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Brotherhoods and Secret Societies in Early and Mid-Qing China: The Formation of a Tradition.

In the past two decades western sinology on brotherhood associations and secret societies in late-imperial China has experienced an important breakthrough with newly available archival material from Beijing and Taipei. Traditionally, these popular organizations were formed by marginalized men for a common purpose, ranging from such mutual enterprise as pooling funds for the burial of parents to predatory activities that involved violence, petty crime, or subversion against the dynasty or central government. A ritual known as the blood oath provided both the solidarity of the membership and fictitious kinship relationships among the individual members of these societies, among which the Heaven and Earth Society (Tiandihui) served as the focus of Dian Murray's The Origins of the Tiandihui (Stanford University Press, 1994). Making extensive and responsible use of gazetteers, standard historical sources, and the confessions of secret society members, David Ownby's monograph is a solid contribution not only to the study of secret societies, but more importantly, to the social history of seventeenth and eighteenth century southeast China, a region embracing southern Zhejiang, Fujian, northern Guangdong, and Taiwan.

The main focus of Ownby's study is "the first triad rebellion in Chinese history" -- the Lin Shuangwen uprising of 1787-88 in Taiwan -- which was brutally crushed by the Qing government and blamed on the Heaven and Earth Society, a popular organization founded in Fujian province in the 1760s and brought into Taiwan several years before the rebellion. The rebellion lasted a year and with three-quarters of the population ending up as refugees, the enormous devastation of the island can be imagined.

On the basis of a thorough examination of related contemporary revolts in Taiwan and southeast China, Ownby argues that the Heaven and the Earth Society was not a significant factor, nor an accurate explanation, for the rebellion led by Lin Shuangwen, a Fujian immigrant to Taiwan and a thief whose Heaven and Earth Society initially reflected local culture and popular cults rather than messianic elements and imperial ambitions to supplant the Qing dynasty. Ownby's central thesis is that the rebellion erupted due to Taiwan's local tensions, commercialization, and Qing government policies that disrupted the local infrastructure. The population of Taiwan had increased eight-fold from 1660 to 1770 and was characterized by various ethnicities such as the Hakka and Quanzhou groups. Poverty and immigration to and from southeast China created a bachelor subculture of displaced males who were absorbed by brotherhood associations and secret societies. Ownby asserts that rather than Heaven and Earth ideology, ethnic identity was the decisive "axis of organization" that mobilized support or hostility towards the rebellion; in fact the failure of the rebellion can be partly attributed to ethnic alignments recruited by the Qing government.

Ownby demonstrates that the ethnicity factor in brotherhood associations and secret societies was complicated by two other local features of southeast China -- violence and the tradition of lineage and village feuds. Lineages and feuds often hired mercenary fighters from among displaced and marginalized young men belonging to brotherhood associations, secret societies, and ethnic groups. Many of these feuds took on sub-ethnic or ethnic shades and pitted villages and lineages against each other. Compared to their harsh suppression of secret societies, Qing officials treated these feuds with leniency and often looked the other way because they considered the situation a mechanism for a "balanced violence" that drained the resources of the local rivals and enabled the population to be more easily governed. Only in the 1820s were laws relating to these feuds entered in the Qing code.

Fearful of subversive activities against the dynasty, Qing laws, already prohibitive towards brotherhood associations and secret societies, were particularly strict against the Heaven and Earth Society after the Lin Shuangwen rebellion. Ownby shows that the Qing witch hunt and inadvertent publicity ironically led to the proliferation of the Heaven and Earth Society in southeast China in the 1790s to 1830s, where local groups, attracted by its perceived power rather than the rebellious content, took on local characteristics. Transported to southeast Asia, the equivalent societies in the Chinese diaspora community became mutual-help corporate organizations; in North America, the brotherhood associations based on ethnicity and village links served as community pillars to the largely Chinese bachelor diaspora, which resulted from the immigration policies of both the host and mother countries.

The brotherhood associations and secret societies in Taiwan, southeast China, southeast Asia, and North America mostly involved bachelor men from the lower classes. Ownby's database of 161 confessions of the Lin Shuangwen rebellion indicates that 23 per cent of the rebels were married, 23 per cent had children, and 15.5 per cent had living parents. One might expect the database to yield a more in-depth gender and family analysis in a further work, but the present study remains a richly documented integration of historical, sociological, legal, religious, and political perspectives on secret societies -- an important part of the history of both Taiwan and China -- particularly when we recall that Sun Yat-sen's Republican Revolution of 1911
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Author:Jay, Jennifer W.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1997
Words:826
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