In today's open environment of martial arts training and practice, the secrecy of the societies that fueled the arts' growth causes some practitioners to shy away from their true historical roots for fear of tainting the image of the arts themselves. Yet, to do so robs the practitioner of a heritage that was, and for the most part still is today, quite noble. Virtually all of China's famous secret societies began as fraternal brotherhoods formed for self-help and mutual aid focused on improving the plight of the common man. All pledged themselves to a moral code significantly stronger than the one adhered to by royal families and ruling bureaucracies. Values such as honor, integrity, filial piety, and humanitarian assistance to others were sworn to, often in blood oaths.
Initially, these societies were openly formed and participated in. Instabilities in the Ming/Qing dynasties led many of them to migrate to a political nature. As governmental corruption increased, so did the political demands of these societies for remedy from oppressive taxes and bureaucratic decrees. Qing Dynasty persecution eventually drove them to secrecy and military action in the form of rebellions. It was only in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries that a criminal element began to influence some of the secret societies, turning them to criminal rather than humanitarian activities.
The majority of these societies required vows from their members that have been categorized by experts into as many as six types: brotherhood, loyalty, righteousness, humanitarianism, nationalism, and secrecy. Only the last two relate directly to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty.
Today, secret societies can be classified into three groups that evolved from a common historical background. First there are political societies, many still active both in and out of Mainland China. Due to political oppression, they still maintain their secretive nature today. A couple of examples of today's political societies with roots dating back over 300 years are the Hung Muhn and Qing Bang societies still highly active in Taiwan. According to researchers and governmental authorities, there is no evidence that either of these societies is involved in criminal activity.
In historical perspective, Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the founding father of today's Republic of China and the man credited with the final overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, was himself a secret society leader. Following that same historical vein, Shang Kai Shek, the first President of the Republic of China, was also a secret society leader. Most political experts today agree that Shek owed his successful bid for the presidency to the political support of the Hung Muhn Society. Even in the 21st century the Hung Muhn society is estimated to have over 100,000 active members including professionals, military men, and intelligence officers. A significant number of the Hung Muhn's leaders are retired General Officers. Many experts believe Hung Muhn leaders founded the Qing Bang society for related political and brotherhood reasons in the 17th century.
This emphasis on brotherhood is still readily apparent in the Hung Muhn initiation rites. The lyrics direct members to "Worship Heaven as our father and Earth as our mother." emphasize that all men are therefore brothers, regardless of surnames or origins. This same emphasis on brotherhood is also seen in Chinese classic literary works, like The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and All Men Are Brothers. In the former, brotherly bonds are revered even higher than matrimonial ties. The book's hero utters a line now famous in Chinese literature. "Brothers are like one's limbs, but wives like one's clothing." In essence, brothers cannot be replaced, but wives can.
Second among the three classifications of secret society descendants in modern times are the criminal organizations (often misnomered as the "Triads") that share similarities to the political societies in name and organization. However, the two should not be confused. The criminal organizations have drifted far from their high moral origins and reflect virtually no orientation to humanitarianism. The name "Triad" itself refers to the great trinity of heaven, earth, and humankind. Political, as well martial societies, were originally included in the "Triad" goal and categorization. With today's frequent use of the term to refer to the criminal element, most secret societies now shy away from using it. The real growth of this criminal group actually occurred in the early 20th century as a result of political accommodations made by power brokers during extremely turbulent times between the final overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937. Often in return for the criminal element's help in control of the masses, powerful political figures would allow prostitution, gambling, smuggling, and opium trades to thrive. It is interesting to note that the rest of the world's nations were experiencing World War I and the Great Depression during these same decades. The rise of mafia style organized crime in the Western World virtually mirrors that of China's criminal societies, and for much the same reasons.
The third group of secret societies seen today is made up of martial arts organizations. They began as warrior sects supported by Royal Ming families dedicated to overthrowing the Manchu invaders of China and restoring the Hon people to ruling power. Like their sister societies focused on political action, they were forced into secrecy for survival. While in secrecy, they continued to train revolutionary troops to fight the Qing Dynasty and, eventually, Western invaders during the Boxer Rebellion. A good example is the original Chin Woo Association founded by Huo Yan Jia (*pinyin spelling) in the early 20th century. Today, martial arts oriented societies still maintain their cultural and historical traditions, but have no relation to political or criminal activities or associations. Most of these groups are no longer secretive.
An older association, the Hung Fa Wui (Red Flower Society) which was a counterpart to the Hung Muhn Society, traces its roots back to the Southern Shaolin Temple and to secret meetings in the same Red Flower Pavilion employed by other secret societies of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The express purpose of this society was the training of martial skills to revolutionary troops. To facilitate that purpose, practitioners are subjected to the same stringent vows of brotherhood and loyalty as the other secret societies, and their code of conduct remains as free from corruption as it was when created by the descendents of the Southern Shaolin Temple.
In answer to the title question of this article, Secret Societies have not given Martial Arts a Bad Rep. To the contrary; they have enriched the goals and code of conduct for all true practitioners and teachers of many popular systems today such as Wing Chun, Southern Mantis, White Eyebrow, Dragon, Fukien White Crane, Five Ancestor's Boxing and Chin Woo.