The hui (wui, societies) encompassed groups organized for a range of goals, from mutual-aid and protection, to criminal enterprise and predation, to cult expansion and rebellious sedition. They were distinguished by their drawing of members with different surnames, lack of regard for traditional hierarchies, and their practice of initiation involving blood-oath.
The Evolution of the Societies The origins of the hui are found in equal parts fact and fiction. Historically, elements of the societies can be traced as far back as the Tang dynasty when local villages formed yishi (associations of adopted social groups formed from above) for the pooling of funds (for the purchase of equipment and livestock, and the paying of funerals and child birth related expenses).
The characteristic of jiebai xiongdi (sworn brotherhoods) of differing surnames is deeply embedded in the culture due to popular stories such as Sanguo Yanyi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) and Shuihuzhuan (Outlaws of the Marsh). During the early-Qing period, they gained prominence due to the xiedou (collective violence), or the internecine feuds between shi (lineages) that spread from Fujian. When smaller lineages faced the threat of larger lineages, they were forced to band together into huizu (ancestral associations). At the same time, the destruction wrought during the dynastic transition and the following shifts in population densities led many youths to migrate in search of economic opportunity. For survival and protection, these youths banded together into non-elite groups of differing surnames, in stark contrast to the hierarchies of age and divisions of wealth and lineage that had so characterized earlier societies.
The blood-oath aspect of the societies is said to trace back even further. Accounts exist from the time of the Warring States (475–221 BC) when the passing from feudal to proto-bureaucratic society led to ritualized violence, where a climate idealizing heroic honor and martial prowess, mired in inter-state, inter-lineage, and inter-personal feuding, combined with the breaking down of old institutions, led men to ally themselves into elite groups through the taking of blood-oaths.
Early on, the Qing cracked down on the societies. By 1646, membership in a blood-oath society was made punishable by a flogging of 100 lashes. By 1661, belonging to a non-blood oath society was punishable by the lash, and membership in the blood-oath society was punishable by death. This crack down led to considerable resentment among the societies and, following the end of dynastic transition in 1683 and the driving of the anti-Qing resistance underground, elements of sedition began to surface. By the turn of the 18th century, societies were already being organized in Taiwan to jushi (rise-up).
Over the next decade, the rebellious brotherhoods, mutual aid organizations, bandit groups, pyramid-structured financial enterprises, cults, and other forms of the societies continued to evolve. And, for the first time, these societies began to gain formal names. In 1728, the Fumuhui (Father & Mother Society) formed in Zhuluo, Fujian. In 1735 the Tiechihui (Iron Ruler Society) formed in Ninghua, Fujian. These new societies, and others, paved the way for the most far reaching of them all - the Tiandihui (Tien Dei Wui, Heaven & Earth Society), later and more expansively known as the Hongmen (Hung Mun, Vast Gate).
The Coming of the Heaven & Earth Society The Tiandihui began when Zheng Kai (known primarily as Ti Xi but with numerous aliases including Monk Wan, Monk Hong Er, etc.), Li Amin (a boxing master), Zhu Dingyuan, and Tao Yuan left their homes in Zhangpu, Fujian to seek better lives in Sichuan. There, they joined a group of “monks” led by Ma Jiulong who practiced magic and exorcism. The group did not fair well, however, and Ti Xi soon went to Guangdong and organized a group of followers in Huizhou. In 1761, Ti Xi returned home to Fujian and took up residence in the Guanyinting (Goddess of Mercy Pavillion) and transformed his group of followers into the society known as Tiandihui.
By 1766, the Tiandihui had spread through Zhangpu and Pinghe counties, and by 1767, one of the early members, Lu Mao, created a brotherhood for what may have been the first Tiandihui uprising. Their plan was to engage in theft (robbing storehouses, treasuries, and homes of the well do to) in order to raise money for their rebellious activities. In 1768, the time finally came for their uprising and they attacked the western gate of the county seat, but were easily defeated by the local guard.
Li Amin followed this uprising by forming a society to rob wealthy households and rise up in 1769. Before they could complete their uprising, however, they were discovered and executed. Ti Xi was said to have lain low following this, until he passed away in 1779, handing down the register of his society to his son, Zheng Ji, who later became a monk.
As the Tiandihui spread through different counties and provinces, it branched off into many groups and became known by many names. Along with its increasingly complex rituals, it also developed a rich, legendary, back-story, filled with allegory, symbolism and numerology that served to inspire recruits and lend direction to the movement. The story held that the Tiandihui/Hongmen’s roots traced back to the Shaolin Temple, betrayed by jealous Qing officials after they helped the dynasty suppress the Xilufan (Western Barbarian) revolt. The temple burned down, the monks scattered, five survivors met with Ming loyalists at the Honghua Ting (Hung Fa Ting, Vast or Red Flower Pavilion), and received a sign from Heaven to “fan Qing fu Ming” (“fan Ching fook Ming”, “overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming”).
By referencing an apocryphal Fujian Shaolin Temple and its warrior monks (molded from Tang dynasty accounts of Songshan, Henan Shaolin), feigning connections to Buddhist societies (from tales of the Bailian (White Lotus), and Yuan Dynasty Qing Lian (Green Lotus) and Wuwei (Motionless) Societies), and weaving in fictitious Song or Ming scion, they created a compelling counter-culture where the disenfranchised could seek some measure of pride, self-empowerment, and political significance. They also swelled their ranks and motivated their followers.
By 1802, the Tiandihui was well established in Guangdong province, with over a thousand reported members involved in mutual aid, financial gain, criminal activity, and rebellion. The latter began in Yongan (Wing On). Organized by Chen Lanjisi, head of the Tiandihui (Increase Brotherhood Society), they wore a hong jin (hung gam, red turban, perhaps in homage to the Red Turban Rebellion that had threatened the Mongol Yuan dynasty before it fell to the Ming) as a way of identifying themselves, and attacked several local villages. The Qing massed troops to meet them under the command of Li Hansheng and Sun Quanmou and, eventually, by the army of General Huang Biao. The fighting went on for a short time until Chen was captured.
The Formation of the Three Harmonies Society In 1812, the Tiandihui went through another important phase in its evolution. On January 4, in Shunde (Shundak), Yan Guiqiu (Yim Kwai-Kiu), Yan Peiyu (Yim Poi-Yuk), and two others agreed to form a society for mutual protection. By January 9, they had 66 recruits, and adopted the name Sanhehui (Saam Ho Wui, Three Harmonies or Triad Society). Yan continued to recruit, bringing 151 more members. These members spread and founded their own chapters until, by 1831, the Sanhehui covered much of the south, divided into 5 fang (branches) - Fujian, Guangdong, Yunnan, Huguang, and Zhejiang.
While the societies grew from within, pressure mounted from without as well. The tea trade causing a huge deficit with China, England looked increasingly to opium to help balance the scales. The Qing began prohibitions against the opium trade in 1729 and outlawed it in 1796, but failed to make any real headway in restraining its use. By the 1830s, lower prices and led to a surge in opium imports, and in late-1838, the Qing sent Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu to Guangzhou to handle the problem. The Opium War began in 1839.
While small successes by local militia in support of Qing forces, such as in Sanyuanli in 1841, led to new blossoming in heroic tales, Peach-Garden inspired oaths, increased reliance on braves and militia, and a general build up of moral, the overall defeat at the hands of the British (including the ceding of Hong Kong) in 1842, only caused anti-Qing sentiment to increase among the population.
In 1843, the Three Harmonies Society rose up under the cry of “Red Pole (leader) aboard the stage, acting in the opera (meeting the association), speaking the 36-mantras, cutting the finger and taking the blood-oath.” They levied their own taxes and engaged in banditry to raise money, and feuded with the rival Wolunghui (Sleeping Dragon Society). Under the watch of gun-wielding guards, they encouraged peasants, farmers, and eventually entire villages to join them. Police, magistrates, and others joined until, in 1844, they threatened to take control of the county seat. Only the intervention of gentry-raised militia, led by Zheng Guihong, stopped them.
The Great Peace Rebellion In 1845 the societies took pause again when the quasi-religious movement known as Taiping (Tai Ping, Great Peace) emerged. Taiping was founded by Huayuan (Fa Yuen), Guangdong native Hong Xiuquan (originally named Huoxiu). Hong, after several failed attempts at passing the licentiates exams and exposure to the translated bible tracts of Chinese Christian converts, fell gravely ill and had a dream where he was the second son of God, charged with driving the Qing demons from the land and establishing the Taiping Tianguo (Tai Ping Tien Kwok, Great Peace Heavenly Kingdom). When he recovered he began a movement that spread from his own, Keijia (Hakka) people, throughout the south. The Taiping Rebellion would rage until 1864, when Hong Xiuquan died in disgrace among his concubines, one of over 20 million deaths that would occur during the struggle.
The Red Turban Rebellion In 1854, Liu Duchuan (Lao Doo-Chuen), brother of Guangdong Three Harmonies Society member and Shanghai Xiaodaohui (Siu Do Wui, Small Knife Society) leader, Liu Lichuan (Lao Lee-Chuen), was sent back to Guangdong (which had been charged with paying 80.6% of the Opium War reparations) to help organize an uprising in support of the Taiping. In June, He Liu (Ho Lok), a smuggler and society member whose brother had been murdered in a prefectural purge, began to raise a band of men in search of vengeance. Helped by Liu Yingcai (Lao Ying-Choi), he prepared to attack the Dongguan county seat.
They moved on Stone Dragon town. Thirty thousand members and six hundred boats worked towards the goal of “taking down the Dragon, lifting the tiger, stopping the goat, bowing the Buddha, and reaching the Western paradise.” In this code, dragon signified the Stone Dragon, tiger the Tiger Gate, goat the Goat City (Guangzhou), Buddha the Buddha Mountain (Foshan), and Western Paradise the province of Guangxi.
He Liu’s uprising began a chain reaction through the region, and on June 11, 1854, Chen Kai (Chan Hoi) and Liu Duchuan lead 7000 Three Harmonies Society members to revolt in Foshan. On June 12th, members of the Precious Jade Flower Union, under the direction of Li Wenmao, took to the streets in full costume, waving red banners. Known practitioners of yongchunquan (wing chun kuen) at the time who could have participated in this uprising included:
Huang Huabao (Wong Wah-Bo), who was sometimes said to have been a native of Gulao (Koolo), Heshan (Hoksan). Considered the dashiheng (dai sihing, senior) of the troupe, he played the wusheng (mo sang, male martial lead), and was particularly skilled in the roles of General Kwan and the Monkey King, and in the use of the gun (kwun, pole). Liang Erdi (Leung Yee-Tai), who played the wudan, (mo deng, ‘female’ martial lead). Dahuamian Jin (Dai Fa Min Kam, Painted Face Kam), also known as Xin Jin (San Kam, New Kam), and sometimes said to have properly been Luo Jin (Lok Kam) of Jinju (Kamjuk), Sanshui (Saamshui), who played the wujing (mo jing, martial painted face). Yijin (Yik Kam, Wing Gold) who played the qingdan (ching deng, proper ‘female’), a virtuous leading role. Li Fushun (Lai Fook-Shun), also known as Xiao Fu (Siu Fook, Young Fook), who played the xiaosheng (siu sang, young male), the beardless scholar-lover. Cao Shun (Cho Shun), known as Dayan Shun (Dai Ngan Shun, Cross-eyed Shun), a native of Panyu (Poon Yee). He played the xiaowu (siu mo, Little Martial), and was a disciple of Yijin. And others, including mentions of Liang Langui (Leung Lan-Kwai), Gaolao Zheng (Go Lo Chung, Tall Chung), Huazi Ming (Fa Jee Ming, Flower Mark Ming), Huamian Biao (Fa Min Biu, Flower Face Biu), etc. A few hundred at first, within a few days, tens of thousands of common people joined as well, showing their allegiance with red turbans. And the Hongjin (Hung Gam, Red Turban) Rebellion was born.
The rebels burned the Qing offices, and on July 4, took control of the town and ushered in the Daning (Dai Ning, Great Peace). Their troops came to be known as the Hong Bing (Hung Bing, Vast Army), with Chen Kai as the Chen Nan Wang (Chan Nam Wong, Subdue the South King) and Li Wenmao as his second.
Hill bandits soon began to move on the Guangdong capitol, Guangzhou. On July 14, Kan Xian, who had previous started a revolt in Huayan, assaulted the north gate. He Liu marched to join them, and from Panyu, Red Turbans camped on the Manchu parade grounds outside the east gate. Bannermen and local militia defended the city. On August 19 and 24, Chen Kai and Li Wenmao tried to crush the militia forces between Foshan and Guangzhou but failed. Soon thereafter, rebel infighting began to take its toll. By September 5, He Liu pulled out, by September 7, the siege began to falter, and by November 5, it broke.
The Wrath of the Qing The take over of Foshan lasted until January, 1855 when, following mistreatment at the hands of some of the rebels, the locals became solidly pro-government. On January 18, Bannermen and local braves succeeded in routing the rebels and taking back the city. Then Governor-General Ye Mingchen’s purge began.
Li Wenmao retreated to Guangxi. His forces captured several cities, including Liuchow, where he established the Da Sheng (Great Achievement) Kingdom. Li’s regime enjoyed popular support, but in 1858 he was wounded in a failed attempt to seize Guiling. He died soon thereafter. Chen Kai died in 1861.
Following the destruction of the Precious Jade Flower Union, while some of the surviving members hid in Foshan and surrounding towns and villages, they first taught their martial arts to non-Red Junk members.
Latter Day Rebels Rebel activity among the latter day wing chun kuen ancestors is more the realm of rumor than fact. Some suggest that Huo Baoquan (Fok Bo-Chuen), the student of Huang Huabao, and Feng Shaoqing (Fung Siu-Ching), the student of Dahuamian Jin, used their positions in order to work as neimen (inside gate) rebels, gathering information and performing assassinations not possible for the standard rebels.
Succeeding decades of turmoil, including the Boxer Rebellion, Nationalist Movement, Japanese Occupation, and Communist Takeover of China also provided opportunity for involvement with the societies, and to this day, rumors persist even about some of the late masters of the 20th century.
References: Origins of the Tiandihui by Dian Murray and Qin Baoqi, Hongmen Real History by Qin Baoqi, Secret Societies Reconsidered by David Ownby (Editor), et al, God’s Chinese Son by Jonathan D. Spence, Historie de la Kiang Nan by A.M. Colombel, Twelve Years in China by John Scratch, Strangers at the Gate by Frederic Wakeman, and the oral and written histories of Cho Family, Sum Nung, Yip Man, Pan Nam, Gulao, and other branches of wing chun kuen.
About the Authors Rene Ritchie, Robert Chu and Hendrik Santo, between them, have written dozens of columns and articles for Inside Kung Fu, Martial Arts Masters, Martial Arts Legends, Martial Arts Illustrated, WingChunKuen, and other publications. Robert Chu and Rene Ritchie are co-authors, along with Y. Wu, of Complete Wing Chun, published by Charles E. Tuttle.
Rene Ritchie began studying the Yuen Kay-San/Sum Nung system of wing chun kuen under the guidance of Ngo Lui-Kay (Ao Leiqi) in 1990 and is author of Yuen Kay-San Wing Chun Kuen available from Multimedia Books/Unique Publications. He maintains the WingChunKuen site on the Internet World Wide Web, and is co-administrator of the Internet Wing Chun Mailing List.
Robert Chu has been involved in the martial arts since 1972, specializing in wing chun kuen and its weapons. Having learned Yip Man wing chun kuen from several prominent instructors (including his current teacher, Hawkins Cheung), and the Yuen Kay-San and Gualo systems from his good friend and teacher Kwan Jong-Yuen, he has also researched several other branches. In addition, he has a background in the weapons of Hung ga kuen and is a successor to Lui Yon-Sang’s flying dragon tiger gate combat pole in the United States. A licensed Acupuncturist / Chinese herbalist, he is available for consultation on pain management, sports injuries, musculoskeletal disorders, and internal medicine.
Hendrik Santo began learning the wing chun kuen of Cho Hung-Choy in Malaysia in the 1970s. Since then, he has spent much time researching both the nature of the art and the nature of Buddhism.