Chinese Culture > Chinese Secret Society


From 1644 to 1911 A.D. a.k.a Ching dynasty, two styles of secret societies became prevalent. The styles referred to a certain set of organizational structures, carefully preserved traditions and patterns of behavior which their members were expected to follow.

Ching DynastyThe first of these Chinese secret societies, the Hung society, was most common in Southern China. As most overseas Chinese came originally from the southern provinces of Fujien (Fukien) or Guangdong (Canton), this is also the style of secret society most commonly seen outside of China, including in North America or South East Asia. The term "Hung" means Red, but it is also a homonym for the Chinese word for "brave." Although Hung societies continue to exist today, they are often modified in various ways. Furthermore, although it might not be exactly correct, since we are discussing the original version of the Hung societies for simplicity and clarity this chapter will use the past tense, except when referring to something that specifically refers to the present.

The second Chinese secret society are the Ching or "Green" societies. These are based on a style more common originally in Northern China and will be discussed later.

The basic unit of the Hung society was the lodge or local branch. It was to the local branch that the members of a sworn brotherhood owed their primary loyalty. This is the group that held meetings and from time to time called together members of the society. In some locations, there existed higher levels of organization, but these had limited duties. These "headquarters branches" or "master lodges" (as some texts call them) would not normally interfere in the day to day running of the local chapters of the society. Although members of these headquarters branches tended to be old and respected members of the sworn brotherhoods, they were chosen by the majority decision of the senior officials of the local branches. It is believed that generally their role among the local chapters was quite limited and consisted primarily of arbitrating inter-chapter disputes so as to avoid needless and unprofitable inter-chapter conflicts. In some places and times, the headquarters branch had strict regulations preventing all but themselves from starting additional branches of the Hung society. At other times, however, just the opposite was true and anyone familiar with the rituals of the Hung society could start a new branch any time they were able to recruit sufficient followers.

It is entirely incorrect to see the many secret societies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a single, large, centrally controlled organization held under the sway of a tyrannical despot who ruled from hiding. Not only did the technology prohibit attempts to control the geographically widespread societies in such a fashion, there was little benefit to the group as a whole from such centralization.

The Hung society structure is intended to emulate a family of sworn brothers. In China, however, it should be remembered that not all brothers are necessarily equal. Although family members are supposed to love one another and live in peace and harmony, they are not equals. The Chinese family is hierarchical in nature. The older brothers are seen as more important than the younger brothers. The younger brothers are supposed to be obedient towards the older brothers. This respect for elders, even elder brothers, is a key component of Confucian teachings. Elders, after all, are perceived as having superior wisdom, and therefore society benefits when the younger members of society obey and respect them. In return for this obedience, it is expected that the elders and superiors will rule with wisdom and compassion keeping the best interests of their inferiors and society at large in mind at all times.


It follows that although the Hung society is intended to be an organization composed of sworn brothers, it does not mean that it is an organization of equals. Far from it. There is a definite hierarchy and organizational structure within a Hung society type organization. There is a definite structure to the organization. This structure led to division of tasks as well as a definite system of ranks and officers. Although there were many variations on the basic structure, this standard structure or some close variant was common to most Hung society groups.

Each headquarters branch had a leader. Underneath the leader were two of the most important officers in the group. These were the Incense Master and the Vanguard. Although these two officers were of equal rank, their duties differed, and therefore friction, competition and conflict between them was minimized. Together they were charged with the organization and performance of all initiation and promotion ceremonies.

The Incense Master was essentially the high priest of a Hung society. As such he was charged with the responsibility for the proper performance of all ceremonies and rituals. The Vanguard's duties were slightly different. Although he had priest-like duties, his primary concern was administrative. He was charged with the responsibility of overseeing the expansion of the society and ensuing that such expansion happened in a manner that would be in the long term best interests of the group. In accordance with these responsibilities, he was the only member of the society who could establish independent branches without the consent of the leader. In at least some societies, the Vanguard was also responsible for the storage of all weapons owned by the society.

Underneath these three key officers, there were five primary officers in a Master Lodge. Each of these had specific responsibilities and duties. These three officers, the Leader, the Incense Master, the Vanguard and the heads of each of the five key sections totaled eight in number. In traditional Chinese mysticism and numerology both the numbers five (as in the five divisions) and eight (as in the eight officers) had great significance. Within the Ko-Lao Hui (the Elder Brothers Society), a Chinese secret society that used and modified many of the Hung society institutions, these eight officers were referred to as the Lodge of the Inner Eight. In other organizations, it seems that these eight officers did not have such an elaborate designation, but they were quite respected and their duties essential to the continuing function of the organization. These eight officers were not the only members of the headquarters group of a secret society. They would also have a variety of assistants and others to help them fulfill their duties and complete their jobs successfully.

The five administrative divisions were based on function, and for this reason some, naturally, had more personnel than others. The leader of each divisions was a Senior official who, although of high rank, was underneath the group's Leader, Incense Master, and Vanguard. These were the General Affairs section, the Recruiting section, the Organization section, the Liaison section, and the Education section.

The Organization section was responsible for controlling the activities of the branch societies, as necessary. Among its duties were controlling the various branches and inflicting punishments, when required, on members or non-members. When major combined operations were undertaken, they were controlled by the members of this headquarters branch.

The Liason section was charged with carrying out communications between the headquarters branch and the member branches. At times, the members of the liason section had special names, among them being "grass sandals" or "night brothers."

The Education and Welfare branch was charged with the maintenance of schools set up by the society for educating its members children. It was also responsible for general welfare duties, including funeral arrangements for members and their families. Funerals and burials have an extremely important place in traditional Chinese culture. Among Chinese tongs in America, often one of the most important services to members was the way in which they would preserve the remains of their members and ensure that they received proper burial in China. This changed only when the Communists seized China and put an end to the practice (as well as interfering with the practice of many Chinese funerary traditions.)

Today, in most major North American cities which have a Chinatown it is possible to find the headquarters of the tongs, themselves branches of the Hung society. To someone familiar with their names and able to read the Chinese characters, these buildings are clearly marked. Many of them are quite elaborate in their architecture.

And in Hong Kong, membership in a Triad society (and the triads are descendants of Hung societies) has been outlawed and it is illegal to conduct Triad initiation ceremonies within Hong Kong's borders. For this reason, many of the initiation ceremonies of the Hong Kong Triads are held in nearby Macao and the groups meet in hiding.

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