This post follows my previous about the Southern Shaolin Monastery, where I briefly mentioned the origin of Tiandihui. With this post I would like to come back in more detail to the history of this secret society, as well as to clarify its imprint on the Southern Chinese martial arts.
Scholars consider the Tiandihui 天地 會 to be the most important secret society in Southern China in the 19th century. This same society is also at the origin of many Chinese mafias, the Triads, existing in Hong Kong and chinatowns around the world.
Tiandihui was created in the middle of the 18th century in the Fujian province .
Tian 天 meaning Sky or Heaven. Di 地 meaning Earth. Hui 會 meaning Society.
Tiandihui 天地會 ; The Heaven and Earth Society.
The Tiandiui is a secret society that has since revealed many of its secrets. In this regard, it is first necessary to specify the terminology used. The term “secret society” is a term given by the European scholars of the 19th century who were the first to study Tiandihui . By comparison with the existing secret societies in Europe, such as Freemasonry, European specialists very quickly qualified the Tiandihui as a “secret society”. However, in China it is the term hui 會 which is used and which has no real equivalent in English or French. It is roughly translated by society or association.
Many secret societies were established in 18th century China. The Tiandihui was initially one of them. These secret societies have arisen for various reasons ; some to provide mutual aid and protection to members of the same society, others to organize criminal and clandestine activities . From the 19th century, the Tiandihui gave itself a more political purpose and rallied many people around the motto Fan Qin Fu Ming 反清 復明, “to overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming”. I will come back to this in the section below devoted to the Xi Lu legend.
The spread of Tiandihui throughout Southern China began at the end of the 18th century and intensified in the 19th century. As it develops, the secret society is sometimes identified under other terms such as Sandianhui 三點 會, the society of 3 points, Sanhehui 三合會, the society of 3 units, or even by the term Hung Mun 洪門, the Hung gate, the latter is used more particularly by residents of Guangdong . Subsequently in the 20th century, the Tiandihui also gave birth to the Chinese mafias, which are called the Triads. This term was first used in 1821, by William Milne, an English Protestant missionary. William Milne had noticed that the number three, San 三 (Saam in Cantonese), was often used to designate a secret society, as Sanhehui for example. During the 19th century, the term Triads therefore gradually replaced the terms Tiandihui and Hung Mun to represent all the secret societies  and this term was then retained to designate the Chinese mafias.
To write this post, I mainly used Dian Murray’s book, The Origins of the Tiandihui: The Chinese Triads in Legend and History (see references in Sources). Note that the Chinese terms used are mainly transcribed according to the most commonly used Mandarin pronunciation.
What is the historical context during the creation of Tiandihui ?
The Tiandihui was created in the middle of the 18th century, in Zhangzhou, province of Fujian, in a particularly difficult social, economic and political context .
At the beginning of the Ming (1368-1644), Zhangzhou was a densely populated locality rich in corn, rice and sugar cane crops. Zhangzhou also enjoyed a maritime trade with foreigners allowing it to enrich itself further with valuable minerals, like silver. This locality therefore saw rapid economic development, accentuated by the development of workshops for the manufacture of silk and cotton, steel kitchen utensils, fan and salt. This led to great inflation, land prices soared first in Zhangzhou and then throughout Fujian province, so that towards the end of the Ming, half of the Fujian population migrated to other regions. 
Under the Qing, the situation became even more difficult. The province of Fujian engaged in cash crops on a large scale to make a profit. The population increased within the cities but the lands continued to empty. There was no more room for small farmers . Migration to other regions was intensifying, in particular to Guangxi, Sichuan or even the island of Taiwan . Politically, Fujian appeared to be a difficult province to govern because it faced the sea, in particular the Zhangzhou region which was often characterized as being hua wei 化外 “outside civilization” . Between 1555 and 1564, the Wokou 倭寇 plundered extensively on the coast of Fujian, while brigands attacked towns and villages in the mountains inland. In the 17th century, the Zhangzhou area was the site of different tensions between the Zheng 鄭 family, loyal to the Ming, and the Qing authorities. In 1661, Zheng Chenggong 鄭成功, alias Koxinga 國姓爺, finally settled in Taiwan and drove out the Dutch settled on the island since 1624. Taiwan served as a commercial outpost on Asia for the VOC, the Dutch East India Compagny. To fight against the Kingdom of Tungning established by Koxinga in Taiwan, Emperor Kangxi 康熙 (1661-1722) instituted the haijin 海禁, the policy of the “forbidden sea” from 1661, and demanded the evacuation of the coasts to weaken Koxinga. This period was known as the Great Clearance, which left land completely abandoned up to 100 to 150 km inland, creating a veritable no-man’s land. The ban was lifted in 1669 and some residents were allowed to return to their land. Subsequently, the ban was again restored in 1679, then definitively removed in 1683 when the Qing succeeded in defeating the Kingdom of Tunging. 
During this period of turmoil, local leaders took advantage of the disorder to expand their sphere of influence and establish their own territory. This quickly led to more or less important local quarrels that we called xiedou 械鬥, mainly in the regions of Quanzhou and Zhangzhou. These local conflicts can be interpreted as the direct consequences of Emperor Kangxi’s coastal desertification policy. With the return of the residents to their land, things did not improve, on the contrary, the fighting became more and more organized and important under the reign of Yongzheng 雍正 (1722-35). Small groups have come together to create larger groups forming pseudo-lineages. The xiedou were also encouraged by the presence of available weapons of war since the region lived in a climate of permanent insecurity with the fight against sea pirates and brigands. These conflicts between the different lineages have resulted in vendetta over several generations. 
Regarding this notion of lineage, or clan, it was important in Southern China at that time. Confucianism, one of the three great schools of thought of China, along with Taoism and Buddhism, has deeply permeated Chinese society and places the family (jia 家) and by extension, the lineage (zangzu 宗族), as a fundamental social grouping, it confers significant social, and sometimes economic, advantages to its members. 
Creation et le development of Tiandihui
It was in this context that the Tiandihui was created in 1761/62 at the temple of Guanyi, Zhangzhou of Fujian province . According to Dian Murray, the monk Ti Xi 提 喜 founded this secret society. 
The Tiandihui is revealed in these beginnings to be one of many secret societies created in the 18th century to meet the needs of the most marginalized people in society. These secret societies organized as a brotherhood provided a concrete response to the economic and demographic crisis that hit Southern China during this period, through mutual aid between members within these societies. Over the years, the Tiandihui acquired more and more importance and spread to many parts of Southern China, thanks to its itinerant members such as small traders, religious and emigrants. 
The members of Tiandihui came from the poorest social classes in society. The elites were not one of them. It was people in precariousness and need who were drawn to this secret society. The main motivations were economic mutual aid and the feeling of belonging to a group, a clan, a lineage. Within Tiandihui, members provided moral and financial support to other members of the brotherhood. The society acted like a fictitious family in the first decades of its existence. As a result, for example, small traders could enjoy support and protection to protect themselves from robbers on unsecured roads. However, the portrait of Tiandihui was not for all that completely honest and righteous because the society also carried out illegal and even criminal activities. 
In the 19th century, the Tiandihui was present throughout Southern China. Its organization was not centralized by a mother society. The Tiandihui multiplied in several autonomous lodges independent of each other . Sometimes several of these lodges combined to become more powerful and work towards the same goal. This was the case for example during the revolt of the Red Turbans of 1854 in Canton (I will talk about it in detail in a future post). After the Opium War (1839-42), various Tiandihui lodges also spred to the Chinese colonies in Southeast Asia and to chinatowns in Hawaii and America with Chinese emigrants mostly from Guangdong . For example, the Chee Kung Tong 致 公堂 was created in 1853 in San Francisco, it was considered an autonomous subsidiary of Tiandihui . With this spread abroad, we identified these groups as Triads, in the plural, because these different factions were often opposed. This factionalism contributed to the degeneration of the Triads into criminal gangs, mafias, from the end of the 19th century .
To develop fastly and rally many people to its cause, the Tiandihui borrowed from the most popular Chinese epic works of the time, some practices that fostered brotherhood and a sense of belonging to a group. Two novels in particular from the 14th century influenced the Tiandihui : Romance of The Three Kingdoms and Water Margin or Outlaws of the Marsh. In The Romance of The Three Kingdoms, the three heroes Liu Bei 刘备, Zhang Fei 张飞 and Guan Yu 关羽 take an oath and become brothers in arms swearing to restore peace to the Empire. In Water Margin, the 108 outlaws organize themselves into a brotherhood, use nicknames and participate in ceremonies where they drink blood mixed with wine .
“That day, everything sealed their oath with blood, then clinked glasses to leave each other only after total drunkenness” extract of novel “Water Margin” 
An initiation ceremony rich in symbolism
The initiation ceremony of a new member of Tiandihui is fairly representative of practices borrowed from Chinese novels. This ritual was not fixed, it could vary from one lodge to another, from one region to another. Here is an overview :
Beforehand, the initiate is washed and dressed in white to symbolize the purity of a new man. The white color also symbolizes “the pure Ming against the forces of darkness, the Qing”. Ming 明, the name of the fallen Chinese dynasty but legitimate in the eyes of the members of the Tiandihui, means “light/shining” in Chinese. While Qing is usually written with the character 清 which means “light”, but omitting the particle 氵 we create a homonym, Qing 青, which this time means “dark green”. So this ritual is characterized from the start by a Manichean struggle : Ming 明 against Qing 青, light against darkness, good against evil.
Once the initiate is dressed and washed, the ceremony could begin with, at first, the ritual of passing under the crossed swords, which represented a token of confidence in the members of the brotherhood who could kill the initiate at any time. Then, the initiate prostrated in front of the altar reserved for the gods of the brotherhood and offered incense . After that, the initiate should also drink the blood of a sacrificed animal, mixed with his own after cutting his hand, this blood sometimes being mixed with wine and incense ashes. This ceremony was one of the most important because it united the members of Tiandihui around the same cause . It was during this initiation ritual that the fictional and mystical story of Tiandihui, which Dian Murray calls the legend Xi Lu, was transmitted to the initiate . It was also at this time that the initiate must took an oath of allegiance to the brotherhood and must answered many questions to the “master of ceremonies”. Below is an extract from the writings of Gustave Schlegel , the questions (Q) are asked by “the master of ceremonies” while the answers (A) are given by the “vanguard” who speaks on behalf of the new members :
Q : How did you obtain your knowledge of military art ?
A : I learned it at the convent Shaolin.
Q : What did you learn firstly ?
A : I firstly learned the art of boxing of the Hung-brethern.
Q : How can you prove that ?
A : I can prove it by a verse.
Q : How does this verse run ?
A : The fists of the brave and valiant Hungs are known through all the world.
Since the Shaolin convent it has been transmitted.
Under the whole expanse of heaven we all are called Hung.
Afterwards we will assist the prince of the house of Ming.
In addition to ceremonies, Tiandihui members also used coded and secret oral, written and gestural language to recognize each other among members of the secret society and to communicate secretly . Among these practices, we still find in Chinese martial arts today a gestural symbol hidden in the ritual of salute. Indeed, the salute practiced by most of the Southern Chinese styles is a legacy of these secret hand sign codes used by the Tiandihui.
This salute therefore represented a rallying for the cause of the Ming dynasty. It was a symbol that illustrated the popular doctrine of the 19th century Fan Qing Fu Ming 反清 復明, “oppose Qing and restore Ming” (see legend Xi Lu below). Note that the gestures of this salute may vary according to the styles and lineages, provided the left hand is always open and the right fist is always closed.
Other interpretations are given to define the symbolism of this greeting which is most often designated by Bao Quan Li 抱拳 礼 and which can be translated as “the salute of the wrapped fist”. These interpretations are interesting, however I do not wish to dwell on the subject here.
The Xi Lu legend : the myth of the destruction of the Southern Shaolin Monastery
In 1787, a few decades after the creation of Tiandihui, a first testimony on the creation of Tiandihui was unveiled by a certain Yan Yan, the founder of the Tiandihui Lodge in Taiwan . With time, this story evolved, with events as epic and magic as they were extraordinary, to finally become the legend Xi Lu. Barend Ter Haar indicated that this legend has evolved and has culminated before 1810 in two traditions which he named A and B. Tradition A placed the events of the legend during the reigns of Kangxi (1661-1722) and Yongzheng (1722-35), while tradition B related the events only during the reign of Kangxi .
Here is a brief summary of the Xi Lu legend, synthesized from the texts of Gustave Schlegel (1866) and William Stanton (1900) which belong to tradition A according to Barend Ter Haar :
At the beginning of the 18th century, the Qing were put in difficulty by a Mongolian community, the Xi Lu 西魯 or Eleuth, to the west of the empire. The Qing asked for help from the Shaolin monks to repel the enemy. The monks emerged victorious from this conflict and greatly impressed the imperial power, so much so the emperor Yongzheng 雍親 (1722-35) feared an uprising of the Shaolin monks against the Qing. In 1734, the emperor decided to destroy the Shaolin Monastery, in order to avoid a possible insurrection of the monks. He plotted with a corrupt monk named Ma Yi Fu 馬儀幅, who burned down the Monastery from the inside, while Manchu troops stormed the building from the outside. More than a hundred monks were killed, 13 managed to flee but only 5 of them escaped the Manchu : Choy Tak Chung 蔡德忠, Fong Tai Hung 方大洪, Ma Chiu Hing 馬超興, Wu Tak Tai 胡德帝, Li Sik Hoi 李式開. 
The 5 survivors decided to form an alliance to take revenge on the Manchus and created the formula which became famous afterwardsFan Qing Fu Ming反清 復明, meaning “Overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming”. 
Frederic Wakeman said about the Xi Lu Legend :
“This legendary potpourri had little to be with the [secret] societies’ real history” Frederic Wakeman 
With the Fan Qing Fu Ming 反清 復明 motto, which did not appear in the Xi Lu legend until the beginning of the 19th century, the Tiandihui was colored with a deep anti-Manchu sentiment and gave itself a political ideology. This legitimized the actions of the Tiandihui towards the Manchu authorities. 
The Xi Lu legend of Tiandihui later evolved into the Southern Chinese Martial Arts circle, mixing with other folk figures and local narratives , to finally give birth to the legend known as the 5 elders of Shaolin whose history is quite similar to the legend Xi Lu, with a few details according to the versions, which very often leads to a great confusion between the two myths. The big difference from the Xi Lu legend is the identity of the 5 surviving monks. In the legend of the 5 elders of Shaolin, the 5 monks are : Ng Mui 五 枚, Gee Sin 至 禪, Fung Tao Tak 馮道德, Pak Mei 白眉 and Miu Hin 苗 顯 (names written in Cantonese). This legend will be the subject of a future article.
The Tiandihui emerged in the 18th century in response to the economic and demographic crisis of Fujian. The most marginalized people in society came together as a brotherhood to create a fictitious lineage and provide mutual and fraternal help. The Tiandihui, like other secret societies, was characterized by rituals during ceremonies, where often members did a blood pact, which united them under a common goal . In the 19th century, the Tiandihui was colored with a political will, summarized by the Fan Qing Fu Ming 反清 復明 doctrine which was conveyed through the fictitious myth at the origin of this secret society, known under the legend Xi Lu .
In Guangdong, the term Hung Mun 洪門 was most widely used to designate the secret society. The character Hung 洪 referred to the surname of the first emperor of the Ming dynasty ; Hungwu 洪武 . Many martial arts in Guangdong have claimed to be closely or indirectly affiliated with the Hung Mun. In the lineages of these styles, we often find an ancestor having been in the Hung Mun. This is the case of the Hung Gar of the line of Wong Fei Hung, the founder of this system, Hung Hei Gun 洪熙官 (Hong Xi Guan in Mandarin), is known to have been part of the Hung Mun . Choy Li Fut also claims to have been affiliated with Hung Mun from the time of its creator and those early decades in the mid-19th century.
The Fan Qing Fu Ming doctrine disappeared with the advent of the Republic in 1912 ; the Qing were deposed and there was no longer any question of restoring the Ming. The secret societies having given way to the Triads, they sometimes became instruments in the hands of politicians and fell back on very varied illegal and even criminal activities. In major ports like Singapore and Hong Kong, the Triads engaged in controls of opium and gambling dens, brothels, racketeering by traders, and exploitation of labor. The Triads also arrogated to themselves the virtual monopoly of dockers and sailors . In the 1950s, the Triads maintained close links with some martial arts schools, to train and/or recruit their henchmen there. This was the case with the Triad known as 14K 十四 K and the Bak Mei (or Pak Mei) style school, in Hong Kong .
To conclude this post, I would like to mention some similarities between how secret societies work and traditional martial arts schools. It is also very likely that a secret society like the Tiandihui influenced the habits and customs of traditional martial arts schools in Southern China, since they shared more or less close links depending on the period. However, it is important to also distinguish the differences to avoid any confusion.
A traditional martial arts school can be likened to a brotherhood, in the sense that the members are called “brothers in arms” and are under the leadership of a school head called Sifu 師父 ; the master-father. This filial piety coming from the Confucianist tradition seems to be more marked within martial arts schools than in secret societies, but ultimately both, martial arts school and secret society, represent a fictitious family that corresponds to the ideal Chinese social unit .
Finally, I wonder to what extent the Tiandihui initiation ceremony may have influenced the Bai Si 拜師 ceremony of traditional Southern Chinese Martial Arts schools. During the Bai Si 拜師 ceremony, a student officially becomes a disciple (todai 徒弟) of a Sifu in front of witnesses and takes a more important place in the school. The disciple and the Sifu reciprocally engage in a relationship of mutual respect and dedication to each other : the disciple pledges allegiance to his Sifu and contributes to the proper functioning of the school and the Sifu undertakes to transmit all his knowledge to his disciple.
Just like the initiation ceremony of Tiandihui, the Bai Si ceremony is not fixed, there are differences from one style to another, from one clan to another, from one region to another. Let’s see in these broad lines, the different stages of the Bai Si ceremony for a new disciple of a traditional martial arts school :
First of all, the martial arts school disciple sometimes wears a special outfit for this exceptional event in his life as a martial arts practitioner. The ceremony takes place in front of witnesses, internal people at the school. The disciple often offers incense in front of the altar installed in honor of the ancestors of his martial art. Then the disciple gives a red envelope (laisi 利 是) with money to his Sifu. He takes the oath and performs the kowtow 叩頭 ritual, as a sign of respect before the brotherhood and his older brothers. According to Buddhist tradition, this ritual consists of kneeling with the hands on the ground, touching the ground three times with the head. The disciple then shares tea with his Sifu which conceals his commitment to his master and his martial arts school.
This ritual for the disciple of a traditional martial arts school can be compared to the Tiandihui initiation ceremony of a new member of secret society. However, we must distinguish important and fundamental differences ; The disciple does not risk being killed by the other members of the school, there is no ritual of going under the swords. The disciple sometimes offers incense to the ancestors of his style, in particular to the founder of his martial art, but not to gods, so there is no religious meaning. Finally, the disciple shares tea with his Sifu and the members of his brotherhood, it is a little more soft than sharing wine mixed with blood and incense ashes.
In closing, I will say that to some extent the Tiandihui has left its mark on traditional Southern Chinese Martial Arts schools. The ritual of salute is a direct legacy of the secret hand sign codes used by the secret society. However, even if today, martial arts schools have retained their cultural and historical roots, they do not embody any political or religious interest, nor do they support criminal activities. Only virtues like honesty, humanity and loyalty, corresponding to Wu De 武德, martial morality, are still in effect .
 天地會 Thian Di Hwui,The Hung League or Heaven Earth League, a secret society with the chinese in China and India, p65, SCHLEGEL Gustave, ed. Lange & Co., 1866 and Les sociétés secrètes en Chine, p31, CHESNEAUX Jean, ed. Julliard, 1965
 Close Range Combat Wing Chun : blocking, stricking, kicking and footwork fundamentals, volume 1, p14-15, WILLIAMS Randy, ed. Unique Publications, 2004 and Le Kung-fu Wushu en souriant, p140-141, CHARLES Georges, ed. Budo Editions, 2010
 The Origins of the Tiandihui: The Chinese Triads in Legend and History, p184-190, MURRAY Dian, QIN Baoqi, ed. Stanford University Press, 1994 and The Ritual and Mythology of Chinese Triads : Creating an Identity, p375, TER HAAR Barend, ed. Brill, 1998
 The Triad Society or Heaven and Earth Association, p31, STANTON William, ed. Kelly & Walsh. 1900 and 天地會 Thian Di Hwui, The Hung League or Heaven Earth League, a secret society with the chinese in China and India, p15, SCHLEGEL Gustave, ed. Lange & Co., 1866