Wednesday, May 1, 1996

Origin of Chinese Triads

Although secret societies existed in China since 1500 B.C., the Triad societies were founded in late seventeenth century by ethnic Han Chinese for the purpose of repelling the Manchus and restoring the imperial throne to the Ming dynasty. The Triad was derived from a symbolic equilateral triangle, each side representing the Chinese concepts of Heaven, Earth and Man. I believe the idea was that with the backing of the harmonious triangle, patriotic efforts against the invading foreigner (in this case, the Manchus from northeast of China) would succeed.

The Triads did not succeed. Instead the Manchus juggernaut crushed the few pockets of resistance in southern China and forced the societies underground and on the run. Deprived of support from local populations and nationalistic organizations, the Triads by mid-1800s had to turn to criminal activities such as piracy, smuggling and extortion to support themselves. To that end, the Triads sent their members overseas to Chinese communities to organize and reap the profits of vice and crime among the overseas Chinese.

By the 1900s, the time frame of the movie Shanghai Triads, most Triads had abandoned their patriotic raison d'etre and just concentrated on the highly profitable criminal activities. Since then the Triads are said to have modernized and expanded into more legitimate businesses. Suggested reading for readers wishing to know more is Warlords of Crime - Chinese Secret Societies: The New Mafia by Gerald L. Posner (Penguin 1988).

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