One of the most influential secret movements in Chinese history, the broad spectrum of secret religious organizations commonly termed White Lotus societies can trace their ancestry back to the twelfth century CE, if not before. Their precise origin is unknown, but the movement seems to have emerged from a fusion of Taoist and Buddhist ideas in Chinese folk religion. The societies have many names – Eight Trigrams Society, Great Sword Society, and Observance Society among them; White Lotus Society was the name of one of the first such societies to become widely known, and is commonly used to refer to all of the societies of its general type.
Most White Lotus societies have a distinctive religious faith. They offer reverence to a primordial goddess of many names and titles – Wu-sheng Lao-mu (Ancient Unoriginated Mother) is among the most common – who brought the world into being and sends prophetic messengers at intervals to rescue humanity from ignorance and oppression. Most White Lotus societies believed that at some point in the near future a new messenger would appear and transform the world, restoring peace and happiness to all. In the meantime, White Lotus initiates practiced a variety of spiritual disciplines, including Taoist internal alchemy, and also commonly took up the practice of martial arts.
In imperial China, with its traditional belief that emperors ruled by the Mandate of Heaven, the White Lotus teachings inevitably had political implications. White Lotus societies first appear in history as leading factors in the risings against the Mongols that liberated China in 1368 and put the Ming dynasty on the imperial throne. When the Ming dynasty fell to the Manchu in 1614, White Lotus groups became a significant force in the anti-Manchu underground, and staged several risings against the Manchu emperors. Massive White Lotus-backed revolts in 1773 and 1794 were put down only after hard fighting. In response, the Eight Trigrams Society – one of the largest White Lotus organizations of its time – carried out a bold daylight attack in 1813 against the imperial palace in Beijing itself, coordinated with general uprisings in several provinces. The imperial government responded to this rising with a policy of violent persecution, but in 1861 the Black Banner Society – yet another White Lotus organization – staged another large peasant rising that lasted for two years.
White Lotus societies played only a relatively small role in the revolution that finally overthrew the Manchu dynasty in 1911 and ushered in the short-lived Chinese Republic. After the fall of the Republic in 1949, the Communist Party did its best to suppress all secret societies, and any White Lotus groups that remain on the Chinese mainland today are very well hidden. In Taiwan and many Chinese communities overseas, however, White Lotus groups remain active today, though most play down the political dimension of their teachings and focus on spiritual practices instead.
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