The Heaven and Earth Society

The Heaven and Earth Society (Tiandihui) has been defined as a secret brotherhood association initially in pursuit of political aims—‘ overthrow the Qing (dynasty) and restore the Ming (dynasty)’ (fanqing fuming)—and later developed into a purely criminal organization with predominantly economic objectives (He 1996). Since the 1980s, Chinese historians have provided many explanations concerning the origin of the Heaven and Earth Society. The most widely accepted explanation is that it was established in Zhangzhou (the southern part of Fujian province) in 1674 by a Buddhist monk named Zhang Daozong (his religious name was Wanwu Dazong) (He 1996). The Heaven and Earth Society was frequently renamed to avoid government repression. For example, Sanhehui (triads) and Sandianhui were two generally accepted names, as was the Small Sword Society (Xiaodaohui) a name used only in Fujian province and Taiwan (He 2009a).

The Heaven and Earth Society gradually lost its initial political beliefs and, after recruiting a great number of homeless persons, developed into one of the most powerful criminal organizations. As Chu (2000: 12) argues, ‘Tiandihui [the Heaven and Earth Society] as it subsequently developed has nothing to do with the political mission ... but was a mutual protection society which emerged spontaneously to respond to the social conflicts among various sub-ethnic groups linked to their socio-economic circumstances’. In order to gain financial benefits, members of the Heaven and Earth Society were involved in many different criminal activities including drug trafficking, human smuggling, dispute resolution, blackmail, and extortion (He 2009a).

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