interpretation of the past and of its role in it. In the absence of a writing system, peasants depended upon oral history, reinforced in song, proverb, and verse, to preserve and perpetuate significant events. […]
At the same time, we must wonder if there was not a more formal institutional context through which such transfer occurred. A connection can be suggested between peasant unrest in the Huai River valley and the centuries-old existence of the White Lotus Society in that region. (5)
The White Lotus Society led a major insurrection between 1794–1804. As we will examine in more detail later, participants from both sides of the conflict are said to have formed/joined the “Nian” (gangs) that launched the Nian Rebellion half a century later.
The White Lotus Society
The original White Lotus Society appeared near the end of the Yuan Dynasty (the Mongol-ruled dynasty spanning the period between 1271-1368) and was instrumental in that dynasty’s overthrow:
Toward the end of the Yuan Dynasty a White Lotus adherent by the name of Han Shan-tang proclaimed the imminent arrival of the Maitreya Buddha. In the Huai valley, followers flocked to Han’s cause, declaring him the rightful emperor. An army of red-turbaned peasants was raised and revolt broke out. While this initial uprising was quickly suppressed, other aspirants arose to lead the so-called Red Army. Finally a Buddhist monk, Zhu Yuan-zhang, succeeded in overthrowing the Mongols and establishing the Ming dynasty.
The victory proved a mixed blessing for the White Lotus Society, however. Soon outlawed by the new emperor, Ming Tai-zu, the group found itself once again thrust into a role of opposition. (5-6)
Though primarily arising out of the tradition of Maitreyan Buddhism, the White Lotus Society syncretized Buddhism with Daoism and Manichaeism:
The White Lotus was a syncretic sect, combining elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Manicheanism. Its practices included medical healing, sitting and breathing exercises, martial arts, and the chanting of spells and charms. (6)
Perry notes that Marxist historians have been considerably discomfited by the centrality of religion to many of China’s most notorious peasant insurrections, but have sought to fit these rebellions into a Marxist framework nonetheless:
While characterizing religion as the “opiate of the people,” Marx also pointed out the inevitable importance of religion in feudal and Oriental societies. In such societies, mass struggles necessarily take on a religious tone; in fact religion may be the only means of instigating revolt under these conditions.
Many Chinese scholars have sought to overcome the apparent contradiction between these two views by distinguishing between the oppressive religion of the upper classes and the potentially dynamic creeds of the peasantry […] The theory is not entirely unlike that of traditional Confucians who also recognized “heterodox” (xie) doctrines as a serious political threat. (7)
Modern scholarship, such as that of Yang Shao-yun with regards to the Mahayana Rebellion of 515, has questioned the dichotomy between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, arguing that both established rulers and rebels actually used very similar language and concepts to justify their actions.
The White Lotus Society, however, was not only theologically “heterodox” but socially revolutionary as well, with proto-feminist tendencies standing out in particular:
According to the research of Richard Chu (1967), notions of equality also played an important role in the ideology and practice of the White Lotus Society. The theoretical basis for this equality lay in the sect’s creation myth. Legend held that life had been formed by the intervention of the Eternal Mother, Wu shen lao mu. The fact that all people were regarded as children of the Eternal Mother opened the way for equality between the sexes.
In many White Lotus movements throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties women were active as fighters and group leaders. The first sizable White Lotus uprising during the Ming was led by a Shandong woman, Tang Sai-er (Chu, 1967). Noted for her prowess in Taoist magical arts, Tang mobilized a revolt that swept across the province in 1420.
In addition to sexual equality, there is some evidence of cooperative economic activities among White Lotus members […] to aid the poorest participants in the struggles. (7-8)
The Nian Rebellion
Speaking of redistribution of wealth, Perry acknowledges that any ideological influence of the White Lotus upon the Nian rebels is hard to detect, but cites an interesting folk tale (re)told by the historian Fan Wen-lan that seems to advocate expropriation of the propertied classes:
Having established the potential usefulness of a secret society such as the White Lotus in inspiring mass revolt, what concrete support exists for the claim that it was in fact a source of inspiration to the Nian Rebellion? For the Nian we very little documentation of any developed system of ideology. The historian Fan Wen-lan (1962: 156-157) does point to one Nian myth as evidence of a rudimentary notion of class struggle.
According to Fan, members of the Nian orally transmitted a story dealing with a time when Confucius was in difficult straits. On the verge of starvation, Confucius is said to have dispatched his disciple to borrow grain from Fan Dan, a man known for his poverty who went hungry as a matter of course. Because Confucius’ life was at stake, Fan Dan generously lent out the meager amount of grain that constituted his family’s entire supply. Later Confucius became powerful and acquired wealth, but he did not acknowledge his debt to Fan Dan. The Nian claimed that all scholars (the landlord class) were offspring of Confucius, whereas the Nian were descendants of Fan Dan. The descendants of Fan naturally had the right to demand restitution for the old debt from the descendants of Confucius. […]
While Fan [Wen-lan]’s suggestion is an intriguing one, he cites no source for his conjecture. Furthermore, the anti-Confucian myth does not appear in any of the published Nian folk stories or songs. In short, with what little is known about Nian ideology, it is impossible to establish a definite connection with the White Lotus on this level. (8-9)
Perry suggests that the influence of the White Lotus upon the Nian rebels was organizational rather than theoretical. The term “Nian” essentially means “gang,” and at least one account suggests that the earliest “Nian” were comprised of former White Lotus Rebels:
Instead, it seems sensible to look for an organizational rather than an ideological linkage. Secret societies acted as meeting places for the destitute. They thus performed the important function of organizing peasants on a basis other than the family. Perpetuated by ritual, these groups managed to maintain their identity for generation upon generation, existing as potential pools of recruits for insurgent activities. This sort of continuity is similar to the role attributed by Engels (1966: 55) to mystic sects in Germany. He noted that groups such as the Scourging Friars and the Lollards were a latent bed of unrest, perpetuating a revolutionary tradition in times of suppression.
We do have documentation to support the conjecture of a Nian-White Lotus link on this organizational level. In terms of primary references, there are several accounts included in the materials on the Nian published in Shanghai in 1953. A description by Huang Jun-cai notes that the areas of Anhui and Henan harbored remnants of the White Lotus party who “plundered mercilessly” throughout the region. Because they dyed their whiskers red, they were called the “red-bearded bandits” (hong hu fei), each group (gu) of which was termed a “nian.” Small “nian” might be composed of a few individuals or several dozen. Large “nian” numbered in the hundreds. When harvests were plentiful, the bandits were scarce. In bad years, the Nian were everywhere. (9-10)
Perry proceeds to tell the story of a man named Gao Yung-qing, who was the leader of the village “Golden Tower Fort” and was a third generation adherent of the White Lotus sect. A Nian leader, Liu Gou, visited Gao and “agreed to spare Golden Tower Fort from Nian destruction” (10). Gao Yung-qing forged an alliance with Liu Gou and other Nian rebels.
There was to be an eclipse on August 1, 1861 [which I cannot actually find on this list; the closest date is July 8, which would also preclude this eclipse being a lunar eclipse]. Declaring this an auspicious omen, Gao determined to stage an uprising on the date. He plotted with various Nian leaders to launch a joint attack upon a nearby village. The news leaked out, however, and the would-be rebels were forced into retreat. After repeated encounters with the enemy, Gao was killed in battle and his sister-in-law succeeded him as commander of Golden Tower Fort. (10)
Gao’s sister-in-law rising to military command is an obvious example of White Lotus tradition in the Gao family. Women fought as warriors in other theaters of the Nian Rebellion as well:
Nian folk stories suggest an important role for women, another possible legacy of White Lotus influence. […] This image of active heroines is somewhat substantiated by scattered references in official documents. One such account […] describes the women in rebel villages as unusually fierce. Whenever government troops appeared, these women, armed with bamboo brooms and metal spades, killed fearlessly. (12-13)
Perry cites numerous other accounts of Nian women on the battlefield, which I have omitted for the sake of brevity alone. These stories can be found on pages 12 and 13 of her essay.
Perry emphasizes one more link between the White Lotus Society and the Nian Rebellion, which is the use of the Eight Diagrams (also used in feng shui):
The Eight Diagrams (ba gua) Sect was a major offshoot of the White Lotus Society, especially active in the Huai valley. In a 1962 collection of Nian folk stories there appears one tale dealing with the construction of an “Eight Diagrams Fort” in North Anhui (Nian jun gushi ji, 1962: 106-108).
According to the tale, this fort, commanded by the Nian leader Gon De, was designed in an Eight Diagrams pattern. There were sections corresponding to the eight categories of heaven, earth, wind, thunder, water, fire, mountain, and swamp. Ditches were dug and walls erected in accordance with an yin-yang design. The maze of ditches and walls was so complex that one had to know the secret marks in order to find one’s way about the fort. (11-12)
The entire Nian organization was based around five banners (military groupings) representing the traditional Five Elements, and the Eight Diagrams was added as a sixth banner:
Perhaps the most persuasive clue [for a White Lotus Society-Nian link] lies in the Nian organizational system. The use of five colored banners, corresponding to the five elements of Chinese alchemy, was an institution in the White Lotus Society. The further addition of a special Eight Diagrams banner points even more conclusively to an imitation of White Lotus precedents. The leader of this banner, Liu Gou, effected an alliance with White Lotus adherents in Henan, further strengthening the argument for a linkage. (17)
This is the same Liu Gou who allied with Gao Yung-qing of Golden Tower Fort.
Differences Between WLS And Nian
Perry acknowledges that whatever degree of influence the White Lotus Society may have had, the Nian Rebellion was an independent and unique phenomenon:
The Nian Army was not a secret, underground group but an openly anti-Qing movement. The Nian were not a religious society. While the White Lotus used religion to organize the masses and had a tight, hierarchical leadership, the Nian had neither sacred texts nor a unified organization. Their only creed was the chivalrous code of stealing from the rich to aid the poor. (14)
To show just how far these differences may have ran, one contemporary of the Nian says that the nuclei of the “Nian” gangs were actually veterans who participated in the suppression of the White Lotus Rebellion of 1794-1804:
It is interesting to refer to the account of an official who was a contemporary of the Nian, Fang Yu-lan. According to Fang […] the initial recruits of the Nian movement were not White Lotus adherents, but rather individuals who had fought on the government side in suppressing the rebellion.
According to [1950s historian] Jiang Di, of course, such elements were not necessarily anti-secret-society or anti-revolutionary. Being of peasant background, these people could rapidly change from a tool of the ruling class into a positive anti-Qing force. (14-15)
One clue to this apparent contradiction lies in the fact that Nian Rebellion did not rely exclusively upon secret society organization, but drew heavily upon familial ties and village self-defense forces as well. For example, the different colored banners often drew upon extended family affiliations, such that “those surnamed Zhang were generally under the yellow banner of Zhang Le-xing; those named Hou were with the red banner” (18), and so on.
Perry calls this a “localist orientation,” one more concerned with regional autonomy and independence from central Qing Dynasty control than with a larger political unity. Given the results of the first rebellion the White Lotus participated in, in which the newly-enthroned Ming Emperor promptly proscribed the group, perhaps this “localist” focus was an intelligent one:
A very strong localist orientation developed in which many members of the Nian were almost exclusively committed to protecting their own family units, with little conception of a larger collective. The Nian were like a myriad of independent kingdoms, each unit having its own fort, soldiers, and guards. (18)
Though the Nian Rebellion was eventually suppressed, it indelibly left its mark upon the insurrectionary history of the Huai River valley. Future rebellions would rely upon similar organizational forms:
These local organizations were important to subsequent uprisings in the Huai valley as well. The Boxers and Red Spears relied heavily on secret society, defense corps, and kinship support. (18)