The Dragon Syndicates: The Global Phenomenon of the Triads

The Dragon Syndicates: The Global Phenomenon of the Triads

by Martin Booth


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With unflinching candor, Martin Booth — Booker Prize nominee and author of the critically acclaimed Opium: A History — here unfolds the full story of the Chinese Triads, which, according to UN sources, now pose the greatest potential criminal threat the world has ever known. From San Francisco to Amsterdam to Bangkok to Johannesburg, everywhere, everyday, the Triads are turning crimes like extortion, gambling, international prostitution, illegal immigrant smuggling, money laundering, fraud, corruption, arms, and narcotics into vast profits. This comprehensive history of the Triads traces their evolution over more than two thousand years from obscure parochial Chinese brotherhoods to an international criminal organization. It examines the archaic quasi-religious rituals that have for centuries bound the members of this now global fraternity. It recounts the exploits of patriots and outlaws. It explores the Triads' instigation of the Tong Wars in America, their collaboration with the Allies against the Japanese in Malaya, their collusion with the CIA in Vietnam. It chronicles their escalation of the heroin trade to Europe and the United States. It shocks, and it compels.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786708697
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 06/28/2001
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.98(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.97(d)

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Chapter One

Of Red Eyebrows And Iron Shins

Today there are approximately 60 million Chinese living outside China. Excepting those Africans whose ancestors were slaves, or later willing migrants, they are the largest single expatriate minority nationality on earth, accounting for about 5 per cent of all ethnic Chinese. There is hardly a country in which they are not represented and yet they are not an obvious international community. Wherever they have migrated, or fled, or been driven by natural forces or political upheaval, they have quietly settled, by and large keeping themselves to themselves, maintaining their national and cultural identities with a low profile, even in countries where they have become important contributors to the economy. Only in South-east Asia, where they are either the largest ethnic minority or have even grown to outnumber the indigenous people, have they become conspicuous.

    No matter where these migrants have established their communities, Triad societies have set themselves up. For centuries they have been an integral and unequivocally inseparable part of Chinese society.

    This massive diaspora is not a recent phenomenon, although its growth has accelerated considerably in the last two centuries. It has been going on for at least two millennia and the only reason it is so little recognized is that it has been, for most of that while, a gradual process rather than a sudden exodus. It is as if China has, with infinite Oriental patience, been leaking her people across the globe rather than sending out invading armies of soldiers,traders or missionaries. Wherever the Chinese merchants went, they took with them more than silk and scissors. Ever aware of their insecurity, ingrained with centuries of having to watch their own or their brothers' backs, they migrated with their system of Confucian-inspired family and clan, name and place associations intact. This served not only to protect them from the tentacles of the imperial administration, but to bring them security in foreign lands where, on unfamiliar territory, they considered themselves still in danger. In whatever city or town they settled, they maintained their traditions and religions, their cultural identity and, often, their aloofness. They mixed with the locals but they did not integrate with them.

    Amongst the many associations and brotherhoods they took with them were those secret societies from which, in time, the Triads sprang.

    The Triad societies of today are historically, if distantly, descended from those secret associations and groups which fit into the long tradition of self-preservation through unity and patriotism dating back to the authoritarian Zhou dynasty (1027-221 BC). The need to club together to look after each other's interests is easily understood. The aspect of patriotism is somewhat more complex.

    The emperor of China was considered divine, the Son of Heaven whose mandate was god-given. An absolute monarch, he ruled not only by heavenly right but also by personal example, morally and spiritually expected to gain the respect and loyalty of his subjects by his own probity, piety and benevolence. Should he fail to maintain high standards of behaviour, he was considered to have forfeited the Mandate of Heaven, his subjects justified in rising up and deposing him: indeed, such action was deemed their duty to the gods. Floods, famines, earthquakes, tidal waves, typhoons, droughts, eclipses and comets were all taken as omens sent by displeased deities to indicate that the emperor was not living up to his responsibilities and were considered just cause to overthrow him. From the earliest periods of Chinese history, therefore, rebellion has been part of the very fabric of national life.

    The first secret society to be recorded originated in Shandong province. It was called the Chih Mei, or Red Eyebrows, because members painted their eyebrows scarlet to look more terrifying: demons had red eyelids. Their leader, Fan Tsung, was a patriot who set out to depose Wang Mang, a usurper who overthrew the Western Han dynasty in AD 9. The Red Eyebrows played a major role in Wang Mang's downfall, leading to his assassination and the establishment of the Eastern (or Later) Han dynasty in AD 25. After his demise, the Red Eyebrows continued to exist as bandits, becoming an embarrassment to the imperial administration they had assisted to power. The army was sent to suppress them, the bandits thrown into confusion by a wily general, Feng Yi, who ordered his troops to paint their eyebrows red, too. In the chaos, the outlaws were annihilated.

    With the wiping out of the Red Eyebrows, a historical precedent was set. A secret society had responded patriotically and served the nation well, only to be subsequently persecuted by the regime it had supported.

    Beyond self-interest or patriotic politics, however, lay another facet of Chinese life which encouraged the founding of secret societies: the administration of the country itself, regardless of who might rule it. China's geographical vastness made absolute rule impossible. It had to be governed in autonomous provinces or districts. In the Early or Western Han dynasty, a civil-service bureaucracy was created which, although directly answerable to the emperor's central authority, seldom communicated with it. These local administrations were perfect bases for corruption and, being independent, autocratic and undemocratic, were virtually impossible to dismantle. This form of government lasted for 2,000 years, finally abandoned only with the foundation of the Republic of China in 1911. Even now, it lingers on in Communist China, with party cadres, local committees and regional assemblies.

    To be a member of the civil service was to be highly respectable and feared. Commonly referred to as a mandarin, the civil servant had power over life and death, for he was tax collector, magistrate, judge and jury in his domain. Yet there was more to the job than ruling. There was profit. Being tax gatherers, and living in a system where tribute was common, mandarins became very rich and powerful. It is no wonder that competition in civil service examinations—the only method of recruitment—was extremely fierce. Hundreds of thousands of men sat the examination annually. Inevitably, many candidates failed to make the grade, yet to be eligible for entry in the first place they still had to be highly educated. The result was a large number of literate and erudite—but unemployed and unemployable—men who were disaffected and disenchanted with the system. They formed a subversive sub-class keen to attack the government which had refused them.

    For most Chinese, life was basic and rural. China remained until modern times a peasant agricultural economy. Living a hand-to-mouth existence, peasants were quick to grasp anything which brought stability or security to their lives. One means of security lay in uniting with others. Private associations sprang up to protect rice- or wheat-growers from market exploitation; metalworkers, weavers, stonemasons and livestock farmers formed similar guilds. These became ideal platforms from which failed civil-service candidates could nurture dissent.

    Once these associations became quasi-political and dissident, it was essential that they become secret. Throughout Chinese history dissension met with little response other than the executioner's sword, so survival depended on the loyalty of members which could only be guaranteed if it was well enforced. Ritual initiation, imposing religious as well as moral obligation, was the means employed. Three primary religious or philosophical foundations were drawn upon: Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, each with a vast lexicon of symbols, images, ceremonies and magical vocabularies.

    Taoism, founded by Lao Tze, combined shamanism, alchemy and ancestor-worship. With Confucian precepts moulded on to it, it was just what the secret societies needed, for it emphasized the continuity of the family or clan, loyalty and respect for one's elders, and justice. What was more, Taoism was in part subversive and was occasionally proscribed, as was Buddhism. Both religions periodically became secret sects in response to suppression.

    Around AD 170 a popular leader emerged in north-eastern China named Chang Chueh. Regarded by his followers as divine, he claimed supernatural powers as a healer, professing descent from Lao Tze. His reputation quickly spread and, by 180, his disciples had formed a society, the Yellow Turbans. Three years later, under the command of thirty-six generals, it had control of most of northern China. Originally inspired by political disaffection, the Yellow Turbans became not so much a government as a religious movement with selfish motives. Patriotism was not their raison d'être: like many religious cults throughout time, their leaders sought personal wealth.

    The Yellow Turbans' revolt threw the imperial government into disarray and the Han dynasty fell. Anarchy ruled and the period known as the Three Kingdoms began. For forty-five years China was divided into the states of Wu, Shu and Wei. Yet out of this anarchical interregnum, three figures appeared who were to become mythical national heroes.

    In about AD 304, northern China subdivided into the Sixteen Kingdoms, while southern China became the Eastern Tsin empire. In 581, the Sui dynasty briefly reunited China, re-established the temporarily banned Taoism and Buddhism, strengthened the Great Wall and paved the way for the first of the truly great dynasties, the T'ang. During the centuries of T'ang rule, however, Buddhism was thrice proscribed, going underground to establish its own secret organization, rich with symbolism and ritual which have remained a seminal part of Triad ceremonies ever since.

    The T'ang dynasty's collapse in the early tenth century heralded forty years of disunity, an age known as the Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms period. This was superseded in 960 by the Sung dynasty, in which Confucian values were reaffirmed and the civil service reorganized along traditional lines. Secret societies continued to thrive: the rise of one such group under the command of two rebel leaders, Lu Chun-yi and Sung Chiang, was chronicled in the reign of Hwei Tsung (1102-19). Towards the end of Sung rule, China came under threat from the Mongols. They deposed the Sung emperor and in 1280 Kublai Khan proclaimed himself the first emperor of the Yuan dynasty. Once again, China was ruled by foreigners.

    Resistance to Mongol rule was widespread yet lacked cohesion and was centred in the south, where pro-Sung sentiments were strongest: the last Sung emperor and his brother had fled there, establishing a travelling court on the Kowloon peninsula in Hong Kong. Gradually, however, the anti-Mongol factions coalesced into a rebel alliance under three powers: a pirate called Fang Kuo-chen, a Buddhist monk named Chu Yuan-chang and the Pah Lien or White Lotus Society.

    The Pah Lien was, according to legend, founded in the fourth century by the famous Buddhist teacher Eon (Hwui-yin) at Rozan, south of the Yangtze River, where he set up a community worshipping the Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of the Pure Land, a mystical plane attained by meditation. The community revolved around eighteen monks, the Eighteen Sages of Rozan. It survived the many persecutions of Buddhism over the centuries by—as was common amongst secret fraternities—changing its name to avoid discovery or infiltration, becoming the White Yang Society, the White Lily Society or the Incense Smelling Society. It also affiliated with other religion-based groups, such as the Eight Diagram (or Celestial Principles) Sect, the Nine Mansions Sect and the T'ien-ti Hui or Heaven and Earth Society, which was also known as the Hung Society.

    In 1344, the White Lotus Society was revived by Han Shan-tung, who, in collaboration with four other rebel leaders, Liu Fu-tung, Li Erh, Tu Tsun-tao and Su Shou-hui, rose against the Mongols with an army recruited by fraudulently claiming blood descent from the emperor Hwei Tsung and declaring the imminent reincarnation of Buddha. This army, known as the Red Turban Rebels because of their scarlet headbands, destabilized the Yuan dynasty. The society was then joined by a Buddhist acolyte, Chu Yuan-chang. An experienced strategist, he overthrew the Mongols and in 1368 became Hung Wu, the first Ming emperor. Never before had a secret society overthrown an entire administration to found a new dynasty, which, in this instance, was even named by the White Lotus Society after two prophets sent by Buddha to establish peace and order from revolutionary chaos.

    That Hung Wu was Chinese was of vital importance. At last, China was ruled by one of her own, a true Chinaman from the provinces south of the Yangtze River: the nearer a man's ancestry to the ancient land of Yueh, the more Chinese he is considered—a distinction still good today. His being Chinese also vindicated the White Lotus Society, which was seen as a gallant and honourable defender of the nation.

    For most of the three centuries of Ming rule, the White Lotus Society remained politically detached, neither officially recognized or proscribed. However, in the reign of Tien Ki (1621-8) it supported a rebel called Su Hung-yu. Quite why it took against the emperor is uncertain, although patriotism of a kind must have played a part: China suffered severe droughts and famines during his reign, throwing his righteousness into question. Northern invaders also stirred up insurrection and Tien Ki was killed in battle. The society remained dormant through the following years of civil strife, which came to an end in 1644 when China was conquered by the Manchus, whose tenure of the Mandate of Heaven, the Q'ing dynasty, was to last into the twentieth century.

    The next documented record of the White Lotus Society is in an imperial edict issued by the second Q'ing emperor, K'ang-hsi, in 1662, which rigorously proscribed secret societies along with Buddhism and Taoism. Temples were closed, monasteries shut. Taoists were branded superstitious charlatans and priests caught selling charms were executed. K'ang-hsi painted himself into a political corner: he controlled China, but Ming sympathies ran high, remaining so throughout the whole dynastic period. Other edicts followed banning other societies: the White Lily Society, the Incense Burning Society, the Origin of Chaos Society, the Origin of the Dragon Society and the Hung Society were specifically named. The secret societies went underground and became a focus for pro-Ming insurgence; they formed alliances and began to develop common rituals, secret signs and passwords.

    The White Lotus Society gradually disappeared. However, it seems not to have died but to have metamorphosed into or joined up with the Hung Society (sometimes referred to as the Hung League). It was last heard playing a major role in 1814 when a mutiny amongst eunuchs in the imperial palace in Beijing was blamed on the White Lotus Society—or the Three Incense Sticks Society, the White Feather Society, the Rationalist Society or the Eight Diagram Sect, all of which were interrelated. Planned by Li Wan-cheng and Lin Ching and assisted by corrupt eunuchs, it coincided with uprisings in Henan and Shandong provinces. Loyal palace eunuchs held the rebels at bay but provincial towns fell to them and officials were massacred before imperial forces quashed the revolt, putting whole populations to the sword. In the town of Hua, 20,000 citizens were executed, although most were innocent of insurrection. It was the last time the White Lotus Society openly instigated a rebellion, although members joined other occasional uprisings and the society certainly did not become extinct. It still existed in 1900, in the far north of China where it was called the Tsai Lin Society, adherents forswearing wine, tobacco and opium.

    As the White Lotus Society transmuted, it was renamed the Sam Hop Wui, or the Three United Society. Members saw the world as tripartite, a unity of the three main powers of nature: heaven, earth and man. Many of the early society flags, used in ceremonies or paraded into battle, bore a triangle. Both the name and the emblem are the origin of the modern term for all Chinese secret societies—the Triads. That said, it is predominantly the non-Chinese world which uses this name: the Chinese themselves refer to the societies either under their individual names or, collectively, as Hak Sh'e Wui, the Black Society.

    Exactly when the Hung Society (the Hung Mun in Cantonese) formed is unknown. It just emerged by the organic aggregation of other societies into a united whole. Whilst a society of the same name did exist in the fourteenth century, it most likely came into being—in this incarnation—in 1674, in the thirteenth year of K'ang-hsi's reign: it was certainly well established by 1700. The centres of its activities were the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, especially the city of Guangzhou formerly known as Canton. At first it was predominantly religious, its main deity being Kwan Ti, who was by now revered by a number of secret societies. To protect itself from infiltration by Manchu agents, the Hung Society, in time-honoured fashion, took a variety of cover names.

    One figure who undoubtedly fought for the Ming cause was the son of a Ming official, the famous pirate Cheng Ch'eng-kung. Known in English as Koxinga, derived from his title Kuo Hsing Yeh (Lord of the Imperial Surname), his influence was extensive in his native Fujian. Despite some military success, he was forced to retreat to Taiwan, where, in 1661, he drove out the Dutch settlers, establishing a base from which he sought support from Chinese settlers in the Philippines. He died in 1662, aged thirty-eight, his military ambitions unrealized. Some believe the Hung Society was founded by Cheng with values developed from two classical Chinese novels, San Kuo Yen Yi (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms) and Shui-hu-ch'uan (The Water Margin), the latter concerning a band of outlaws living in a marshland called Liang-san Po. However, this is unproven.

    The third Q'ing emperor, K'ang-hsi's son Yin-chen (1722-35), furthered his father's proscription by publishing edicts against specific secret societies, including the White Lily Society, the White Lotus Society and the T'ien-ti Hui (Heaven and Earth Society), the Hung Society's most widely used alias. Under this name, the society proclaimed its aims of moral reform, the furtherance of religious belief and practice, the encouragement of Chinese nationalism and coined the famous catchphrase which has echoed down the years of Triad history, Fan q'ing—fuk ming: 'Overthrow the Q'ing—restore the Ming'.

    It was during Yin-chen's reign that the true historical beginnings of the Triads lay. The pivotal event was the destruction of the Shao Lin (Shiu Lam or Siu Lam) monastery although the actual date is unknown and the subject of conjecture. The monks, superb strategists and martial-arts experts, assisted the emperor in a campaign against the Eleuths, a Mongol tribe from the far north-west. However, once they had defeated the Eleuths, they were perceived to be a political threat, suffering the same fate as the Red Eyebrows 1,500 years before. It is on this event, as we shall see, that the Triads base their traditional history and legend.

    Other rebellions came and went. In 1761 the emperor Kien-lung issued an edict against the Hung Society, the Ming Tsuen (Illustrious Worthies) and the Pah Yün (White Cloud Society). In 1775 a White Lotus Society official, Liú Sung, started to raise a following which led to an insurrection in 1794. Commanded by Liu Chi-hieh, it raged across western China, putting up a young man called Wang Fa-sheng as rightful claimant to the imperial throne by declaring his descent from the Ming emperors. The rebellion lasted a decade. Thousands were killed and the imperial exchequer spent a fortune. Wang vanished without trace. At the same time, another society official, Wang Lung, raised a revolt in Shandong. Over 100,000 died by the sword as a result and he was executed.

    The Hung Society, however, survived.

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