Origin and History of the Boxers
Their Derivation from the Great White Lily Society and the Hung League
The Spokesman-Review – Jul 15, 1900
Although the Boxers, or more properly the “Righteous Harmony Fists” Society, with the 11,000,000 adherents claimed for it — probably an excessive estimate — is said to have been organized only last March, it is safe to guess that it is by no means the mushroom product of a year, nor of a half-dozen years, says W. B. Cohen of the Boston Transcript. In the first place things are not done that way in China — the country of slow growths and antagonism to new ideas. In the second place, although the Boxers seem to have been manipulated almost beyond recognition by that canny old woman, the dowager empress, their terminology, their perfected organization, their methods, point directly to the conclusion that they are but another guise of the famous “Triad” or “Nenuphar” (White Lily) Societyof the great Hung League, and that thus by devious and extraordinary paths they probably go back further than the beginnings of authentic history — Chinese secret societies.
The origin of this great “Hung Kia,” or “Universal Family,” is lost in antiquity. Its practices appear to date from the Chow dynasty (B.C. 1122) and it is certain that its members were in active rebellion in the second century of the Christian era.
For what purpose the “Hung Kia” was originally formed can not be determined. Its principles were the golden rule, fraternity, and morality. One theory concerning their originis that when Masonry took its rise in Egypt in the days of the pyramid builders, it spread east as well as west. Certainly it has many startling likenesses to the tenets of Masonry. Like the Free Masons the members of the Hung League claim that their society is as old as the world itself, and as emblems of its ever regenerating life have chosen the fir, pine, cedar and cypress just as the acacia has been chosen by the Masons. The Hung League has its grips and signs. The “Bridge of Swords” rite is common to both societies, as also the formation of lodges and their orientation. In both socieities the members are entitled brother, and confirm their oath with blood. During the ceremony of affiliation the recruits both among the Free Masons and the Hung League attire themselves in white garments and go through the form of purification by washing. In the Chinese lodges the triangle is the favorite emblem, signifying in its three sides the unity of heaven, earth and man, and lamps, steel-yards, and scales form part of the parephernalia. It is interesting also to note that the three degrees of apprentice, fellowcraft and master among the Free Masons find their analogues in the sworn-brother, adopted-brother, and righteous uncle in the Chinese society.
From the “Hung Kia” the most powerful secret societies of modern China trace their existence. The greater part of these were originally harmless and non-political, the aims of some being primarily philanthropic and moral, some being merely social gatherings, others meetings of scholars for literary discussions. Their “secret” nature was merely the natural expression of the secretive temperament of the Chinese, influenced perhaps by the Egyptian ritual of the primitive “Hung Kia.”
But from purely philanthropic and religious aims, to revolt against tyranny, corruption and wrong is not a long step, for revolt against such things is indeed a kind of practical philanthropy. But again, such revolt must always mean revolt against official authority. And here we are at once on the brink of political conspiracy, sedition, fanaticism, anarchy. The iniquitous and cruel political system of China offers a productive soil for such societies. Indeed by combination alone have the people been able to resist the unspeakable wrongs which the mandarins seek to impose upon them. In some provinces where large family clans exist, the members band themselves together under the patriarchal head of the tribe, and succeed in resisting the illegal, and even the legal, exactions of the local authorities. In Fuhkien, for instance, the Chang clan numbers something like 10,000 persons; and so well are they organized that the emperor’s writs run among them only by consent of the elders. For those who have not the privilege of these family associations the secret society is the only refuge.
So well have the secret societies served, however, that some of the greatest changes in the history of the empire have been due to their action.
According to Leboucq (“Associations de la Chine”) the Nenuphar or “White Lily Society,” which is the main descendant of the “Hung Kia” within historic times and the parent of many collateral societies existing under various names, had its origin in the conspiracy of the Hoang-King-Tze (Yellow Bonnets) in the reign of Ling Ti, who was emperor in the second century of the Christian era. This prince had caused to be beheaded several hundred literates. The Yellow Bonnet leaders, three brothers by the name of Chang, are said to have raised and equipped three powerful armies to overthrow the tyrant, and the organization thus called into being never afterwards entirely disappeared.
A most innocent religious organization, “The Society for Gazing at the Moon,” the fesival in the seventh month, fulfilled a similarly important destiny. It was the custom at these festivals for the people to eat cakes baked in honor of the queen of heaven. But at the time of the decline of the Mongol dynasty in China, these meetings became political gatherings, and in one memorable year messages were inclosed in the cakes which were sent from place to place warning the people to rise on a certain day. These cakes distributed throughout the country were the means of bringing into the field a rebel army which contributed largely to the overthrow of Kublai Khan and the Mongol power.
This was an extremely interesting period in Chinese history. Kublai Khan, it will be remembered, ravaged the whole of Manchuria from Korea to Khokan and from Taimyr to Singapore. After nearly a hundred years of supremacy in China the usurpers (known as the Yun dynasty) were expelled and the Mings began to rule in 1368 and reigned for 246 years. At length, after much misgovernment, the reigning Ming was deposed, but one of the deposed emperor’s generals, invoking the aid of East Tartars, a seven years’ war followed, with the result that the sovereignty of the whole realm fell into the hands of the Manchus (1644), and has remained there to the present hour.
With accession of the Manchus, the secret societies which had lain dormant during the Ming or Chinese dynasty again became active. At the time of this revival (1644) the principal association was still the White Lily Sect, and its members showed no lack of energy. They were the moving spirits in outbreak after outbreak, their agitations culminating in a conspiracy in 1613 which had for its object a simultaneous rising in Honan and Peking and the assassination of the emperor.
Although unsuccessful, so notorious did this exploit make the association that its title was changed to the “Triad Society.” Under this name it overran the empire. In 1817 2000 or 3000 members were arrested in Canton alone.
These societies, it should be remembered, are merely ramifications of the ancient parent society, the “Hung Kia,” or “Universal Family.” The character chosen to represent the word “Hung” in Chinese expresses the all-embracing character of the original society. It is an ideograph composed of the parts “general” and “water,” signifying an all-pervading flood. By degrees the idea preserved in this character again began to predominate, and the old name “Hung Kia,” usurped the place of “Triad Society.” But all through the Tsing dynasty, and particularly of late years, innumerable new branches of this association, under innumerable new names, but all significant in the light of the old Hung ritual, have sprung into existence.
New Lease of Life.
It was in the reign of Yung-Ching (1720-1735) in the present dynasty that the Hung League as a political organization took a new lease of life. The cruelty of an infamous judge in Fuhkien, including the wanton destruction of the Shaolin monastery, and the killing of a number of monks, prompted five priests who had survived the outrage to raise the standard of revolt. The supernatural element, so necessary in all eastern movements, was not wanting; the fugitive priests, on approaching a river, saw, to their astonishment, a China censor floating on the stream, On securing it they found it inscribed with the following legend: “Overthrow the Ts’ing and restore the Ming.” This divine confirmation they adopted as their motto, and further to steel their resolution, mixed their blood with wind, swearing eternal brotherhood, and deathless hate against the Manchus.
The first step towards organization was the formation of 10 lodges, the names of which are worth giving as examples of Chinese poetical nomenclature: “The Blue Lotus Hall,” “The Phoenix District,” “Hall of Obedience to Hung,” “Golden Orchid District,” The Hall of Our Queen,” “Established Law District,” “Blended with Heaven Hall,” “Happy Border District,” “Extensive Conversion Hall,” Dike West District.” The sites for these and other lodges were established whenever possible in inaccessible mountains and wooded districts and most elaborately concealed. Prof. Schlegel gives the following remarkable description (Thian Ti Hwau, The Hung League by Gustave Schlegel) of the entrance to a lodge which he discovered in the province of Shantung:
“A Stone road leads to the first pass, called the Heaven-Screen Pass. Past this is the Earth-nest Pass. Next comes the Sun-Moon Pass, at which pass each brother is obliged to pay one mace and two candareens (about 1 shilling). After this pass comes a stone bridge over a river, which leads to the Hall of Fidelity and Loyalty, where are the shrines of the five ancestors, flanked on the right by a council room and on the left by the court. Here the brother must produce his capital (three Hung cash) and diploma. From this goes a long road along the mountain chain Hinling, girded on the one side by the mountain and on the other side by the sea. At the end of this road is the outside Moss Pass, called aslo the Pavilion of the Black River. Thirteen Chinese miles further on is the Golden Sparrow frontier, so called on account of the name of the mountain at whose foot it lies. Past this are four buildings. Over the front of one are written the words: ‘To extend the empire let righteousness flourish.’ The second one is called Palace of Justice, with the civil entrance to the left and the military entrance to the right. The lodge follows immediately.”
Often, however, the lodge must be held in large and crowded cities. In such cases the formal lodges are dispensed with and the meetings are held in the houses of the presidents, or in other convenient buildings. Professor Schlegel gives an interesting account of the gathering and initiating of recruits. If a desired member resist the overtures made him by members of the lodge, he is likely to find some day on his table, a note bearing the official stamp of the society, ordering him to repair at a given hour to a certain place, under penalty of death to himself and family, if he refuse or give information to the authorities. When more expedient, the recruit may be enticed by stratagem to some secluded spot, where he is set upon by members of the society and compelled to accompany them to the lodge. Any collusion of a recruit with the authorities, besides being in the highest degree dangerous, is, without exception, futile, since the complicated approaches to the lodges are strictly watched, and any following of policemen or soldiers is signaled to headquarters so promptly that a successful raid is out of the question.
City of Willows
On arrival at the “City of Willows,” as the lodge is called, the vanguard of the lodge, having learned the names and addresses of recruits, orders the bridge of swords to be formed. At the word of command the brethren form precise opposing ranks, and drawing their swords, which are of steel on the one hand and copper on the other, cross them in the air to form a bridge or arch. Beneath this the new members are led, and thus in the ritual of the society “pass the bridge” which separates the world of loyalty from the camp of disaffection.
Thereupon the recruits are introduced to the interior of the lodge, where they are instructed concerning the iniquities of the existing government and in the objects of the society. Next they are brought into the council chamber under the charge of the vanguard, who as their sponsor replies to a lengthy catechism, addressed to him by the president. The catechism is curiously arranged, and the answer to each question is confirmed by a quatrain of poetry. For instance, the second question and answer proceeds thus:
“What business have you here?”
“I am bringing you numberless fresh soldiers, iron-hearted and valiant, who wish to be admitted to the society.”
“How can you prove that?”
“I can prove it by verse:
“’The course of events is clear again, and sun and moon harmonious;
The earth extends to the four seas, and receives four rivers;
We have sworn together to protect the throne of Chu,
And to help it with all the powers of man.’”
Chu, it may be explained, was the founder of the Ming dynasty. To the ordinary mind these lines do not seem especially pregnant. By the initiated, however, they are recognized as a password in virtue of the acrostic they form, the first characters of the four lines being T’ien Ti Hui Jen, or men of the T’ien Ti League, in other words of the Hung League. In the same way the first characters of the four lines in the next quatrain repeat the watchword of the society, “Overturn the Ts’ing and restore the Ming.”
When the vanguard has finally answered the 111 question of the catechism, the president directs that the willing recruits be admitted to the ceremony of affiliation; and at the same time passes sentence of death on those who decline membership. This decree, however, is rarely pronounced, the Chinese as a rule not being the stuff of which martyrs are made.
Next comes the ceremony of purification; i.e., the washing of the faces of the recruits, divesting them of their ordinary clothes, and attiring them in white garments of a shape peculiar to the Ming dynasty, to the accompaniment of much indifferent poetry.
After a short prayer, the oath, which is almost as long as the catechism, is listened to by the recruits on their knees. This oath, consisting of 36 articles, binds them, under the most dire penalties to be incurred here and hereafter, to be faithful to the league, to be true and just in all their dealings with their brethren, to live on friendly terms with the priests of Buddha and Tao, to assist brethren in every difficulty, whether they be in the right or in the wrong, and on every occasion to stand by the league at all hazards. To confirm this oath the recruits having partaken conjointly of tea, are given a large bowl filled with wine, over which each man pricks his middle finger with a silver needle, and allows the blood to flow into the vessel. This mixed chalice is passed from hand to hand and partaken of by all, The copy of the oath is meanwhile burnt, that its smoke may ascend to heaven, a witness against any false or perjured recruits who may thereafter desert the standards of the league.
The president next presents every member with a diploma printed on linen, on the back of which the name of the holder is written in cryptogram. This diploma is not only a sign of membership, but is held also to possess talismanic powers almost as potent in times of danger as those of fernseed. The recruit has now become a full member of the association. His first duty is to learn the society’s laws, a code which by no means errs on the side of brevity. He must also become proficient in the secret signs and mystic sayings by which the brethren are known to one another in the world. He learns, for instance, to lift his teacup with three fingers, to place his feet in certain positions, to wind his handkerchief in a particular way about the point of his umbrella, and to ask an answer questions that are foolishly inconsequential to the uninitiated. He has also the slang terms of his society on the tip of his tongue. He learns to speak of the mandarins as “the enemy,” of government troops as “a storm,” of men as “horses,” and in similarly disguised terms of all the common objects of daily life.
The Hung League.
In the space of a few years after its revival in the seventeenth century the Hung League had spread, under one name or another, wherever the Chinese language was spoken. The empire itself is honeycombed with them, and they are the constant cause of unspeakable terrors to the official mind. Some of the most active in recent years have been the White Lilies, the Society of the Triad, chiefly developed in the southern provinces, the Association of Heaven and Earth, the Sect of the Green Water Lilly, the Little Dagger Society, the Perfume Breathing Association, the Sect of the Yellow Bonnet, the Red Sun Society, the Association of the White Cloud, the Secret Society of God, The Vegetarians, the Kolao Hui (until last year the most formidable and active in the empire), and finally the Boxers themselves. Certainly most of these, probably all, are direct descendants of the Hung League. A very few examples will illustrate the influence they continue to exert in the affairs of the empire. It is beyond question that had it not been for the support given by the English to the Chinese Government in its struggle with the Tai Ping (profound peace) rebellion, the present Manchu dynasty would have shared the fate of the Mongol emperors. If the Kolao Hui had risen in the central provinces at the same time as the Japanese attacked the northeastern provinces of the empire, there can be little doubt that, had Europe abstained from interfering, the Ts’ing dynasty would also have gone down in ruin. Fortunately for the Ts’ings, the Kolao leader issued an order that not a man was to move. The Vegetarians, who a few years ago committed such ruthless murders on the English missionaries in the neighborhood of Foochow, is simply an organized branch of the White Lily under a local name. The original home of this society was in the north of the empire, more particularly in the province of Shantung, where its active presence occasioned much anxiety to the mandarins some years ago. But more recently its leaders turned their attention to the southeastern provinces, notably the neighborhood of Canton.
Until the active beginning of the Boxer movement, the Kolao Hui has been the most powerful secret society in China of recent years, as it has been the most revolutionary in its aims. It numbered upwards of a million members, and was well organized. The southern and central provinces have been the main centers of its activity, the provinces of Hunan, Fuhkien and Canto being especially honeycombed with its branches.
To the political motives which originally actuated these societies exception can by no means always be taken, They were, in fact, highly patriotic – the overthrow of a tyrannous, usurping power, the weakening of a monstrously iniquitous and corrupt aristocracy, the preservation of the rights of the common people. It would not be difficult, even, from a Chinese point of view, to justify the watchword of the Boxers themselves; for the continuance of Christianity and a growing foreign population in China means inevitably the dismemberment and destruction of the Chinese empire. The fault has been with all of these societies, that, starting out with the highest moral and philanthropic principles, their subsequent political and revolutionary character has drawn to them the very scum of the population with a consequent degeneration to a point where their high presences merely as a cloak for disorder and rapine and antagonism to every sort of constituted authority.
From the vague information that can be obtained at this time, the Boxers would seem to represent rather the coalition of several independent societies than the development of one sect. This would account for the contradictory reports which have been received concerning their origin and antecedents. An alternative title of the organization, “The Great Sword Society,” is known, for instance, to have been originally applied to a society on Shan-Tung province, from the fact of their being supplied with swords by the authorities to protect the country from robbers who hid in the millet fields and preyed upon farmers and travelers. From putting down robber bands they finally became robbers themselves, and gathered to their ranks a great swarm of malcontents and worthless characters. This was the crew that murdered Missionary Brooks at Pao-Ting-Fu, and tore up that line of the Lu-Han railroad.
The Chinese newspaper, Shen-Pao, gives and entirely different account of the Society’s origin. The robber chief Tschu-Lung-Teng, it says, founded in May 18?? A sect which originally went by names which translated mean “Red Lamp Shade,” “Veil of the Golden Bell,” “Shirt of Iron,” and “Sect of the Great Water.” Later, after extending its operation into Kwan-Hsien, it changed its name to the “Willow Forest Fist” and later to Ho-Tuon, the “Fist of Patriotism and Peace.”
The foregoing names, in the light of the Hung ritual, leave no doubt as to this element of the Boxers, at least, being a direct offshoot of the historic “White Lilies.” It is, indeed, more than probable that the old society has, to a greater or less extent, furnished ready-made organization, ritual and methods to the new coalition. What remains to be explained is, whose is the hand that has combined these different sects and robber bands, absorbed the strength of the old secret societies, and finally brought several (?) fairly we;; organized adherents from every section of the empire to the ranks of the most formidable secret society that China has ever known? No weak hand one may be sure. Further than this, what wonderful forces have been at work to cause the I-Ho-Tuon to forsake and subvert the traditional motto of every Chinese secret society since the overthrow of the Mings? For, instead of “Down with the Ts’ings: restore the Mings,” the Boxer shibboleth is “Elevate the Ts’ings and extinguish all foreigners/” Certainly if it is the aged dowager empress who had accomplished such wonders, and thereby she is to save China from dismemberment – for one result of the Boxer movement may be, by precipitating an unprepared-for crisis, to save China from dismemberment – she should read large in history. Or if the deus ex machina be one of her advisers, western diplomats, those whose business it is to handle world issues fearlessly, may learn wisdom from him before the Chinese question is settled.
For if this is indeed a desperate game in which the stakes are the destruction of the ruling dynasty and the partition of China, against an integral empire – at least for a little longer – under Manchu rule, China’s sole, forlorn hope lies in forcing her antagonists’ hands. Certainly so far as concerns the Boxer movement some one seems to be playing a masterly game for China along these lines. Whether the game will be successful is another question, a question which may not be answered short of war, or series of wars, which may involve at least four of the world’s great powers.