Chinese Freemasons

Discussion in 'Masonic Education' started by Blake Bowden, Jan 25, 2010.

  1. Blake Bowden

    Blake Bowden Administrator Staff Member

    Source: Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon

    The sodality of Freemasonry that evolved out of the European Enlightenment bears no resemblance, other than the name, to another society—one that finds its origins in Southern China. Styling itself in English as The Chinese Freemasons, this body might be better termed the Vast Family (Hongmen) or Fine Public Court (Chee Kong Tong).

    THE STUDY OF the early history of Chinese secular and religious societies—once obscured by conflicting legends and politically motivated myth-making—has been greatly aided by the opening of the National Palace Museum Archives in Taipei and the First Historical Archives in Beijing in 1978. The resulting wealth of information has clearly demonstrated that at least two previously-held beliefs about these societies are entirely wrong.

    Dispelling the myths
    Before the Chinese Freemasons was a mutual aid society and the Kuomintang (Quo Min Tong) of Taiwan was a political party, there was the Hung Moon (Hongmen) and the Chee Kung Tong. Before them was the Tiandihui. And before that... there was a legend.

    There are two principal mistaken beliefs about the Tiandihui, the claimed predecessor to the Hongmen. The first, that it originated in Shaolin Temple, dates from its earliest history. The second, that the Tiandihui was either anti-Manchu or proto-revolutionary, can be credited to Dr. Sun Yat-sen and his fellow revolutionaries in the years leading up to the 1911 Revolution (Xinhai Revolution, 10 October 1911 - 12 February 1912). There is also a third belief—easily dispelled— that there is a connection or common source between these mutual aid societies and regular Freemasonry.

    Before the Tiandihui
    The Qing had captured Beijing in 1644, and numerous sworn brotherhoods (jiebai xiongdi)—acting in open struggle rather than as secret societies—continued armed resistance for a generation. Outlawed, these groups were small, independent, and without formal names, ceremonies or traditions.

    The first phase in the development of Chinese secret societies is represented by rudimentary gatherings of small numbers of people during the Kangxi era (1662-1722). These societies, like the earlier sworn brotherhoods, were perhaps inspired by Romance of Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi) and Outlaws of the Marsh (Shuihuzhuan): romantic tales involving sworn brotherhoods and blood oaths.

    During the Yongzheng era (1723-1735), these brotherhoods gave way to societies known as hui, formed for the purpose of mutual aid. Still outlawed, they began to acquire formal names such as the Father-Mother Society in Fumuhui in 1728. Only fifteen or sixteen such societies appear on archival records before 1755. Ming Restoration was not mentioned in connection with any of them.

    The Tiandihui
    It is now generally accepted that the Tiendihui (Heaven and Earth Society)—one of almost 200 groups that sprung up after 1755—was founded sometime in 1761 at Guanyinting (Goddess of Mercy pavilion), Gaoxi township, in Zhangpu county, Zhangshui prefecture, Fujian Province, by Ti Xi, whose real name was Zheg Kai (d. 1779 aged 68).

    Tiandihui literally means the society, hui, of the heaven, tian, and the earth, di. The practice of its members was to address heaven as their father and earth as their mother. There is also some suggestion that the Tiandihui had a close connection with the expansion of the Taoist religion.2 The Tiandihui can be considered a form of poor man's huiguan, or native-place association, for China's declassé migrants. The Huiguan traditionally provided meeting grounds, lodging, financial assistance and some regulation of trade to the financially stable elements of society, often under a formal corporate organization that managed communal property. In the case of the Tiandihui, both the founders and members came from the lowest and most marginal ranks of Chinese society, preoccupied with the issue of survival. The motive for rebellion was not political gain but personal profit, at a time when armed robbery and petty piracy were time-honoured survival strategies.

    The first Tiendihui uprising of 30 April 1768, when about eighty men attacked the western gate of Zhangpu, lead to the Qing subsequently arresting 365 accused members. The records of confessions fail to mention Ti Xi or Teindihui by name. A second uprising the following year had similar results. Motivated by rebellion and self-interest, by 1786 the Teindihui had ceased to be exclusively a product of a mobile alien migrant population but had became assimilated into indigenous communities for mutual aid, collective violence and rebellion. Feuding was also frequently a local motivation.

    The Lin Shuangwen affair in Taiwan, sparked by a family feud started on 17 January 1787, occupying Zhanghua, Fengshan and Zhuluo and, lasting for almost a year, first brought the society to the attention of the Qing authorities. From Qing records we read of initiates sacrificing a cock before an incense altar, swearing their brotherhood in blood, crawling under crossed swords, and taking an oath. Later reports included mixing chicken or cock blood with wine or ash, and sometimes blood from the initiate's middle finger, and swallowing it.

    It should be noted that anti-Manchu rhetoric, slogans or confessions are noticeably absent from any uprisings throughout this period, as are any mention of Zheng Chenggong, or evidence of the Xi Lu Legend.

    "At the end of the eighteenth century the Tiendihui, at least as far as we now know from the documents at hand, was quite unlike the White Lotus or other religious sects whose customs and beliefs were grounded in sutras or scriptures. It's branches tended to spring up spontaneously, formed by leaders who were themselves often confused about the nature of their undertaking."

    The importance of three
    The Sanhehui (Three Harmonies Society), founded on 4 January 1812 by Yan Guiqiu as a mutual aid society in Guangdong province, and the Sandianhui (Three Dots Society) were just two whose names echoed the number three. In 1833 Li Jiangsi told Li Kui that the Three Dots Society was originally the Increase Brothers Society, which was called the Sanhehui (Three Unities or Triad Society). These, and many other groups, lead uprisings ranging from armies of a reported 2,000 to gangs of less than a dozen, motivated generally by hopes of personal profit. There was no centralized leadership or planning to any of these groups, or their uprisings.

    Independent of purpose and action, these groups shared a common blood oath, password and phrase: "Kaikou buliben; chushou bulisan". The significance of the number three was stressed by the password "three, eight, twenty-one" (sanba nianyi) which had replaced the earlier password "five dot twenty-one".

    It is the commonality of threes in the various societies names that led English administrators to label the societies Triads. Many of the tongs or hui being little more than criminal gangs, few English or Chinese administrators distinguished between the criminal groups and the mutual benefit societies. Depending on the economic climate, the distinction may have been moot.

    Ming restoration?
    The first written evidence of Ming restorationism dates from 1800 when the phrase "Restore the Ming House" was part of an oath taken by members of Qiu Daqin's Tiandihui society in Guangdong. In 1811 Huang Biao changed his name to Zhu Biao, claiming to be a scion of the Ming dynasty, but like earlier slogans, this was more a rallying cry than a goal. Ma Shaotang's 1831 poem : "When the red flag is unfurled, the heroes will come, sons of Heaven from outside will come to restore the Ming dynasty" had an emotional appeal but was not backed by any concrete programme.

    The Tiandihui was not visibly anti-Manchu at the time of its founding, with their slogan "Obey Heaven and follow the Way" being a time-honoured expression unrelated to rebellion. Two existing documents, an oath and a register dating from 1787, make no reference to the Ming but do refer to the fictional heroes of the Peach Garden from Romance of Three Kingdoms.
    Between 4 September and 15 October 1802 the first Tiendihui uprising took place in Guangdong, lead by an Increase Brothers Society leader named Chen Lanjisi (1776-1802). This uprising inspired further uprisings, robberies and reprisals. Liangguang Governor-general Ruan Yuan wrote in 1811 : "Their intention is only to obtain wealth to use; they are not plotters of illegalities [rebellion], but their intention to incite good people to rob is a local evil." Ming restorationism was equally not a motive for the greater majority of Taiwan uprisings between 1787 and 1862.

    In 1802 one of the slogans Chen Lanjisi chose during the Tiandihui uprising in Boluo county was "Obey Heaven, follow the Ming", an obvious evocation of the earlier slogan but meaningless considering that the uprising was centered on a rivalry between Heaven and Earth Societies and the Ox Head Society (Niutouhui), a protective association organized by local landlords and property holders with more in common with the earlier Huiguan. "...the slogan "Fan-Qing fu-Ming" ( the Ming) that has been so closely linked to much of Tiandihui history seems to have emerged relatively late—in conjunction with the Taiping Rebellion (1850s)."

    The desire for revenge, protection or gain still seemed to be primary motives. While the main message was mutual aid, the Tiandihui was also a money making enterprise with robbery and extortion as a foundation. This easily began a movement in the late nineteenth-century into organized crime, prostitution, smuggling and gambling.

    It was not until the late nineteenth century that a serious effort was undertaken to depict the Tiandihui as ant-Manchu. In 1903 Guangfu Hui member, Tao Chengzhang (T'ao Ch'eng-chang), in his article "Jiaohui yuanliukao" linked the term Hong to the dynastic founder of the Ming, referring to his reign title Hongwu (1368-98). Tao was also the first to impute the society's founding to Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga), also claiming Chen Jinnan as an earlier founder, although the name nowhere appears in the historical record. It was also Tao Chengzhang who divided the popular associations into northern White Lotus religious sects and northern secular Tiandihui. Sun Yat-sen's Three Principles of the People (1924) further elaborated on these themes but he was neither a scholar nor historian and relied on the anectodal evidence of society members.

    Dr. Sun and his fellow revolutionaries knew that they needed a rallying point for Chinese communities outside China and they intentionally rewrote the Tiandihui history to that purpose. To use the Hongmen, Dr. Sun needed to create an anti-Manchu consciousness by endowing the society with a revolutionary pedigree—contrary to the Xi Lu Legend which was anti-government, not ant-Manchu. The revolutionaries portrayed the Tiandihui as a key element in early Chinese resistance against the Manchus, a romanticized perception that persists to this day.

    Twentieth century research has been plagued by political interests in defending Sun Yat-sen in the 1920s and 1930s, or calls for anti-Japanese resistance in the 1940s, or later, the Guomindang interest in identifying themselves with the Tiandihui in the 1950s. In communist China, research focused on identifying the Tiandihui as proto-revolutionaries engaged in the class struggle.

    The Xi Lu Legend
    If the anti-Manchu history is unsupported by evidence, what about the history linking the Hongmen to Shaolin Temple? The traditional history, in short, is that the monks of Shaolin temple aided the Emperor to repel some ill-defined Xi Lu barbarians, they refused the offered reward, are accused of plotting rebellion, their temple is destroyed by the Emperor, and only five monks—sometimes named Ng Mui, Jee Shin Shim Shee, Fung Doe Duk, Miu Hin and Bak Mei— survive. The temple is variously described as being in Gansu province, or Jiulian Mountain, with the events taking place in 1647, 1674, 1728 or 1732. The Xi Lu Legend appears to be a merging of at least seven different versions of the story.

    This legend may be considered a mythicizing of an historical event in 1641 involving monks of the real Shaolin temple located on Mount Song in Henan province, combined with messianist "Luminous King" traditions dating to the sixth century.

    "The five monks then went to different parts of China and formed five "lodges" to plan the overthrow of the Ching Dynasty. The first lodge was responsible for Fujian and Kansu province, the second lodge was responsible for Kwang Tung (Guangdong) and Kwang Si provinces. The third lodge was in charge of Yunan and Szechuan provinces. The fourth lodge was responsible for Hunan and Hupei provinces. The fifth lodge was responsible for Chekiang, Kiangsi and Honam provinces."

    In a further conflation of legends regarding the Five Elders—Choi Dakjung, Fong Daaihung, Mah Chiuhing, Wu Dakdai, Lei Sikhoi—one, Fong Daaihung, is said to have founded what was to become the Chinese Freemasons of Canada; one founded what would become the Chee Kong Tong Supreme Lodge Chinese Freemasons of the World, New York, and the Hung Moon Chee Kung Tong in San Francisco. A third group in South America is reported, but the Chinese Freemasons of Canada are said not to recognize them. While the historical veracity of the legends is no longer promoted, there appears to be little interest in exploring the true history.

    Triads and Tongs
    Triad is an English word, first applied by Dr. William Milne in 1821, in recognition of the prevalence of the number three in the various societies' names. There being no Chinese word for secret societies, Chinese writers historically referred to sects : jiaomen and political associations : huidang. The word Tong, meaning meeting hall or an interest/family group that meets in a hall, was also common and was similarly adopted.

    The various Tiandhihai or Hongmen of the nineteenth century were uncoördinated, highly independent, and certainly not keeping extensive records of their operations. Most of what is known is taken from information collected by government officials—not a sympathetic group. How some of the groups went on to become, or inspire, organized criminal organizations; how some went on to become, or inspire, political parties or ideological movements; and how others evolved into, or maintained their identities as, mutual aid social clubs will not be detailed here.

    "There was a clannishness evoking Sicilian omertà, but the spirit of fraternity was by no means universal, and wherever the triad lodges formed themselves, whether in Singapore or San Francisco, they were apt to do so in rival dialect groups. Grouping by dialect was the first and most spontaneous of the characteristics of the overseas Chinese community, and the special sentiment of the emigrants for their home district was reflected in the remarkable network of native-place or dialect associations which they established in all the places in which they settled."​

    The point is that the terms Triad and Tong, while generally used to refer to criminal gangs, have a meaning and usage that extends to legitimate organizations.

    Other Chinese Freemasons
    It was again Dr. Milne who started scholars on the search for a masonic connection. The number of freemasons who have taken an interest in the Tiandihui is noteworthy; Carl Glick, J. S. M. Ward and W. G. Stirling being among the more notable nineteenth century researchers. It is to these early researchers that we can assign responsibility for the once widely held belief that there was a common heritage between European Freemasonry and the Tiandihui.

    Based on a superficial similarity in the use of passwords and initiations, and the prevalence of the number three, many theories were proposed regarding a common heritage in some mythological distant past. Such theories soon foundered on the obvious differences, and the even more obvious political or criminal nature of many of the societies.

    The common origin theory has long since been disavowed, the few surface similarities more than offset by the equally obvious difference, namely, the ideological gulf that separated Freemasonry from the Tiandihui.

    The Hongmen or Chee Kung Tong in British Columbia
    Following the discovery of gold deposits along the Fraser River, on 18 June 1858 the first group of 300 American Chinese arrived in Victoria on board the Caribbean. By January 1860, nearly 1,200 Chinese settlers and fortune hunters had passed through Victoria for the gold fields along the Fraser River and the Dewdney Trail from Hope to the Kootenays. At its height in the early 1860s, Barkerville had a Chinese population of around 5,000. It is claimed that some 90% of these Chinese miners from San Francisco—most of them originally from Guangdong province—were members of Hongmen.

    In 1863 the first Hongmen society, named after Hong Shun Tang (Hung Sun Tong) in San Francisco, was established in the mining town of Barkerville. Hong Shun Tang was a common name for societies of Hongmen: there is a Hong Shun Tang in Malaysia. The origins of the San Francisco society, established in 1849, are said to trace back to the second founder, Fong Dai Shing, in Guangdong, China.

    The Hongmen, renamed Chee Kung Tong (Gee Kung Tong) in 1876, established tongs in Quesnel Forks (1859), Barkerville, Cumberland (1929-1950) and Rossland. These were mutual aid societies, focused on establishing rules of conduct in the gold fields, and resisting encroachment by individuals or other societies claiming the right to initiate members.

    First established in Vancouver in 1892, Chee Kung Tong renamed itself the Chinese Freemasons in 1920. Appealing to shopkeepers and small merchants as much as it did to migrant workers, it could be said to have had more in common with the Huiguan than the Tiandihui. Originally siding with Sun Yat-sen, after 1912 they felt themselves betrayed by Sun Yat-sen in China and increasingly marginalized by local Kuomintang.

    To aid in promoting the society's political views, as well as to recruit members, in 1907 they established a newspaper, Dahan gongbao (The Chinese Times), which continued to publish until 3 October 1992. The society's later falling out with local Kuomintang infused the society's politics for much of the twentieth century. The Chinese Freemasons had no effective channel to influence events in China but would take every opportunity to issue lengthy statements condemning both the Chinese Communist and Nationalist regimes. This also brought them into conflict with the pro-Communist Chinese Youth Association who accused them in 1970 of phoney neutrality and pseudo-patriotism.

    Not only vocal in Chinese poiitics, the society was a supporter of local arts and youth groups. In 1934 they organized Jin Wah Sing (Raise the Chinese Voice) a theatrical troupe active into the early 1960s. It is said that their Chinese-language schools and other recreation facilities enabled them to recruit new members while other societies withered. Active in civic politics, the society found itself working alongside groups such as the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA) and the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association (SPOTA) in successfully blocking a plan to construct a freeway through Vancouver's Chinatown. They were also active in local celebrations. "The Freemasons regularly paid homage to the supposed founders of their secret brotherhood back in China several centuries ago, and they took great pride in their teachings of loyalty and righteous behavior."

    Dr. Sun Yat-sen and Hongmen
    Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, regarded as the National Father of modern China, is reported to have joined the Chee Kong Tong in Hawaii in 1904. Although also reported to have been a "senior figure" or "active office bearer", details are not forthcoming. The Chung Yee Wui and another group he is claimed to have joined, the Kwok On Wui (National Peace Club), have also been reported as political groups he started within the Hongmen community.

    "While rallying for assistance from overseas Chinese living mainly in North America and in Europe, he utilized the Chi Kung Tong to publicize the work of his Republican Party in the overthrow of the Ching Dynasty." Chee Kong Tong members provided much of his funding—but Sun records that they were hesitant to acknowledge their revolutionary origins.

    Sun Yat-Sen visited North America on three occasions: in July 1897, 1910 and 1911. Sun writes of his first visit that he found the Chinese Freemasons relatively uninterested in revolutionary discussion. On his second visit he travelled to Vancouver from San Francisco by train in February 1910, then travelling east across Canada. He returned in February 1911 to be met by crowds thronging his train. Well received in Vancouver, he met resistance in Victoria. "Chungshan were very enthusiastic about supporting him but the Sze-Yup people were doubtful."

    The fact that he felt the need to establish other secret societies such as Zhongguo Tongmenghui or "Chinese United League", in Tokyo, Japan, on 20 August 1905, and Shao'nian Xueshe (Young China Association), in San Francisco in 1909, suggests that the Chee Kung Tong, whatever its involvement, was not suitable for revolutionary action. The Tongmenghui formed, after August 1912, the nucleus of Sun's new Kuomintang, or "Nationalist Party".

    Chinese Freemasons in Vancouver
    Today, the Chinese Freemasons in Vancouver, using the Dart Coon Club to own and administer their property, maintain two buildings in Vancouver's Chinatown on Pender Street, and two non-profit housing projects. Currently some forty societies across Canada are administered by the Chinese Freemasons Headquarters of Canada, incorporated federally on 31 May 1971. A recent publication of the society lists fifteen "lodges" administered by regional bodies in Toronto, Calgary, Vernon, Vancouver and Victoria.

    The Vancouver Dart Coon Club was established in 1918, reportedly to protect local property from supporters of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen who wished to use Hongmen resources to fund his government. It is known that Chee Kung Tong constructed the building at 1 West Pender Street in 1906 and 1907, and that they morgaged it to assist Dr. Sun in 1911.

    Although membership has been as great as 6,000, there are perhaps 2,500 members in Canada today. Initiating youths as young as eleven, the group admits both men and women and today is as much a social club as a benevolent society.

    While loosely affiliated as "Chinese Freemasons", the societies operate under a number of names, the Chee Kong Tong Supreme Lodge Chinese Freemasons of the World, New York, the Worldwide Chinese Freemason Hung Moon Chee Kung Tong (Hung Mun) Supreme Lodge, in Tepai, Tawain, and the Chee Kung Tong, Chinese Free Mason - Main, in Manila, Philippines, being the more notable ones. The relationship of these international bodies to the Vancouver Hongmen appears to be more fraternal than hierarchical. While Hongmen appears in their full name, Chee Kung does not.

    Reports from members in the early 1960s record the use of a single four or five hour initiation ceremony. The "working tools" or ceremonial devices were a sword, axe, square and compasses. No aprons of a masonic nature were worn although candidates for initiation had their left trouser leg rolled up to the knee. This last suggests the unintentional influence of regular Freemasonry. Members today will also admit to a variation on the original blood oath.

    The use of the square and compasses emblem is not uniform. The Dart Coon Club Headquarters of Canada, with offices at 557 Fisgard St, Victoria, places one point of the compasses behind the square, the Chinese Masonic Society with offices at 7-9 Waratah Place, Melbourne, Victoria, place both points behind the square, while the Vancouver body places both points in front of the square. The square and compasses emblem is often placed over an eight-pointed star.

    Chinese “Freemasons†today
    The Chinese Freemasons National Headquarters of Canada was incorporated under the Canadian Corporations Act on 31 May 1971, and registered on 22 July 1971. But "Chinese Freemasons" is a misnomer—the society has no connection to recognized Freemasonry, either as a structure of philosophical beliefs, or in a history of ritual instruction, or in a legend derived from architecture in general or King Solomon's Temple in particular. Exactly when the various societies adopted the name Chinese Freemasons is unclear. Regardless, the societies are too far removed from their own history, legendary or otherwise, to return to the name Hongmen. By that name, the Hongmen is an illegal society in Hong Kong, because of its perceived, or real, association with Triad criminal gangs, while in Taiwan the Hongmen is a recognized political party known as the Zhi Gong Party. Neither are associations that North American Chinese Freemasons may particularly wish to endorse.

    Almost a century and a half after the fact, it would be difficult if not impossible for regular Freemasonry to object to the Hongmen Society's use of the term Freemasons. In fact members of the society strongly defend their right to use the masonic square and compasses emblem. Regular freemasons will simply have to live with the confusion and, should the topic arise, point out that there is no similarity or connection between the two societies. The Hongmen is not irregular or clandestine Freemasonry; by the Landmarks of the Order it is simply not Freemasonry.
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  2. OnTheSquare808

    OnTheSquare808 Registered User

    Thank you for this infomative piece about the Chinese Freemasons. Currently, I am hosting 2 exchange students from the Xi'an province of China for the Summer. I have several plaques on the my wall with the Square and Compass, which prompted questions on their part. After googling for a bit, I stumbled on your article explaining the history and the misconceptions.

    Do you happen to know if there are any modern occurrences of regular Freemasonry in China, or where to attain literature about Freemasonry in Chinese? I would like to clarify the idea of Freemasonry to them.

    Thanks for any help you can provide.


    Carl Richards
  3. Huw

    Huw Guest

    Thanks Blake, fascinating article.

    OnTheSquare808: in Hong Kong, there are active overseas Districts under each of the English, Scottish and Irish GLs, all sharing the same local HQ building ( Elsewhere on the mainland, I don't think freemasonry is allowed. In Taiwan, there is the (regular) GL of China (

    T & F,

  4. OnTheSquare808

    OnTheSquare808 Registered User

    Thank you for the info!
  5. dtobecker

    dtobecker Registered User

    A very nice article. Thanks for posting. My mother lodge is located in Hong Kong.
  6. Bloke

    Bloke Premium Member

  7. Warrior1256

    Warrior1256 Site Benefactor

    Very interesting article!
  8. JamestheJust

    JamestheJust Registered User

    The founders of China with Square & Compasses, Sun, Moon and Stars and what might be the FPoF


    "In the underground tomb of Fan Yen-Shih, d. A.D. 689, two painted silk veils show the First Ancestors of the Chinese, their entwined serpect bodies rotating around the invisible vertical axis mundi. Fu Hsi holds the set-square and plumb bob … as he rules the four-cornered earth, while his sister-wife Nü-wa holds the compass pointing up, as she rules the circling heavens. The phrase kuci chü is used by modern Chinese to signify “the way things should be, the moral standard”; it literally means the compass and the square."
  9. JamestheJust

    JamestheJust Registered User

    The Widow Isis, the sister-wife of Osiris, was also commonly depicted as a serpent.
  10. JamestheJust

    JamestheJust Registered User


    Isis is shown with her throne while Osiris was known as the god of 3 steps - his throne being up 3 steps.

    Osiris in some legends was raised by his son Horus. Horus was conceived artificially after the death of Osiris so is the son of the widow Isis.

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