The Tiandihui (Heaven and Earth Society) was one of several voluntary associations that came into being during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), but its origins and raison d’etre have been a subject of ongoing debate among scholars. Some regard it as a mutual aid organization formed by China’s lower classes; others see it as a political order founded by Ming loyalists to overthrow the Qing.

The Heaven and Earth Society, also known as Tiandihui (TDH), was one of several voluntary associations or brotherhoods, characterized by ceremonial initiation rituals in the form of blood oaths, which appeared during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). These associations, or hui, were organized for a variety of purposes. Understanding their true nature and tracking them through time and space have challenged those who have come into contact with them. Often, in the absence of real information, they have become a tabula rasa onto which different groups have imprinted differing understandings of their origins and purpose. Today, the TDH’s origin is still a subject of dispute by scholars, who regard it as either a mutual aid or Ming Loyalist organization.

The mutual aid view, made possible by the recent opening of Qing dynasty archives in both Beijing and Taiwan, suggests that the TDH emerged around 1762, in Fujian Province, in response to the demographic and economic crises of the late eighteenth century. Founded by an itinerant monk, it subsequently took shape as a multi-surname fraternity, transmitted throughout southern China by an emigrant society for the purpose of creating, through rituals of sworn brotherhood, pseudo-kinship groups to provide sojourners, cut off from the social safety net of their families, with a means of mutual interaction. Once formed, these societies figured in the survival strategies of China’s lowest classes in ways that combined protection and predation. While the rank and file, on learning secrets in the form of passwords and coded behavior, obtained immediate brotherhood, their leaders quickly learned to profit from the selling of membership and to mobilize their units for everything from robbery to feuding to occasional rebellion.

This view of the society as a product of China’s eighteenth-century demography stands in marked contrast to that of the Ming Loyalist scholars, who saw it as a product of China’s seventeenth-century politics, the goal of which was to overthrow the alien Qing dynasty in the hope of restoring the defeated Ming dynasty (1368–1644). The story embedded in the society’s creation myth recounts how once-loyal monks of the Shaolin monastery, after rendering aid to the throne, were betrayed by the Qing and subsequently sought revenge against them through the founding of the society, which they dedicated to the dynasty’s overthrow; Ming Loyalist scholars thus tend to view the society as having been created by Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga) or other loyalists of the seventeenth century for the purpose of overthrowing the Qing. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, society materials, in the form of manuals, registers, and insignia, unearthed in China and Southeast Asia, gave rise to disputes among them about the meaning of the legend and the historical counterparts of its fictional characters.

To complicate matters even more, Westerners, especially colonial officials of the nineteenth century, imbued with a consciousness of fraternal orders and clandestine organizations, regarded the TDH as a Chinese secret society—the term Triads eventually came into use to refer to such secret groups, and is often used throughout Asia today as a synonym for the TDH in general—and preoccupied themselves with discussions of whether it shared a common origin with the Freemasons and other European mystery cults.

Qing officials, immediately perceiving the TDH as a threat to society, condemned it in 1792 as a rebellious order and engaged in repeated witch hunts against alleged members, thereby giving rise to self-fulfilling prophecies, as members, squeezed by persecution, had little choice but to rise up, which they did repeatedly, especially in conjunction with the Taiping Rebellion and the 1911 revolution.

Members also responded to government persecution by going undercover and changing the organization’s name so that, depending on locality, the TDH could be also known as the Three Dot Society, the Three Unities Society, and the Hong League. Despite Communist efforts to suppress it during the 1950s and 1960s, today, known as Triads, the society is experiencing resurgence in the realm of worldwide Mafia and organized crime, with tentacles broadly extended throughout the global economy.

Further Reading

Booth, M. (1990). The Triads the growing global threat from the Chinese criminal societies. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Murray, D. (with Baoqi, Qin). (1994). The origins of the Tiandihui: The Chinese Triads in legend and history. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Ownby, D. (1996). Brotherhoods and secret societies in early and mid-Qing China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Ownby, D., & Heidhues, M. S. (Eds.). (1993). “Secret societies” reconsidered: Perspectives on the social history of modern South China and Southeast Asia. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Posner, G. L. (1988). Warlords of crime: Chinese secret societies—the new Mafia. New York: Penguin Books.

Approach heaven with a single stride.


Yí bù dēng tiān

Source: Murray, Dian. (2009). Heaven and Earth Society. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1013–1014. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Heaven and Earth Society (Tiāndìhuì 天地会)|Tiāndìhuì 天地会 (Heaven and Earth Society)

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