The Hung Mun (also: Hongmen, Hungmen, Hung Moon, Hongmenhui) were and are a Chinese triad. The myth says that the Hung Moon emerged from a union of the survivors of the Shaolin monastery. However, the community is probably much older. Hung Hee Gung is said to have chosen his family name after the Hung Mun. Indirectly, therefore, that society is the eponym of Hung Gar Kung Fu.
The term ‘triad’ comes from the name of a subgroup of the Tiandihui (Society of Heaven and Earth, a Taoist society), which called itself Sanhehui. This means ‘Society of the three harmonies’, from which the generalization ‘Triad’ was derived. Triads are often also called ‘Tong’. The word Tong literally means ‘hall’ and refers to a place of assembly. Triads are often referred to as ‘Chinese Freemasons’.
Triads are usually seen as criminal organizations. Nowadays this is certainly true. However, it should be remembered that these societies were formed at times when arbitrariness and insecurity prevailed. Especially the simple people were exposed to great stress under both the Ming and the Qing and were forced to protect themselves.
During the phase of the Qing’s seizure of power, not only new groupings formed, but also the desire for freedom among the population was strong. The Manchurian occupiers systematically suppressed the Han Chinese. It is therefore easy to understand that a return to the old rule seemed desirable, however ailing it may have been in its final phase.
With the Chinese Revolution, however, the triads that had emerged from necessity lost more and more of their meaning. They did not dissolve with the changing times, however, nor did they simply relinquish the power they had gained. The move into organized crime without any reference to past benefits was probably inevitable.
Hung Mun, Tiandihui, Sanhehui, White Lotus and other secret societies are often mentioned in the same breath. They are described as belonging together and building on each other or even as one and the same. During my research I came to the conclusion that Hung Mun and Tiandihui are probably the same. The Sanhehui, on the other hand, I understand as a subgroup of Hung Mun. The ‘white’ lotus, on the other hand, is found very early in history in the form of a Buddhist school and could have been the forerunner of Hung Moon.
From the White Lotus to Hung Mun
Pure Land Buddhism
In the fourth century, the Patriarch of Pure Land Buddhism, Huiyuan, founded bailianshe or lianshe (White Lotus Societies or just lotus societies). These groupings spread throughout China until the monk Mao Ziyuan (later given the name Cizhao) took a step further in the early/mid 12th century. He founded a new Buddhist orientation: The School of the White Lotus. It was quickly banned, but the very good comprehensibility of the teachings still made it a popular choice, especially among the broad, rather poorer population. Chinese Manichaeans also joined the school. (Their teachings were very similar and over the years the religions merged). When the Mongols came to power in 1279 (Yuan dynasty), the White Lotus was recognized as a religion.
Over time, the teachings of the White Lotus changed and the community became more and more political. More and more it turned against the Mongolian occupier up to rebellion. When the White Lotus openly opposed the government, it was classified as an illegal sect and driven underground. From then on it was a secret society. However, the White Lotus continued to grow due to the broad support among the population, the open culture of conversation (among other things, men and women interacted freely with each other, which was anything but a matter of course), and last but not least the fact that the members were for the most part not elitist but lived in the poverty of simple people.
Foundation of the Ming Dynasty
In 1344 a new leader arose for the ‘White Lotus’: Han Shan-Tung. Under his leadership the society became increasingly political. According to myth, he was supported by four other prominent men.
This leadership of five important people is found in the various stories and myths of the secret societies.
In 1368, the ‘White Lotus’ founded the ‘Red Turbans’, a militant group that resisted armed. A man named Zhu Yuanzhan was also part of it. The Red Turbans finally brought about the overthrow and Zhu Yuanzhan founded the new Ming Dynasty under the name of Hongwu or Hung Wu as its first emperor. The name ‘Hung’ became a symbol of the new dynasty.
With the liberation from the Mongolian foreign rulers and the economic and social upswing, the lives of the main part of the secret society improved significantly. Accordingly, the ‘White Lotus’ disappeared politically more and more from the scene. The revolutionary force was no longer needed. It was not until 1622 that an uprising of the White Lotus was reported, at a time when the Ming rule was already in decline and poverty had returned to the country.
The foreign rulers
When the Manchus came to power in 1644 and conquered large parts of China within a very short time, the events came thick and fast. The Qing government soon after taking power began a restrictive policy towards Taoism and Buddhism, which could be lived and practiced freely among the Ming. This led to persecution of the religious secret societies and also to conflict with the Shaolin monks.
As a result, the southern Shaolin monastery was destroyed and only a few monks survived. According to the founding myth, Hung Mun was founded by five such survivors. To what extent there were really exactly five monks remains to be seen. Besides Abbot Ji Sim Sin Lake, the identities of the two monks Wan Ti Xi and Chen Jinan from Guangzhou are known. Of these two it is known that they had close connections to the ‘White Lotus’.
The Hung Mun was determined by many rituals and traditions, which were not least necessary for mutual recognition. It is reported that the way everyday objects such as chopsticks were used made it clear to an initiate who belonged to society and who did not. Members were expected to behave like blood family towards another member and to be absolutely on each other’s side.
The principle of Hung Mun was “Fǎn Qīng fù Míng” – “Down with the Qing, up with the Ming”. The Qing government actively pursued the Hung Moon. Being a part of it and being caught meant the death penalty. However, Hung Moon was not successful for a long time.
The anti-imperialist boxer revolts took place in China from 1899 to 1901. Not only was the White Lotus demonstrably involved, but also a militant Hung Mun subgroup, the Red Boxers.
Boxers are not representatives of the boxing sport, but people with a traditional martial arts education.
The boxer uprising was explicitly not directed against their own government, but against the foreign occupiers. It is easy to understand that the Hung Mun, whose purpose was to strengthen and protect the people from foreign rule of the Qing, took an active part in it. The boxer revolt ended with the defeat of the insurgents and the boxer protocol.
In 1905, the revolutionaries Sun Yat-sen (himself a member of the Hung Mun) and Song Jiaoren founded the Tongmenhui Community in Tokyo, which was nothing more than a grouping of various resistance groups and secret societies. Under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen, the Qing were deposed as part of the Chinese Revolution.
Today, Hung Mun is said to still have about 300,000 members. As far as known, there are still many subgroups. Their purpose is to uphold traditions and maintain patriotism. It is difficult to say what is true. In Hong Kong, Hung Moon are banned for alleged or real connections to triads (in the criminal sense).
Today, triads are only associated with crime, and not unjustly so. The Chinese Mafia controls large parts of the drug trade worldwide, is active in organ trafficking, piracy, computer crime and many other areas. To what extent these societies are based on what the ‘White Lotus’ and Hung Mun have created, we do not know. It is not unthinkable that the powerful structures of the past were still needed and abused.