The Chinese Triad has been in operation since the 17th Century and has spread to become a transnational network of secretive cells. Let’s learn more about the origins of the Chinese triad and its development into a secret criminal society.
A Brief History of the Chinese Triad
The Triad is a word used for secret societies active during the Qing Dynasty in China 1636, as well as modern Chinese crime gangs.
Originally the Triad was a branch of the secret Heaven and Earth Society which was formed by patriotic Chinese to overthrow the oppressive Qing Dynasty. They were a revolutionary movement with underground practices and were influenced by numerology and occultism.
In the 19th century, a secret society that called themselves the Triad developed in Southern China. They were involved in rebellions in the 1850s that threatened Shanghai and aided in the 1911 revolution.
In the People’s Republic of China which was formed in 1949, secret societies were suppressed during a “strike hard” campaign against organized crime. Triad groups relocated to the British colonies of Hong Kong, Taiwan and South East Asia, and overseas countries. They turned to drugs and extortion to make an income and are now known as one of the toughest criminal organizations today.
Structure of the Triad
Within triad groups, there is a pyramid hierarchy. It is not a strictly hierarchical design but rather based on many separate and autonomous cells. Each cell has an area boss that leads 15 to 20 core members that control a particular area through violence. They form the middle level of the Triad, with the bottom level being made up of youth and juvenile gangs.
The core component of the Triad structures is a concept of Guanxi or “Brotherhood”. There are strict rules within each Triad group, with members often having family relationships and even hereditary membership.
If members are found violating the secrets of the Triad, they are severely and brutally punished. Punishment is carried out by a member called a “red pole” who has been trained in torture.
Initiation, Rituals, and Symbolism
The Triad consists of elaborate rituals that help provide a sense of secrecy and loyalty.
The initiation ritual involves an animal sacrifice and the blood of the animal is then mixed with wine that the initiate drinks. New members also have to say 36 vows of loyalty, each one written on a yellow piece of paper. These papers are then symbolically burnt at the end of their ritual.
Numerology is important in the Triad system and members are given numeric codes to distinguish their ranks. Low-level members have the number 49 and this is thought to reference the fact that 4 multiplied by 9 makes 36 which symbolises the 36 vows initiates take when joining a triad. The leader of the Triad, the Chan, has the number 489.
The Function of the Chinese Triad
Originally the Chinese Triad was an underground patriotic movement that fought to bring about political reform. Over the years they have been used by the Chinese and British government to strike out against political rivals.
Triads now control a large portion of the international drug trade. Most of the raw opium is grown in the Golden Triangle, the mountainous area bordering Laos, Burma, Northern Vietnam, and Thailand. This is then processed into heroin. Distribution of this drug is controlled by Triad leaders in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia.
They are also responsible for the distribution of methamphetamine, MDMA, and ketamine. The Triad controls the hard drug trade through bribery, extortion, and murder.
The Triad has also been involved in counterfeiting since the 1880s with everything from black market books to watches, DVDs, and designer apparel. Many Triad cells are also heavily involved in the illegal seafood trade as well as poaching and the illicit trade of animals.
History of Violence
The Chinese Triad has a history of violence dating back to its inception in the 17th century.
The Chinese Nationalist Party enlisted them to attack their political enemies and used the Green Gang, the most prominent and powerful secret society in Shanghai, to suppress unionists and massacre thousands of communists in 1927.
Turf battles over gambling and prostitution are common. The pretext of patriotism has been an important factor in the longevity of Triad secret societies in China, and in the past decade, members have carried out assaults in Hong Kong with political implications.
Nowadays, Triads can be more accurately described as criminal gangs who resort to the Triad myth to promote illegal activities.
Chinese Triad cells can be found all over the world, particularly in Australia, Europe, Japan, Latin America, North America, Russia, South Africa, and Southeast Asia.
They deal in everything from the trafficking of human beings and commodities to financial crimes, extortion, gambling, prostitution, and violent crimes. Triad cells can often be involved in migrant smuggling. They use the profits from drug trafficking to finance other illegal activities.
Since 1995 the Criminal Intelligence Bureau of Hong Kong has run a triad Expert Training Course for overseas law enforcement departments.