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The Secret Society’s Secret: The Invoked Reality of the Tiandihui

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This essay examines two sets of reports in the Qing-dynasty Jiaqing and Daoguang periods (respectively 1796–1820 and 1821–45) in order to understand better the perceived reality of the Tiandihui. The first set, found among the papers of Jiangxi governor Xianfu (1809–14), allows a comparison of a criminal gang that invoked the Tiandihui ceremony with one that did not. The second set includes the diary of Taihe county magistrate Xu Dihui (in office from 1824) that recorded various events which came to be reported to the senior officialdom as having been conducted by secret societies. By collating the incidents as reported in the diary and memorials to the emperor, the authors argue that the pressure of the administrative process was responsible for the ultimate acquiescence by the Hunan governor Han Wenqi (in office 1825–29) in the perception of an indisputable connection of the incidents with secret societies. Moreover, both sets of reports show that participants in secret-society ceremonies and officials who suppressed them knew that the acclaimed networking of the Tiandihui as implied in its folklore was very far from the reality.

Affiliations: 1: Department of History, Chinese University of Hong Kong ; 2: Department of History, Chinese University of Hong Kong


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