History of the White Lotus in China
Table of Contents
The White lotus (Bailian Jiao, 白莲教) was a Buddhist political and religious movement that believed in a universal female divinity, the “Unborn Old Mother” who would gather all of her children towards the end of the millennium, into one large family.
This doctrine included a prophecy of the imminent advent of the Buddha Maitreya. The first traces of the White Lotus society date back to the late thirteenth century, during the Mongol regency in China with a series of modest popular demonstrations against the Yuan dynasty. The white lotus participated in some of these demonstrations. The Mongols viewed the White Lotus society as a heterodox religious sect and banned it, driving its followers to a life of subterfuge and underground. In this phase the White Lotus became a secret society, embodying traits of partisan resistance and religious organization. According to many, the White Lotus was one of the illustrious ancestors of the Chinese criminal organizations, or the triads, which originally came from the Society of Heaven and Earth during the times of war between the Ming and Qing dynasties. The formations of the triads at first had no criminal connotation, and their original purpose was to overthrow the foreign Manchu dynasty (the Qing) and restore the national Ming dynasty. The White Lotus may later have been one of the five branches of the Society of Heaven and Earth, formed at the Shaolin temple by Ming rebels and loyalists. The five branches, also known as the five ancestors, were the Black, Red, White, Yellow, and Green lodges. Once their need on the battlefield was over, some of these leaders turned to criminal activities. The White Lotus inspired a series of revolts with different characteristics and in different areas of the country, in 1352, in the sixteenth century, and 1774.
The Way of the Primordial Heaven
The generic term Xiantiandao (先天道, The way to the Primordial Heaven) is used to group a set of religious groups whose origins date back to the White Lotus. Throughout Chinese history, they have been labeled as heterodox and forbidden, although they have managed to survive in Taiwan in some way, even if the term White Lotus on the island retains a negative connotation. A substantial differentiation of the Xiantian Dao tradition can be traced back to the ninth patriarch Huang Dehui (1684-1750). Of the five sects that refer to the Way of the Primordial Heaven, only two, the Yiguan Dao and the Tongshan She are legitimized by tracing their history to Huang Dehui, up to the mythical patriarchs of Chinese history. The patriarchal lines of the two sects are virtually identical until the thirteenth patriarch Yang Shouyi (1726-1828), after which they split up to give life to the two movements. The other three groups do not maintain this model of linear succession.
According to the doctrine of the sect, the origin of the universe can be traced back to its original creator, or Wusheng Laomu, 瑶池金母, the Queen Mother of the West who would have created all 9.6 billion living creatures. Her children, once they lost their way, ended up in the earthly world where they forgot their divine origin. The wheel of reincarnation has begun to turn and return to heaven is no longer possible. For this reason, the merciful Venerable Mother sent her emissaries to help them find their way back to the lost paradise. Dipankara Buddha (Randeng Fo) saved 200 million suffering children. Gautama Buddha saved another 200 million. The other 9.2 billion will therefore be saved by the coming of the future Buddha, or Maitreya. All sects of the Xiantian Dao see themselves as bearers of the saving message of the Mother Goddess and their purpose is to convert and guide the faithful on the path of salvation that will lead them to heaven. This process is divided into “Internal” and “External” (neigong, waigong) and includes some tools such as meditation and good deeds, to accumulate merit and purify the mind. Since the focus is on the superiority of the primordial goddess over all other deities, the sect claims to represent the Way that transcends and unites all religions. With a syncretic mechanism, the sect unifies the teachings of the Three Religions (Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism) and in more recent times also of Christianity and Islam and even of the Ten Thousand Religions. The follower communicates with the divinity and lower spirits through psychography or automatic writing. In addition, each sect has its own set of sacred texts that develop certain themes in different directions and essentially serve to differentiate each group from the other.
The Revolt of the Red Turbans
As we mentioned earlier, by 1340 the Mongol Yuan dynasty was beginning to have some difficulties. The Yellow River continued to overflow and other natural disasters increasingly threatened the stability of the Empire. At the same time, the management of the military expenses for the defense of the Empire was huge. Influenced by the White Lotus and the Manichee doctrines, the followers of Kuo Tsu-hsing founded the army of the red turbans. As for the yellow turbans, the name derives from the custom of wearing red fabrics around the head. The revolt broke out in Zhejiang when Fang Guozhen, a Han Chinese, along with his men attacked a group of Mongolian officers.
After this episode, the White Lotus at that time led by Han Shantong, 韓山童, settled in the area north of the Yellow River. Han, born in Henan in Yingzhou, claimed to be a descendant of Song Huizong, the last emperor of the Northern Song dynasty. While working to divert the waters of the Yellow River for the construction of a large building project, Han claimed to have found the one-eyed stone effigy and a prophecy about the impending uprising, reflecting some popular beliefs probably widespread in Henan. Han proclaimed himself as the reincarnation of Maitreya Buddha and announced the arrival of the King of Light. Seemingly, he used the title for himself, and after his demise, his son became known as “King of Light the Young.” However, Han sent a group of rebels to the Korean kingdom of Goryeo, at the time a tributary state of the Yuan dynasty. After some early successes, they were expelled by the Korean army led by Choe Yeong and Yi Seonggye. In 1351, the company plotted for an armed rebellion, but the plan was uncovered and Han was arrested and executed.
After his death, Liu Futong, a prominent member of the White Lotus, assisted by Han’s son Han Lin’er, took charge of the Red Turban army. Lin’er became the symbol of the revolt. Among Lin’s followers was also Zhu Yuanzhang, the future founder of the Ming dynasty. Around 1359, the military power of the two was in decline and Lin’er was still regarded as the favorite candidate for the accession to the imperial throne. Either way, he accidentally drowned in a pond, unable to achieve power. According to some, Lin’er was secretly murdered by some of Zhu Yuanzhang’s agents. A series of riots later erupted south of the Yangtze under the name of Southern Red Turbans. Among the most important leaders are Xu Shouhui and Chen Youliang.
Xu Shouhui, born in Luotian in today’s Hubei, was a clothes seller. In August 1351 he was working together with some affiliates of the White Lotus to create a rebel army in Qizhou. In the following months, they captured Qishui and made it the command center of Red Turban activities, as well as the capital of the newly formed Tianwan Empire. Xu proclaimed himself emperor. The number of his followers continued to increase rapidly since he announced that he was the reincarnation of the Buddha Maitreya who would soon destroy the rich to benefit the poor. In 1352, he invaded Hebei and conquered Jiangxi, Anhui, Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Hunan. After being defeated by the Mongol troops, he took refuge in Huangmei Mountain. In 1355, after reorganizing, he invaded the region again and headed for the capital of Hanyang (corresponding to modern Wuhan). Five years later Xu was assassinated by Chen Youliang, marking the end of the Tianwan Empire. Chen Youliang was born with the surname Xie in a fishing family in Mianyang, in today’s Hubei. He had once served as a district official before becoming a general under Ni Wenjun during the rebellion. Chen later killed Ni Wenjun claiming that Ni would come up with a plan for the elimination of Xu Shouhui. Once Xu was eliminated, Chen proclaimed himself King of the Han in Jiangzhou (now Jiujiang, Jiangxi) and the following year Emperor.
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From 1359 to 1363 Chen’s fleets dominated the upper Yangtze. His power was so great that it could rival Zhu Yuanzhang‘s Wu status. In 1360 Chen’s army engaged in a long war against Wu, whose capital was Jiqing (now Nanjing) and later renamed Ming, in 1368. Chen’s attacks on the capital Wu have repulsed thanks to the excellent secret services of Wu. The war continued until the battle at Lake Poyang where Wu’s fleet narrowly defeated Chen’s after three days of bloody battle. Chen died the next month as his fleet tried to break through Wu’s blockade of Lake Poyang. In 1365 the capital of the Chen kingdom finally fell into the hands of the Ming dynasty.
Zhu Yuanzhang was born into a poor farming family in the village of Zhongli (today’s Fengyang, Anhui). The family, unable to support all eight of his children, gave some of them into foster care. At the age of sixteen, when the Yellow River flooded, the family was even more tried by the calamity. All members of the family, with the exception of one brother, died of the disease. According to his father’s advice, he became a novice monk at the Huangjue Buddhist Temple. He didn’t stay long as the temple’s food reserves forced the monks out of the place of worship. For the next two years, Zhu led a life as a beggar, experiencing the sufferings of ordinary people firsthand.
At the age of 24, he returned to the monastery where he learned to read and write. In 1352, Zhu joined a rebel militia led by Guo Zixing after a Mongolian force destroyed the temple where he had found refuge. Zhu soon climbed the hierarchy to become commander also thanks to his marriage to Guo’s stepdaughter. His troops soon joined the Red Turbans. In 1356 Zhu conquered Nanjing which became the base of his military operations and the capital of the newborn Ming kingdom. His rule was praised, attracting countless people on the run. Meanwhile, the weakened Yuan government had lost control of the Yangtze Valley. In 1358 central and southern China was now under the control of various rebel militias, a consequence of which was the breaking of the front of the Red Turbans who divided and began to fight each other. Once the troops of Chen Youliang were subdued in 1367, the Ming kingdom now extended to Suzhou and Hangzhou. Thus, the other warlords submitted to Zhu who proclaimed himself Hongwu Emperor of the Ming Dynasty with Nanjing as its capital. The ultimate purpose of the dynasty was to drive the Mongols out of China. In 1368 they began the expeditions against the Yuan, managing to conquer Beijing (which at the time was called Dadu or Khanbaliq). In 1381, they completed the reconquest of China by occupying Yunnan. Once the Mongols were driven out of China, the White Lotus slowly died out, at least until another major foreign threat called for the re-emergence of the secret society, namely the Manchu.
The Revolt of the White Lotus
During the eighteenth century, the White Lotus took the form of a nationalist movement inspired by ideals and beliefs borrowed from Taoism, Buddhism, and Manichaeism. The Lotus mission was to overthrow the Manchu Qing dynasty, which had taken control of China. Once again, appealing to the Buddha Maitreya, they called for the restoration of the defeated Ming dynasty, promising salvation to their followers. In 1774, the use of the eight trigrams (bagua, 八卦) as a clandestine form of meditation spread, especially in the province of Shandong. The leader of this group was Wang Lun. He preached a millennial philosophy, emphasizing the imminent coming of Maitreya. Wang was a martial arts master and self-taught doctor. He taught yoga to his followers, meditation, and the ability to increase their physical abilities by drinking purified water. His group was called the Pure Water Sect and by 1774 already had several thousand followers. Wang was able to persuade him that he was the reincarnation of Maitreya destined to reign over China as emperor.
On October 3, they marched on Shouzhang. With the help of some brothers inside the city, he was able to enter through the main gates. The rebels soon plundered Shouzhang, seizing the treasures and supplies. They controlled the city for a few days, to abandon it to attack Yangku who fell abruptly since the local garrison had headed towards Shouzhang. The rebels then captured Tangyi and Liulin and marched to Linqing, an important strategic center. Before reaching the city, Wang Lun’s armies defeated the local Qing troops. The rebels were said to use invulnerability magic, according to rumors. Many Linqing officials fled in terror as Wang Lun approached. The city was under siege by rebels on 11 October. In the following weeks, Wang Lun besieged the city but Qing forces, led by Qin Zhenjun resisted the attack. On October 31, Wang Lun’s troops, exhausted, were surrounded. Determined not to be captured alive, Wang set fire to the tower where he was trapped. His charred body was recognized by his sword and his bracelets. Probably Wang’s failure is to be found in the reckless conduct of his troops. Wang never distributed wealth and requisitioned food, nor did he lower the tax regime. Unable to build a solid foundation, he was forced to quickly abandon all conquered cities. Although he had crossed an area populated by more than a million peasants, his troops never exceeded the number of 4,000 men, many of whom were forced to follow him.
In 1794, White Lotus, another movement with similar characteristics born in the mountains between Sichuan and Hubei. The White Lotus, therefore, led the impoverished peasants by promising salvation in exchange for their loyalty. Born as a fiscal protest movement, the revolt soon grew to gain the support of the population, drawing the fury of the Manchu dynasty.
Emperor Qianlong sent Helin, brother of the infamous and corrupt eunuch Heshen and Fukangan, to quell the revolt. The rebels managed to defeat the inadequate imperial forces. Helin and Fukangen perished in battle in 1796. The empire sent more generals, but none were successful. Only in 1800, with a change of strategy, Beijing hired local militias who helped the imperials to surround and destroy the White Lotus. The greatest difficulty encountered by the Qing was the guerrilla technique adopted by the White Lotus whose followers, once the war operations were over, managed to blend in with the local population. Without a specific enemy to fight, the violence against ordinary people began. The Qing dynasty, due to their brutality, was nicknamed “The Red Lotus Society“. In 1805, however, thanks to a series of military operations, policies aimed at enlisting the inhabitants, and amnesties for deserters, the Qing managed to get the better of the rebels. In any case, the revolts of the White Lotus contributed to the decline of the myth of the Manchu military invincibility and influenced the subsequent great revolt, the Eight Trigrams uprising of 1813.
The Tianli Sect and the Eight Trigrams uprising
The Tianli sect, 天理教, or Heavenly Principle Sect was a branch of the White Lotus Society. In 1811 the leaders of this sect interpreted the appearance of a bright comet in the sky as a sign of the imminent fall of the Qing. Although the Manchese had declared that the appearance of the comet should be interpreted as a sign of the greatness of the ruling dynasty, according to Lin Qing and Li Wencheng the comet was a good omen for their mission. The two divided their followers into eight groups or trigrams, according to the Bagua scheme of the Yijing, promising great rewards after the success of the rebellion. Each would be guaranteed money, land, or imperial posts.
In July 1813, the leaders of the Eight Trigrams met to decide the start date of the rebellion. According to their plan, the uprising was to begin on September 15, coinciding with the end of the harvest in the fields and the journey of Emperor Jianqing. The Forbidden City, thanks to the absence of the Emperor, should have been unguarded, thus favoring the entry of the rebels. Then, once the emperor returned to Peking, they would attack him outside the city and assassinate him. Li Wenchang, however, was arrested on September 2, after government officials learned of the insurgent’s poorly guarded plans. While torturing Li, the rebels managed to free him. This event anticipated the plans and on 6 September, the rioters armed themselves. Soon, Huaxian, Caoxian, and Dingtao fell into the hands of the rebels. Li Qing led and commanded the group that would take the Forbidden City, despite the fact that he did not actively participate in the fighting.
250 rebels who had white scarves around their heads and hips managed to penetrate the palace taking advantage of the lunch break of the guards and the emperor’s distance. Eighty men managed to enter and close the gates of the Forbidden City. Once the Manchu troops realized that the rebels were inside the walls, the fighting began. Once the surprise advantage was lost, the rebels fled but were pursued and eliminated. Li Wencheng withdrew to Huixian, and immolated himself when Qing troops besieged the city. His wife Li Zhangshi managed to keep control of the city until the following year. She hanged herself when Manchurian troops managed to break into the walls. Later, the government definitively eradicated the Eight Trigrams movement by killing over 20,000 followers.
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