Triad Society

The most powerful and widely known of Chinese secret societies, the Triad Society traces its ancestry back to five Shaolin monks who survived the destruction of their monastery in 1674 by troops of the imperial Manchu government. The five survivors, after long journeys and many struggles, banded together into a brotherhood dedicated to driving out the Manchu invaders and restoring the former native Chinese dynasty, the Ming. The slogan “Subvert the Ch’ing [Manchu], Restore the Ming” became the Triad watchword. How much of this account is true and how much legend is impossible to tell, but the first Triad organizations seem to have come into existence at some point before 1750 and an origin sometime around the traditional date is entirely possible.

The Triad system has remarkable similarities to Freemasonry and other western fraternal secret societies. New members of a Triad lodge (the Chinese word is tang, “hall”) must be nominated by an existing member, and pass through an initiatory ceremony in which the candidate hears the story of the Triad’s origins and takes an oath to obey the rules of the society, provide mutual assistance to his lodge brothers, and never betray the lodge’s secrets to outsiders. Once initiated, the new members receive the secret signs of recognition that allow them to identify themselves to other Triad members. See Freemasonry.

The organization of Triad lodges also follows patterns akin to those of western secret societies. Officers of a Triad lodge include the Mountain Master, who presides over the lodge, and the Deputy Mountain Master, his assistant; the Incense Master and the Lead Guard, who conduct the initiation ceremony; the Red Staff, who assists the other officers; the White Fan, who serves as counselor, and the Straw Sandals, who is the messenger of the lodge. Each Triad lodge, however, is independent of all others, and the Triad system lacks a tai tang or Grand Lodge to judge disputes among lodges and enforce a standard code of conduct. See grand lodge.

Whatever their actual origins, by the beginning of the nineteenth century Triad lodges were the most popular secret society in southern China and had begun to stage risings against the Manchu government. A little later in the century, the Triads began to surface in Chinese immigrant communities overseas. Like fraternal orders in contemporary Europe and America, Triad lodges offered mutual assistance and protection to their members, while helping Chinese communities overseas cope with the prejudices and hostile treatment they often faced. Inevitably, Triad operations also spilled over into criminal activities, and by the late nineteenth century most criminal activity in the Chinese coastal ports and large Chinese communities overseas was in Triad hands. See fraternal orders.

The Triad lodges in China played a significant role in supporting the 1911 revolution that overthrew the Manchu and established the short-lived Chinese Republic. During the wars between the Republican government, the Japanese, and the Chinese Communist Party, different Triad lodges allied with different sides or attempted to play them against one another. The fall of the Republic in 1949 brought a campaign of violent persecution against all secret societies on the mainland as the Communist government sought to eliminate all possible rivals. In Hong Kong and throughout Chinese immigrant communities overseas, however, Triad lodges are still active, and play a significant role in organized crime activities in Asia and elsewhere.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006


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