by Peter Huston
from AsianRelatedSkepticalInvestigationsAndEssays Website


It was only relatively recently in Chinese history, within the past five hundred years or so, that relatively modern secret societies (distinct from religious cults) became widespread. Although there was a great deal of variation from time to time and place to place, these tended to follow common, culturally prescribed patterns.

The Structure and Organization of a Hung society branch

During the Ching dynasty (1644-1911 A.D.) two styles of secret society became prevalent. By style we are referring to a certain set of organizational structures, carefully preserved traditions and patterns of behavior which their members were expected to follow. The first of these, the Hung society, was most common in the south. As most overseas Chinese came originally from the southern provinces of Fujien (Fukien) or Guangdong (Canton), this is also the style of secret society most commonly seen outside of China, including in North America or South East Asia.


The term "Hung" means Red, but it is also a homonym for the Chinese word for "brave." Although Hung societies continue to exist today, they are often modified in various ways. Furthermore, although it might not be exactly correct, since we are discussing the original version of the Hung societies for simplicity and clarity this chapter will use the past tense, except when referring to something that specifically refers to the present.

The second common variety of secret society are the Ching or "Green" societies. These are based on a style more common originally in the North of China. The Ching societies will be covered in full in a later chapter.

The basic unit of the Hung society was the lodge or local branch. It was to the local branch that the members of a sworn brotherhood owed their primary loyalty. This is the group that held meetings and from time to time called together members of the society. In some locations, there existed higher levels of organization, but these had limited duties. These "headquarters branches" or "master lodges" (as some texts call them) would not normally interfere in the day to day running of the local chapters of the society. Although members of these headquarters branches tended to be old and respected members of the sworn brotherhoods, they were chosen by the majority decision of the senior officials of the local branches.


It is believed that generally their role among the local chapters was quite limited and consisted primarily of arbitrating inter-chapter disputes so as to avoid needless and unprofitable inter-chapter conflicts. In some places and times, the headquarters branch had strict regulations preventing all but themselves from starting additional branches of the Hung society. At other times, however, just the opposite was true and anyone familiar with the rituals of the Hung society could start a new branch any time they were able to recruit sufficient followers.

Although a society member (1) would see those in other chapters as people who he had a great deal in common with and should help if possible, it is important to remember that the Hung society organizations were primarily local institutions based in a particular place and time. At times, the local chapters of a society might work together to accomplish certain goals or aid one another, but it must be understood that the local groups were generally only loosely united, if at all.


During times of national crisis or a large scale uprising of some sort, the groups might combine forces. Nevertheless, when this occurred it was not uncommon for there to be a great deal of difficulty or friction over the process of choosing a combined leader. Often this proved impossible and Hung society uprisings were frequently spasmodic disorganized affairs which bore more resemblance to a widespread riot or prairie fire than they did to a military operation.

For example, in Guangdong province in 1854-1855, a Hung-style organization known as the Red Turbans rose up in revolt against the Ching government. Although this was a widespread uprising which spread across several counties and involved tens of thousands of people fighting in some battles the rebels never developed a centralized leadership. (2) Similarly, even during the large turn of the century Boxer uprising, effective centralized leadership of the Boxers proved to be a problem. (3)

Even the members of the so-called headquarters branch saw themselves primarily as members of their local chapter rather than as members of a larger organization. In fact, this localized aspect of the institution may have been one of the key reasons why the societies spread so quickly and easily. Frequently, the loose organizational structure made it surprisingly easy to start a branch of the society. No centralized permission was needed, merely a knowledge of the oaths and rituals and the desire to do so. This cell-like structure meant that if one branch died, became exposed to authorities or were otherwise destroyed there was little effect on other branches. No single individual could betray the entire organization, because no single individual had the ability to do so.

Clearly, it is entirely incorrect to see the many secret societies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a single, large, centrally controlled organization held under the sway of a tyrannical despot who ruled from hiding. Not only did the technology prohibit attempts to control the geographically widespread societies in such a fashion, there was little benefit to the group as a whole from such centralization.

In many ways, the headquarters branch of the organization was not really a headquarters at all, but instead more of an "inter-branch council." Any levels of organization above this tended to be highly dependent on the personalities of the people involved. Individuals might arrange for cooperation among the different chapters for a limited amount of time or a limited enterprise, but this level of organization was not a normal aspect of secret societies. These alliances would be more dependent on the power, ability, experiences, levels of respect, or even favors owed, of the individuals involved, rather than their official ranks within the organization.

The details of the physical meeting site of the lodge or branch could vary widely. If a society existed in a place where it was legal, it could own property or even own an elaborate temple. When a tong was outlawed, as many were in the former British Crown Colony of Malya, it might simply hold intricate initiation rituals in jungle clearings or other secluded outdoor locations. Lookouts were posted to ensure secrecy and provide warning in the event of a police raid.

Ward and Sterling, writing from the early 1920s, have left us with a detailed description of the Hall run by the "Ghee Hin Society" in Singapore in the late nineteenth century when the organization was legal and flourished openly. (It was later banned in the colony of Singapore.) The hall was located at number 4, China Street and apparently had two stories.


As Ward and Stirling's book is virtually impossible to obtain today, and the description is rather interesting, it seems worth quoting from at length:

"Upstairs, attached to the wall, was a shrine containing the tablets of the Five Ancestors, (note: prominent characters in the legend of how the Hung society was founded.) and before it a table on which was an incense burner with incense. In front of this first altar stood another, on which was a second tablet with the incense burner dedicated to the late brethren, and over this hung a red lamp, i.e. the 'Hung Lamp.' On either side were two chairs. One for the Master and the other for the Instructor or White Fan. Along the wall on either side were ten chairs for other officials.

The temple, or lodge room, was square and had four gates; -north, east, south and west, -and on the uprights and the lintels were written verses as follows:


On the Eastern Gate,
'To the East where the element of wood stands it is difficult to go,
Sun, Moon, mountains, and streams all come from the Eastern seas.'
On the Southern Gate,
'The fiery road to the element of fire is hot,

But in the distance Chang, Ts'uen, P'ing and Nankin it is cold.'

On the Western Gate,
'On the narrow road of the element of metal you must be careful,
Of the two paths it is clear that there is no impediment on the one which leads to the West.'
On the Northern Gate,
'At the sign of Yin-kui the water is deep and difficult to cross,
But in Yun-nan and Sze-Chuen there is a road by which you can travel.'


On the top of each door was a pavilion, surmounted by a calabash, which was an emblem carried by one of the Eight Immortals. (note: The Eight Immortals are prominent characters in Taoist mythology and ancient Chinese literature.)

The walls were decorated with squares and triangles, and over the various Gates were hung different types of weapons. The stones at the bottom of the wall and the boards of the gate were made to look like dragons' scales. In the middle of the Hall were three gates, one in front of the other, and beside each gate two men were stationed who wore red kerchiefs on their heads and carried swords in their hands.

Beyond these gates stood the Hall of Fidelity and Loyalty, within which was the genealogical table of the Founders of the League, which stood in a shrine called Khao-khi, after the famous temple.... (note: At this point, Ward and Stirling recount the entire lineage of the society as described in the genealogical charts on the Lodge wall. We have deleted this information.)


On either side of the names of the Great Founders is placed two sets of characters. On the right side as you face the tablet appear the words.

'Yin and Yang united produce everything by metamorphosis': and opposite on the left,
'Dragons, tigers, tortoises and snakes are assembled!'

Below these, in a line with the Five Tugers Generals, on the right hand side appears,
'Kin-lan Hall, The Spirit seats of the successive generations of our kindred,'
And opposite, on the other side,
'Mwan-thao Hall. The ancestral seats of the successive generations of our kindred.'

Downstairs was the common meeting Hall or place of worship, and it was usually here that the picture of the God Kwan Ti was displayed. It was in this room that the Master communicated the traditional history previous to admitting the candidates into the Lodge." (4)

As the description illustrates, the lodges of the Hung societies were intended to be much more than a simple meeting place. Instead, they were designed to emphasize the proud traditions and heritage of the groups, as well as remind members of the mystical aspects of these teachings. In fact, much of the writings on the wall refer to aspects of the traditional legend of the founding of the Hung society. (This legend will be repeated and discussed in the next chapter.)

Today, in most major North American cities which have a Chinatown it is possible to find the headquarters of the tongs, themselves branches of the Hung society. To someone familiar with their names and able to read the Chinese characters, these buildings are clearly marked. Many of them are quite elaborate in their architecture. (See photo 10-2 of a Tong headquarters in New York City.)

Its best-known work is the On Leong Merchants' Association Building in Chinatown, formerly headquarters of the notorious tong.

The architects were not particularly knowledgeable about Chinese art,

so most of the ornament is their own fanciful imagination of what Kwangtung art should resemble.


Today in Hong Kong, membership in a Triad society (and the triads are descendants of Hung societies) has been outlawed and it is illegal to conduct Triad initiation ceremonies within Hong Kong's borders. For this reason, many of the initiation ceremonies of the Hong Kong Triads are held in nearby Macao and the groups meet in hiding.



The Hung society structure is intended to emulate a family of sworn brothers. In China, however, it should be remembered that not all brothers are necessarily equal. Although family members are supposed to love one another and live in peace and harmony, they are not equals. The Chinese family is hierarchical in nature. The older brothers are seen as more important than the younger brothers. The younger brothers are supposed to be obedient towards the older brothers.


This respect for elders, even elder brothers, is a key component of Confucian teachings. Elders, after all, are perceived as having superior wisdom, and therefore society benefits when the younger members of society obey and respect them. In return for this obedience, it is expected that the elders and superiors will rule with wisdom and compassion keeping the best interests of their inferiors and society at large in mind at all times.

It follows that although the Hung society is intended to be an organization composed of sworn brothers, it does not mean that it is an organization of equals. Far from it. There is a definite hierarchy and organizational structure within a Hung society type organization. Table 10-1 shows the organization of a local branch of the Hung Society Headquarters or Major Lodge. Table 10-2 reveals the composition of the local branch. As can be clearly seen, there was a definite structure to the organization. This structure led to division of tasks as well as a definite system of ranks and officers. Although there were many variations on the basic structure, just as there were many off shoots of the group in many places and times, this standard structure or some close variant was common to most Hung society groups.

Each headquarters branch had a leader. Underneath the leader were two of the most important officers in the group. These were the Incense Master and the Vanguard. Although these two officers were of equal rank, their duties differed, and therefore friction, competition and conflict between them was minimized. Together they were charged with the organization and performance of all initiation and promotion ceremonies. Together they were charged with the organization and performance of all initiation and promotion ceremonies.

The Incense Master was essentially the high priest of a Hung society. As such he was charged with the responsibility for the proper performance of all ceremonies and rituals. The Vanguard's duties were slightly different. Although he had priest-like duties, his primary concern was administrative. He was charged with the responsibility of overseeing the expansion of the society and ensuing that such expansion happened in a manner that would be in the long term best interests of the group. In accordance with these responsibilities, he was the only member of the society who could establish independent branches without the consent of the leader. In at least some societies, the Vanguard was also responsible for the storage of all weapons owned by the society.

Underneath these three key officers, there were five primary officers in a Master Lodge. Each of these had specific responsibilities and duties. These three officers, the Leader, the Incense Master, the Vanguard and the heads of each of the five key sections totaled eight in number.


In traditional Chinese mysticism and numerology, described more fully later in this chapter, both the numbers five (as in the five divisions) and eight (as in the eight officers) had great significance. Within the Ko-Lao Hui (the Elder Brothers Society), a secret society that used and modified many of the Hung society institutions, these eight officers were referred to as the Lodge of the Inner Eight. (6) In other organizations, it seems that these eight officers did not have such an elaborate designation, but they were quite respected and their duties essential to the continuing function of the organization.

Much of this information comes from W.P. Morgan, a sub-inspector in the Royal Hong Kong Police whose landmark work, Triad Societies in Hong Kong, came out in 1958. According to Morgan, the officers in the headquarters branch were chosen by majority vote from among the senior officials of the various local bodies. These officials not only had the ability to choose these officers, they also had the power to remove them from office if they were unsatisfied with their performance. It should be noted that such a structure, with the underlings able to remove their superiors when dissatisfied, is contrary to many stereotypes and would contribute to a much looser pattern of behavior and control than many would suspect.

These eight officers were not the only members of the headquarters group of a secret society. They would also have a variety of assistants and others to help them fulfill their duties and complete their jobs successfully.

The five administrative divisions were based on function, and for this reason some, naturally, had more personnel than others. The leader of each divisions was a Senior official who, although of high rank, was underneath the group's Leader, Incense Master, and Vanguard. These were the General Affairs section, the Recruiting section, the Organization section, the Liaison section, and the Education section. The five divisions are shown on Table 10-1.

The General Affairs section was responsible for the routine, day to day matters necessary for the well being of the organization.

The Recruiting Section was responsible for not just recruiting and related duties, but also official communication with the outside world. Recruitment included the registration and investigation of new members. Among other duties were writing and spreading propaganda. This section was also responsible for social interaction with the world outside of the group. Ward and Stirling mention that in Malaya the recruiters were referred to as "Horse Leaders," although they do not state why. (7)

Having a special section whose duties included social interactions with the ordinary public and recruiting showed a great deal of sophistication. These are exactly the places where many underground organizations go wrong and find themselves at odds with the authorities. An underground organization that has lost the respect or support of the ordinary people around it, will not last long. Equally importantly, a secret society that hastily recruits the wrong sort of people will soon find all of its secrets spread far and wide by talkative recruits.


Nevertheless, it cannot be assumed that such an organizational structure always existed. Morgan was writing in the late 1950s in the sophisticated cosmopolitan center of Hong Kong. Dian H. Murray, a historian at Notre Dame University, studied the early days of the Tiandi Hui (the Heaven and Earth Society), one of the most prominent and influential of the Hung societies, and discovered that, in fact, the organizations eighteenth and early nineteenth century recruiting practices were rather haphazard.


It was only when the organization was at its most sophisticated that it could hold firm to this structure. In the early days, or in places where the group was young and being spread quickly and rapidly by inexperienced members, often the recruiting section did not exist. Recruiting and starting new branches was a job any member could undertake at whim. (8)

The Organization section was responsible for controlling the activities of the branch societies, as necessary. Among its duties were controlling the various branches and inflicting punishments, when required, on members or non-members. When major combined operations were undertaken, they were controlled by the members of this headquarters branch.

The Liaison section was charged with carrying out communications between the headquarters branch and the member branches. At times, the members of the liaison section had special names, among them being "grass sandals" or "night brothers." (9)

The Education and Welfare branch was charged with the maintenance of schools set up by the society for educating its members children. It was also responsible for general welfare duties, including funeral arrangements for members and their families. Funerals and burials have an extremely important place in traditional Chinese culture.


Among Chinese tongs in America, often one of the most important services to members was the way in which they would preserve the remains of their members and ensure that they received proper burial in China. This changed only when the Communists seized China and put an end to the practice (as well as interfering with the practice of many Chinese funerary traditions.)

Although each local lodge had its own officers and organizational pattern. Nevertheless, these tended to follow the same pattern of five divisions as seen in the headquarters or master lodge. The chief leader of the lodge was a leader or deputy leader. Each division, or department, also had its own leader. In 1950s Hong Kong, all of these leaders were chosen for fixed periods of time and replaced at the end of their term by fresh appointees.


As the duties of each of the five divisions of the branch are quite similar to those of the headquarters' branches, there is no need to repeat them in detail here. The important thing to remember is that the headquarters' officers were supposed to coordinate large scale matters, while the local lodge members were supposed to coordinate things which concerned their own lodge.

One key difference, though, lay in the structure of the local branch's organization section. At the local level, this division was expected to control a number of "fighting sections." Each fighting section consisted of ten to fifty members under the control of a "Hung Kwan" official. The number of these fighting sections could vary widely and together they composed the organization's de facto army.


There was a great deal of mystical significance in many of the details of the structure and terminology used by the Hung society. Within the hierarchy of the organization, each rank had several names and a number. These numbers had a special meaning. For example, a leader was also known as a "4-8-9" while a regular member was known as a "4-9". These titles were pronounced as a series of digits, not as a single number. I.E "four, eight, nine", not four hundred eighty nine, or "four, nine", never "Forty nine."

The significance of these digits comes from a variety of sources. The first is something known as "the Magical Number Square", illustrated in Table 10-3. This table is quite important in Chinese Numerological teachings. The numbers can be added together in any sequence, be it diagonally, vertically or horizontally, and the result will always be fifteen. This has been considered to be magically significant.

Secondly, within Chinese numerology, each individual digit has a special significance. Some numbers are considered to be quite lucky while others are said to be rather ominous or unlucky. Chinese cosmology teaches that it is desirable whenever possible to have a balance between Yin, the passive aspect, and Yang, the dynamic, active aspect of things. All odd numbers are considered to be Yang.


Conversely, all even numbers are considered to be Yin. Certain combinations of digits are considered to be particularly desirable and fortunate. These lead to a proper balance of Yin and Yang, as well as a beneficial combination of the digits with their underlying meaning. Some of these digits are more auspicious when used in certain combinations. The numbers used as titles for the Hung society ranks conform carefully to this belief. For instance, every number begins with four which is even or Yin. In every case, this is followed by a Yang or Odd number.

When the number four is pronounced in most Chinese dialects, it is a homonym for the word for "death" or "die." It is therefore avoided whenever possible and not normally used much by Chinese. For instance, many Chinese hotels do not have a fourth floor, as few Chinese would wish to stay on it. This is similar t the Western practice of skipping the thirteenth floor. In fact, in places like Hong Kong, it is not uncommon for some hotels to skip both the fourth and the thirteenth floor in their numbering.

Perhaps the use of the ominous number four contributes to the Hung society mystique. (10)

Table 10-3











The Magical Number Square.


1. The bulk of this material comes from a few primary sources. Morgan's Triad Societies of Hong Kong.(1960, Crown Copyright Reserved, The Government Printer, Hong Kong) is an excellent source for information on the structure and form of Triad societies in Hong Kong shortly after the second world war. (The author asserted that these traditions were in decline during the period he wrote and researched the subject.) Unfortunately, Morgan tends to skimp a bit on the development of this form.
Ward and Stirling's The Hung Society. (privately published, London, 1925.) contained the best possible description of the societies available to the authors. This was based on extensive research done during their stint as civil servants in the Crown colony of Malaya.
Dian H. Murray, in collaboration with Qin Biaoqi, produced The Origins of the Tiandihui -The Chinese Triads in Legend and History. (1994, Stanford University Press, Stanford California). This valuable work contains little information on the later form of the societies, but it does contain invaluable information on how they were founded and spread. This source describes the early, haphazard recruiting practices which had apparently been changed by the time Morgan wrote.
2. Wakeman, Frederic. 1966. Strangers at the Gate -Social Disorder in South China, 1839-1861. University of California Press. Berkeley.
3. It should be mentioned that the Boxers were based on a Ching style structure. This would be expected as they orginated in the north of China. Nevertheless, they shared the same problem of central organization.
4. From Ward and Stirling, The Hung Society, Volume I., pp. 14-15. London, 1925. Privately published in a limited edition.
5. Macao is a city located on the Southern coast of China not far from Hong Kong. There are convenient ferry and hydrofoil services shuttling between the two locations. Macao was founded in the sixteenth century by the Portuguese as a base of trade with China. For centuries it has been a Portuguese colony and at the time of this writing still is. It is scheduled to be returned to Chinese rule in 1999.
6. pp. 102-103, "Some Notes on the Ko-Lao Hui in Late Ch'ing China," by Charlton M. Lewis. In Popular Movements and Secret Societies in China, 1840-1950. Edited by Jean Chesnaux. The internal structure of the Ko-Lao Hui is quite interesting and described fully in the section on this organization in chapter sixteen.
7. Ward and Stirling, Volume One, Page 16.
8. By way of contrast, see Morgan's description of Hung societies and compare it to Dian H. Murray.
9. Ward and Stirling, Volume One, page 16.

10. For more details on Chinese numerology and number beliefs, a good beginning reference is Chinese Numbers -Significance, Symbolism, and Traditions. by Evelyn Lip. (1992, Heian International, Inc. Union City, California.)