The Gelaohui (Chinese: 哥老會; Pinyin: Gēlǎohuì; lit. Elders Brothers Society), also known as Futaubang, or Hatchet Gang (Chinese: 斧头帮), as every member allegedly carried a small hatchet inside the sleeve, was a secret society and underground resistance movement against the Qing dynasty. Although it was not associated with Sun Yat-sen's Tongmenhui, they both participated in the Xinhai Revolution.
Originating in western China, likely in Sichuan or Guizhou, the society engaged in several uprisings across China, notably in Hunan province during 1870 and 1871. Numerous individuals notable in late-19th and early-20th Chinese history (including Zhu De, Wu Yuzhang, Liu Zhidan and He Long) were Gelaohui members.
Originally quite willing to take on other "oppressed" Chinese minorities, several Chinese Muslim Gelaohui members participated in the Ningxia Revolution, and there was a substantial number of Muslim Gelaohui in Shaanxi.
According to some accounts, the Gelaohui clique emerged as part of the wider group of Ming secret societies, such as the Tiandihui (Heaven and Earth Society) and Bailianjiao (White Lotus Sect), that railed against the Manchu Qing dynasty. However, it is more likely it began as an offshoot or alternative name of the so-called "Brotherhood Clique" within the Xiang Army It is believed that some 30% of the Xiang Army may have been Gelaohui members, and after the disbandment of the army in the aftermath of the Taiping Rebellion it spread along the Yangtze to become a Triad order. The Geolaohui became increasingly associated with the revolutionaries of Dr. Sun Yatsen's Tongmenhui during the 1880s, participating in the Xinhai Revolution against the Qing, and infiltrating the army and education system.
Beginning as an anti-Manchu organization, by 1891 the Gelaohui had grown to encompass a wide variety of revolutionary aims. They were blamed for anti-foreign riots around the Yangtze delta, apparently in hope of provoking foreigners and damaging the Chinese government's international standing, and accused of infiltrating schools to foster anti-Western sentiment. Their government stance led them into disputes with pro-government Muslim warlords. After the German government took over Shandong many Chinese feared that the foreign missionaries and quite possibly all Christian activities were colonial attempts at "carving the melon", i.e., to divide and colonize China piece by piece. A Chinese official expressed the animosity towards foreigners succinctly, "Take away your missionaries and your opium and you will be welcome."
During and after the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, Chinese Muslim troops under the command of Ma Anliang sided with Yuan Shikai's government, with the Gelaohui in the Muslim provinces crushed as a society. Captured members were publicly beheaded. The pro-Yuan Shikai stance of the Muslim governors caused increasing bad blood between them and the Gelaohui, and during the Bai Lang Rebellion Gelaohui from Henan sided with revolutionary forces, leading to a series of massacres.
Among the "tenets" of the Gelaohui was "hatred of the foreigner", from which "hatred of the Manchu" was derived, and it encouraged the killing of foreigners.
The Gelaohui hated foreigners and Christians. During the Xinhai Revolution in 1912, they attacked Catholic missions in Sandaohe, Ningxia, but the Chinese Muslim forces under Muslim General Ma Fuxiang protected the missions.
The Muslim General Ma Lu (馬祿) was a member of the Gelaohui. He fought against the Japanese in World War II along with Muslim General Ma Biao.
The Muslim General Ma Yuanlin 馬元林 was a member of the Gelaohui.
1930s: Years of Decline
The Gelaohui continued to exist as a broad and loosely affiliated group of hundreds of thousands well into the 1930s, though its influence was severely curtailed by the end of the Warlord Era, Chiang Kai-shek's rise to power and the ravagement of the country during the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War. Nevertheless, the society's influence remained substantial until the Communists seized power in 1949; in 1936, for example, Mao Zedong wrote an open letter to the Gelaohui declaring them legal under the Chinese Soviet government and asking for their assistance. Starting in 1949, however, the society was repressed and is believed to be defunct.
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