The nineteenth-century environment of the European colonial officials was one in which secret societies dominated the intellectual landscape. Foremost among these was the order of Freemason, which had commanded the membership of such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Wolfgang Mozart, and Voltaire. Many of the civil servants were members themselves, and the rest were certainly aware of the Freemasons' existence.
The Masons constituted one of the oldest and largest fraternal organizations in the world. Many of its ideals and rituals stemmed from the period of cathedral building between the tenth and sixteenth centuries, a time when the stoneworkers or masons formed guilds in various European cities and towns. As one such group, the "free masons" traveled from community to community and organized themselves into lodges. With the decline of cathedral building, these lodges became purely social societies, joined by men who had never even thought of working with their hands. Contemporary Masons trace their origins to the formation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717. From there, the movement spread quickly to the Continent, where between 1770 and 1832 it took on political and military overtones.
The Western discovery of secret societies in China at a time of widespread suspicion of this darker side of Masonry caused Freemasons to seize on the find to prove that theirs was an honorable order that had originated in antiquity. As a result, when European civil servants encountered the Tiandihui and its offshoots in Asia, they immediately focused on the similarities between the secret societies of the East and West. Freemason intellectuals created the myth that the Chinese and Masonic orders were descendants of a common mystic ancestor. Masonic historians propounded the idea that their order had originated in the ancient Near East and spread into both the Orient and the Occident, and Freemason intellectuals adopted the "comparative method" to demonstrate that their mandate dated back thousands of years. At the same time, no Freemason wished to accept responsibility for or be identified with the illegal activities of the Chinese societies. Thus polemical discussions on the relationship between the contemporary societies in China and the West were carried on in Masonic journals.
Even though the common origin theory has long since been disavowed, and the commonalities between the Tiandihui and Freemasonry attributed to mere circumstance, there are, at first glance, striking similarities. Both were fraternal orders that relied on brotherhood as a social leveler. Both were divided into largely autonomous subunits, known in the West as chapters or lodges, that were loosely linked with one another through common initiation ceremonies. And perhaps most tellingly, both used the symbolism of the triangle. By the mid-nineteenth century, as we shall see, "Triad" had come into widespread usage among Westerners as a generic term for the Tiandihui and its offshoots. For the Masons, the triangle, along with the circle, was a key symbol. Originally venerated for the same reason the ancient Pythagoreans venerated Itas the simplest means of enclosing a surface with straight linesit later, in revolutionary Masonry, became imbued with the additional symbolism of Pythagorean occultism. Revolutionary groups held that the three elements of naturefire, water, and earthhad to be energized by an "all animating principle" or "point of sunrise" represented as a dot in the center of an equilateral triangle. Any letter, symbol, or maxim that a particular group wished to venerate was given this central place of authority within the triangular seal.
There were still other points of similarity. Both societies made use of magical numbers, especially "three," both emerged in the late eighteenth century, and both became vehicles for political movements. just as Masonry was deliberately used by European revolutionaries of the early nineteenth century "as a recruiting ground for their first conspiratorial experiments in political organization,' so the Tiandihui was used by Chinese revolutionaries of the early twentieth century as one of their main organizational tools. Finally, the history of both has been difficult to trace, and at times the scholarship about them has been more concerned with what people thought they were about than with what they were actually about.
Fascinated by the surface similarities, the early scholars in their search for a common origin overlooked the equally obvious difference, namely, the ideological gulf that separated Freemasonry from the Tiandihui. The Tiandihui did not have any spiritual or intellectual underpinnings or share the Masons' concern with moral order. If joining the Tiandihui meant being "reborn" into new families or communities, this was never held up as a means of access to the higher truths of nature or as a way to attain a new moral perfection freed from all established religion and political authority.
The pioneer in the study of Chinese secret societies was Dr. William Milne, principal of the Anglo-Chinese College (in Malacca), who, in 1821, wrote the first systematic account of the "Three Unities Society" (Sanhehui). In this brief work, still unfinished at his death in Azz, he described what he knew of the society's name, object, organization, initiation rituals, secret signs, and seal. It was he, apparently, who coined the popular name "Triad."
It was also Milne who started scholars on the search for a Freemason connection. He pointed out that, like the Masons, the Chinese secret societies were characterized by pretensions to antiquity, pursued mutual assistance as their professed object, held ceremonies of initiation and oath taking, and were under tripartite governance; according to him, the three "elder brothers" in the Sanhehui were the counterparts of the apprentices, fellow-craftsmen, and masters of the Freemasons.*
Milne freely admitted that he had not been able to obtain information on the Sanhehui's laws, discipline, and internal management, but he was sure that so far as its object was concerned, it had "degenerated from mere mutual assistance, to theft, robbery, the overthrow of regular government, and an aim at political power," so that society members now "engage[d] to defend each other against attacks from police officers, to hide each other's crimes; [and] to assist detected members to make their escape from the hands of Justice."
1850 - 1950: Colonial and Freemason Concerns
Dian H. Murray, in collaboration with Qin Biaoqi|
The Origins of the Tiandihui: The Chinese Triads in Legend and History
Stanford, CA : Stanford University Press, 1994. pp. 90-92