The Origin of the Gelaohui in China
The Gelaohui were the most widespread powerful secret society that existed in the late Qing Dynasty in China. This is not in dispute, what is, however, is the name, the character and the origins of this powerful sect.
There are many different theories as to how the Gelaohui came into bring. The most popular theory is that they emerged from an anti-Qing, Ming loyalist organization formed by Zheng Cheng-gong in the Kangxi period (1662-1722). This belief started at the turn of the century through such people as Tao Cheng-zhang who “invented the far-fetched historical pedigree in order to make use of the secret societies to stir up revolution, and, embellished by certain “secret society writings,” this story has taken on a positively mysterious quality”.
A second theory was that they were founded in the Qianlong period and that after the Taiping rebels were suppressed, they were disbanded. Starving, desperate for food and clothing, they splintered off and created new groups, one being the Gelaohui.
In more recent years, some scholars have suggested that the Gelaohui was “the result of an amalgamation in the late Qing of the Tiandihui and the Bailianjiao (White Lotus), though the Gelaohui and the Tiandihui did not come from the same source”.
Another scholar proposed that they originated from the Jianghuhui, which, in turn, evolved from the Renyihui and the Tiandihui, but does admit that his conclusion only comes from sources found in the First Historical Archives and has not taken into account other sources. Therefore, his theory has not found much weight amongst other scholars.
We know that as early as the Tongzhi period (1862-1875), the Manchu rulers were determined to stamp out the Gelaohui as they caused the Qing many problems. They themselves tried to trace their origins. Numerous Qing officials recorded that they originated in Sichuan many years before. In 1867, for instance, Liu Kun, the Governor of Hunan, wrote: “After examining the archives and carefully studying the question for the past few months, [I have reached the conclusion that] the Gelaohui originated in Sichuan, whence it spread to Guizhou and Hunan, and even to the southeastern provinces”. Another official wrote something very similar but neither tells how they traced their origins.
The Gelaohui sect has often been mistaken for, part of, or a splinter group of the Guluhui group. Because the Guluhui group predates the Gelaohui, it has often been said that the latter were an offshoot of the former. This may be the truth as to the origins of the Gelaohui. In 1843 the Governor of Sichuan wrote: “In Sichuan during the last few years, vagrants from Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi, Shaanxi and Guangdong have been practicing boxing and cudgel fighting; they are also adept at fushui jianxing. They inveigle the unvirtuous ruffians of the province who, banding together and armed with murderous weapons, maraud in villages and towns, calling themselves guluzi”.
The people who joined the gulu bands were mobile transients from other provinces as well as destitute toilers, boatmen, boat trackers, salt and opium peddlers, and disbanded soldiers from Sichuan. They often attacked and looted, causing trouble for the Qing rulers.
“The transformation of the gulu into the Gelaohui was neither a simple reproduction of the same organization nor was it a simple change of name, but was the result of a complex historical evolution. The process clearly comprised two main stages: the anastomosis between the gulu and the White Lotus sect at the time of the White Lotus risings in Sichuan, Hubei, Hunan and Shaanxi, and between the Tiandihui and White Lotus during the Taiping period”.
It was probably in the early years of the Tongzhi period (1862-1875) that the name Gelaohui was first used. But it may be that it was used even earlier as in 1853, Zeng Guofan stated, “It is forbidden to swear brotherhood and join secret societies; if any soldiers do so, and incite or intimidate others, they will be severely investigated. Anyone joining the Gelaohui, spreading or practicing heterodoxy, will be executed”. This shows that by the time this statement was written, the Gelaohui had already made itself widely known.
The origins of the Gelaohui, like any secret society, are a difficult thing to trace. Shrouded in time and secrecy, the truth of the Gelaohui’s origins may never be truly uncovered.
Cai, Shaoqing (1984) On the Origin of the Gelaohui, Modern China, Sage Publications, Inc.