The White Lotus (traditional Chinese: 白蓮敎; simplified Chinese: 白莲敎; pinyin: Báiliánjiào; Wade–Giles: Pai-lien chiao) was a religious and political movement that appealed to many Han Chinese who found solace in worship of Wusheng Laomu ("Unborn Venerable Mother" (traditional Chinese: 無生老母; simplified Chinese: 无生老母)), who was foretold to gather all her children at the millennium into one family.
The doctrine of the White Lotus included a forecast of the imminent advent of the future Buddha, Maitreya.
The first signs of the White Lotus Society came during the late thirteenth century. Mongol rule over China during the Yuan dynasty prompted small yet popular demonstrations against its rule. The White Lotus Society took part in some of these protests as they grew into widespread dissent. The White Lotus originated as a hybrid movement of Buddhism and Manichaeism that emphasized strict vegetarianism; its permission for men and women to interact freely was considered socially shocking. Like other secret societies, they covered up their unusual or illicit activities as "incense-burning ceremonies".
The Mongols considered the White Lotus society a heterodox religious sect and banned it, forcing its members to go underground. Now a secret society, the White Lotus became an instrument of quasi-national resistance and religious organization. This fear of secret societies carried on in the law; the Great Qing Legal Code, which was in effect until 1912, contained the following section:
[A]ll societies calling themselves at random White Lotus, communities of the Buddha Maitreya, or the Mingtsung religion (Manichaeans), or the school of the White Cloud, etc., together with all who carry out deviant and heretical practices, or who in secret places have prints and images, gather the people by burning incense, meeting at night and dispersing by day, thus stirring up and misleading people under the pretext of cultivating virtue, shall be sentenced.
White Lotus Revolution
The White Lotus was a fertile ground for fomenting rebellion.
The White Lotus doctrines and religious observances, particularly their "incense burning" ceremonies which in the popular mind came to typify them, merged with the doctrines and rituals of the Maitreyan sectarians; that produced a cohering ideology among rebel groups, uniting them in common purpose and supplying discipline with which to build a broad movement, recruit armies, and establish civil governing.
A Buddhist monk from Jiangxi named Peng Yingyu began to study the White Lotus and ended up organizing a rebellion in the 1330s. Although the rebellion was put down, Peng survived and hid in Anhui, then reappeared back in South China where he led another unsuccessful rebellion in which he was killed. This second rebellion changed its colors from white to red and its soldiers were known as the "Red Turbans" for their red bandanas.
Another revolution inspired by the White Lotus society took shape in 1352 around Guangzhou. A Buddhist monk and former boy-beggar, the future Ming dynasty founder Zhu Yuanzhang, joined the rebellion. His exceptional intelligence took him to the head of a rebel army; he won people to his side by forbidding his soldiers to pillage in observance of White Lotus religious beliefs. By 1355 the rebellion had spread through much of China.
In 1356, Zhu Yuanzhang captured the important city of Nanjing (then called Jiqing) and made it his capital, renaming it Yingtian 應天. It was here that he began to discard his heterodox beliefs and so won the help of Confucian scholars who issued pronouncements for him and performed rituals in his claim of the Mandate of Heaven, the first step toward establishing a new dynastic rule.
Meanwhile, the Mongols were fighting among themselves, inhibiting their ability to suppress the rebellion. In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang extended his rule to Guangzhou, the same year that the Mongol ruler, Toghon Temür, fled to Karakorum. In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang and his army entered the former capital of Beijing and in 1371 his army moved through Sichuan to the southwest.
By 1387, after more than thirty years of war, Zhu Yuanzhang had liberated all of China. He took the title Hongwu Emperor and founded the Ming dynasty, whose name echoes the religious sentiment of the White Lotus.
The White Lotus reemerged in the late 18th century in the form of an inspired Chinese movement in many different forms and sects.
In 1774, the herbalist and martial artist Wang Lun founded a derivative sect of the White Lotus that promoted underground meditation teachings in Shandong province, not far from Beijing near the city of Linqing. The sect led an uprising that captured three small cities and laid siege to the larger city of Linqing, a strategic location on the north-south Grand Canal transportation route. After initial success, he was outnumbered and defeated by Qing troops, including local armies of Chinese soldiers known as the Green Standard Army.
An account of Wang Lun's death was given to Qing authorities by a captured rebel. Wang Lun remained sitting in his headquarters wearing a purple robe and two silver bracelets while he burned to death with his dagger and double-bladed sword beside him.
Wang Lun likely failed because he did not make any attempts to raise wide public support. He did not distribute captured wealth or food supplies, nor did he promise to lessen the tax burden. Unable to build up a support base, he was forced to quickly flee all three cities that he attacked in order to evade government troops. Though he passed through an area inhabited by almost a million peasants, his army never measured more than four thousand soldiers, many of whom had been forced into service.
Beginning in 1794, two decades after Wang Lun's failed uprising, a movement also arose in the mountainous region that separates Sichuan from Hubei and Shaanxi in central China as tax protests. Here, the White Lotus led impoverished settlers into rebellion, promising personal salvation in return for their loyalty. Beginning as tax protests, the eventual rebellion gained growing support and sympathy from many ordinary people. The rebellion grew in number and power and eventually, into a serious concern for the government.
A systematic program of pacification followed in which the populace was resettled in hundreds of stockaded villages and organized into militia. In its last stage, the Qing suppression policy combined pursuit and extermination of rebel guerrilla bands with a program of amnesty for deserters. The rebellion came to an end in 1804. A decree from the Daoguang Emperor admitted, "it was extortion by local officials that goaded the people into rebellion..." Using the arrest of sectarian members as a threat, local officials and police extorted money from people. Actual participation in sect activities had no impact on an arrest; whether or not monetary demands were met, however, did.
In the first decade of the nineteenth century, there were also several White Lotus sects active in the area around the capital city of Peking. Lin Qing, another member of the Eight Trigrams sect within the White Lotus, united several of these sects and with them build an organization that he would later lead in the Eight Trigrams Uprising of 1813.
Administrators also seized and destroyed sectarian scriptures used by the religious groups. One such official was Huang Yupian (黃育楩), who refuted the ideas found in the scriptures with orthodox Confucian and Buddhist views in A Detailed Refutation of Heresy (破邪詳辯 Pōxié Xiángbiàn), which was written in 1838. This book has since become an invaluable source in understanding the beliefs of these groups.
Uses of the term "White Lotus" in later periods
While traditional historiography has linked many Maitreyist and millenarian uprisings during the Ming and Qing dynasties as all related to the White Lotus, there are reasons to doubt that such connections existed. B J Ter Haar has argued that the term "White Lotus" became a label applied by late Ming and Qing imperial bureaucrats to any number of different popular uprisings, millenarian societies or "magical" practices such as mantra recitation and divination. If this interpretation is correct, the steady rise in the number of White Lotus rebellions in imperial histories during the Ming and Qing does not necessarily reflect the increasing strength of a unified organization. Instead, this trend reflects a growing concern by imperial bureaucrats with any form of Buddhism practiced outside of the sanctioned frameworks of the monasteries.
The White Lotus sect may have been one of the main ancestors of the Chinese organizations known as the Triads. The Triads were originally members and soldiers of the Tiandihui or "Heaven and Earth Society" during the period of the war between the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Triads' formation was not for criminal purposes, but to overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming to power. The White Lotus Society may have been one of five branches of the Heaven Earth Society which formed at the Shaolin Monastery from Ming loyalists. The Five Branches, known by some as the "Five Ancestors", were the Black, Red, White, Yellow and Green Lodges. After there was no longer any need for the triads on the battlefield, some high-level military leaders resorted to criminal activity in order to find means of survival.
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