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Popular Movements and Secret Societies in China

January 29, 2010

Jean Chesneaux ed. Popular Movements and Secret Societies in China, 1840-1950. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972.

Zhou Guanghui (2000)

Elite discourse for a long time dominated historians’ thinking and writings. However, since the 1960s or even earlier, there has been a growing scholarly interest in popular movements, their struggle for power, and their uncertain dreams. This volume of papers is the outcome of explorations of this “second side” of history. Published in 1972, it consists of conference papers on modern Chinese secret societies presented in 1965. Despite the uneven quality of the materials, Jean Chesneaux points out in his introduction that a number of generalizations can still be drawn from the papers in this volume. “Their popular religious beliefs were opposed to orthodox beliefs, their political efforts directed against a dynasty, their ‘social banditry’ at the expense of the rich, their economic activities carried out in defiance of the state” (p. 16). In brief, secret societies and popular movements throughout modern history have been forces of opposition.

Although the origins of Chinese secret societies can be traced back to the Ming, Song or even Qin dynasty in the third century B.C., their expanded activities were basically a direct response to the new pressures of social chaos and modernization. The Taiping Rebellion, the progress of urbanization, the spread of steamboat transportation, and the discharging of soldiers raised to fight the rebels created numerous marginal and displaced persons. Pursuing proto-nationalism, mutual aid, and utopian egalitarianism, secret societies strongly attracted these social outcast and “strangers” who were desperately in need of support. Thus the last third of the nineteenth century saw a decided flourishing of secret society activities and popular movements.

The role of secret societies in such crises as the Taiping rebellion, the Revolution of 1911, the agrarian crisis of the 1920s and 1930s and the CCP and GMD conflicts of those years, and the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45 are of great interest and carefully examined in this book. The secret societies, in Chesneaux’ view, supported and led the struggles of the poor peasantry, the proto-proletariat, and other have-nots against the well-off and their political representatives. They were also the instruments of economic forces opposed to state monopolies. “China’s secret societies embodied the two main lines of class struggle the struggle of the bourgeoisie to free itself of feudal economic restraints, and the struggle of the peasants against their feudal masters” (p. 19). In each major crisis, there was an apparent presence of secret societies, whose support was sought by various political forces. Yet, owing to the fundament duality of the essence of the secret societies, they tended to be quickly satisfied with minor successes and had no ultimate interest in the class struggle. Thus, they failed to bring about a successful social revolution.

Among several critic reviews, Jerome Chen’s comments are worthy of mention. In his view, the major defect of this book is that it fails to address the reactions of the government while examining the revolutionary struggles of the secret societies. “One can hardly appreciate the changes in the rebel ideology, organization, and strategy without deep understanding of the measures taken by the government for the maintance of the law and order.” Nevertheless, this is a useful volume dealing with the expansion and development of secret society activities in China. The chapters by Frederic Wakeman, John Lust and Winston Hsieh are especially impressive and “make the volume worthwhile.”

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