The Heaven and Earth Society and the practice of Chinese martial arts

24 Jul

In northern China, religious sectarians had all been associated with the White Lotus Sect. In southern China, the various secret societies, the Heaven and Earth Society (天地會), the Three Dots Society (三點會), the Three Harmonies Society (三合會), and the Hong League (洪門) were generally agreed to be one and the same, though it was impossible to verify. (Murray 9) This distinction between religious sectarian groups and secret societies could be said to be both artificial and arbitrary. Sectarian rebellions all had social, economic and political dimensions. The secret societies share many features with the sectarians, including at least the appearance of religious ritual and the participation of Buddhist monks in their ranks. (Ownby, also Anthony 71) Yet, as we separate fact from fiction, the distinction ultimately does seem useful.


Discussions about the Heaven and Earth Society have long been clouded by the fact that much of the earliest history depended upon either internally generated society documents or prisoner testimony, neither of which is very reliable but yet which it seems were seldom questioned until recently. Yan Yan (嚴煙) is said to have introduced the Heaven and Earth Society to Taiwan, and upon his arrest in 1788 explained that the society had been created in “the distant past” in Sichuan province by two men with the surnames Li (李) and Zhu (朱). Subsequently a man named Ma Jiulong (馬九龍) gathered forty eight Shaolin monks to spread the society and its teaching. Of the original forty eight Shaolin monks, thirteen survived. A monk named Hong Er (洪二), also called Ti Xi (提喜), then introduced the society to Guangdong in the 1760’s (“Tiandihui” compiled by the Qing History Institute of People’s University (Beijing: Zhongguo Renmin Daxue Chubanshe, 1981-9).

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The Heaven and Earth Society depicted themselves as a pro-Ming political movement, embracing the slogan “Oppose Qing and restore Ming” (反清復明). They claimed the society was created as an alliance between Ming loyalists and the survivors of a Shaolin monastery in Fujian province (福建) that they claimed had been burned by the Qing government. Different versions of this foundational story exist; the forty eight Shaolin monk story Yan Yan had told authorities, another in which 128 surviving Shaolin martial monks swore revenge. In 1810, authorities confiscated a society handbook which listed five men who had purportedly escaped the monastery and established the society; Cai Dezhong (蔡德忠) , Fang Dahong (方大洪), Ma Chaoxing (馬超興), Hu Dedi (胡德帝), and Li Shikai (李式開) . (ter Haar 379).


As the claims of the Heaven and Earth Society were subjected to a more critical eye, and as more historical documents became available, increasingly historians began reconsidering the nature of secret societies in southern China. Rather than politically motivated, they fit more properly in the context of mutual aid and self-protection associations. The peasantry had engaged in creating parallel social institutions independent of gentry elites. This was especially true among itinerant and migrant communities, i.e. the same JiangHu subculture in which martial artists so frequently belonged.

Chinese historians Zhuang Jifa (莊吉發) and Qin Baoqi (秦寳琦) both date the establishment of the Heaven and Earth Society to 1761 or 1762, a century after the date given by the previous traditional historiography. Qin Baoqi examined social tensions and economic hardships among the marginalized as contributing factors to the society’s establishment. Zhuang Jifa examined the role of ethnic rivalries and lineage feuds. All these conclusions placed the Heaven and Earth Society within the larger context of mutual aid and self-protection associations. In retrospect, even prisoner testimony had already suggested this. Yan Yan had also explained;

“Originally people willingly entered the society to get financial help from other members for weddings and funerals and support if they got into fights. Also if band its accosted t hem, as soon as they indicated the secret signs of the sect they would not be bothered”.


David Ownby was among the first western historians to recognize and discuss this relationship between the Heaven and Earth Society and those preexisting parallel social institutions, though he also saw the society as connected to popular religious traditions In part, this may be a result of Ownby’s belief that what made the Heaven and Earth Society unique was that it merged the features of those mutual aid associations with the tradition of blood-oath brotherhoods. Chinese blood-oaths brotherhoods featured quasi-religious ritual, and similarly new members of the society were made to engage in elaborate rituals and swear an oath to the war god Guan Di (transformed by society rituals into the god of secret oaths).

Cooperation between Chinese and western historians, and access to Qing dynasty archives in both Beijing and Taipei that only became available in the last few decades, has allowed a much more reliable history of the Heaven and Earth Society to emerge in the English language for those interested. A volume written by Dian Murray in collaboration with Qin Baoqi confirms for English speakers that the society was founded not as a political movement but as a mutual aid brotherhood, building on institutional foundations already deeply rooted in Chinese popular culture.

Tourist dollars obscure searches for the truth about "Fujian Shaolin"

Tourist dollars obscure searches for the truth about “Fujian Shaolin”

Reaffirming Qin’s earlier work, the English language volume sets the creation of the society at 1761 or 1762, in Zhangpu county (漳浦), Zhangzhou prefecture (漳州), Fujian province (福建). The monk Ti Xi (提喜) (with the alias “Hong Er” 洪二) recruited three local men as his followers; Lu Mao (盧茂), Li Amin (李阿閔) (alias “Li Shaomin” 李少敏, who may have been a martial artist), and Fang Quan (方權). The three acknowledged the monk Ti Xi as their leader and entered into a blood-oath brotherhood with each other; setting the pattern for all future society activity. It is probably not a coincidence that at the time the region was prone to many of the same geographic, social and economic pressures we have repeatedly seen in this study; it has been suggested that the three men were all landless, a common problem in the province as a result of population growth. The reader should also note the reoccurring importance of Fujian in southern martial arts history and myth, and also Zhangpu’s close proximity to Guangdong province (廣東).

Qin and Muarray’s volume provide us with a documented, contextual approach to the origins of the Heaven and Earth Society, removing the propaganda and myth. Yet, as Zhuang Jifa points out, it is unlikely the society was created by one particular person or even small group of persons. (See Wu Zhaoqing 吳兆淸and Hao Zhiqing 赫治淸, The society likely evolved within the larger network of similar, multi-surname brotherhoods and mutual assistance associations, and likely incorporated many along the way. This would explain the aforementioned Ma Jiulong (馬九龍), who may have been active simultaneously in Guangdong.


While we will return to claims about a Shaolin monastery in Fujian in more detail later, it is sufficient at this point to mention there is no reliable documentation of the existence of such a monastery or of the Qing government burning it down. The well documented Shaolin monastery in Henan province (河南) states “In all the records of the Shaolin Monastery, I have never seen the words ‘Southern Shaolin’” (“ 在我們少林寺所有的典籍中, 我從來沒有看到過 『南少林』 的字樣”). The research we have discussed here, dating to the early 1990’s in China and presented in English by Qin and Murray, should have finally laid to rest these claims of connection to Shaolin yet some authors such as Immanuel Hsu in The Rise and Fall of Modern China, unwittingly persist in spreading this misinformation, treating it as history.

Yet the discovery that the Heaven and Earth Society’s claims of affiliation with Shaolin are fiction in no way makes them less important to our examination. It demonstrates the powerful reputation that Shaolin had during the Qing period. It suggests that the men in these secret societies identified with the martial monks of Shaolin. Finally, it indicates that the Shaolin reputation was attractive to those elements that the society wanted to recruit as members. The story was both an attempt at legitimization and a recruiting tool.


Additionally, we must still address the apparent presence of Buddhist monks within movements such as the Heaven and Earth Society. As a foreign ruler, one of the Qing Dynasty’s first acts was to require ethnic Chinese to adopt the queue (辮子) hairstyle. The hairstyle policy was resisted quite strongly but enforced ruthlessly. One tactic employed by those who resisted authority, even if they were not actually “Ming loyalists”, was to shave their head and pose as a Buddhist monk. Adopting the persona of a Buddhist monk had other advantages for those engaged in illegal and rebellious activities; many Buddhist monks were itinerant and a man posing as a monk could travel more easily without arousing the attention of the government.

Certainly, not everyone with a shaved head and monastic raiment was a con man just pretending religious affiliation. The reality was far more complicated, and particularly relevant to examination. The geographic, economic and social pressures we have seen again and again affecting the peasantry and creating marginalization meant the “outside world” was not very attractive. Buddhism offered an alternative to the reality of daily life and monasteries needed men willing to protect their interests, to be the militia we come to know as martial monks. Thus, men of violence joined monasteries, took religious vows and became monks, but without necessarily abandoning “ego,” embracing Buddhist compassion or giving up their violent tendencies.

Accounts of Buddhist monastery militia used in the suppression of the “wokou” (the so-called “Japanese pirates”) during the Ming period demonstrate this point rather well. The force recruited included monks from several Buddhist monasteries, who vied and argued to determine who would be their leader. A monk from the Shaolin monastery in Henan boasted “I am real Shaolin, is there any martial art in which you are good enough to justify your claim for superiority over me?” Matches followed using unarmed techniques in which the Shaolin monk was victorious (in other words, a fist fight broke out!). The defeated men then armed themselves with swords (in other words, they were sore losers) and the Shaolin monk had to improvise staff techniques with a long bar used to lock the gate. Finally, during this same campaign we have an account of one of the monks beating to death the unarmed wife on one of the pirates as she attempted to escape.

Finally, for our discussion, there is no doubt that martial arts practice played an important role in the Heaven and Earth Society’s daily operations. The society was organized around a very elaborate and specific hierarchy. Among one of the most senior and important of those positions was the “red pole” or “red staff” (紅棍). The “red staff” served as a “lieutenant” to the head of a specific lodge, and was responsible for enforcing the lodge’s rules. As the title also suggests, the “red staff” also was responsible for training the membership in martial arts, organizing the fighting force and leading them into battle, whether against the government, rival societies or other enemies. A man seeking the leadership of a lodge had to have at one point served as a “red staff”.


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