Tangs and Secret Societies – 2

The Tangs, continued

Hand Language

There were other social aspects affecting the Kung Fu, we might consider the inevitable Chinese consideration of status know as “face”. For instance, the same exact form practiced collectively by members of the same Tang at the exact same moment might have ten people doing ten different versions of the same posture. Why? Because the hand positions of the various players designated who occupied what position in the Tang: treasurer, foot soldier, director, whatever.

In the example of just one organization, the Hung League, we know of special postures and hand formations for reaching for a tea cup; greeting one another; beginning a fight with someone (three steps up and one and a half back); and even cowering in a riot (“Don’t hit me, I’m one of yours!”) The assumption was, of course, that the other guy would recognize you as a fellow member and desist from trouncing you (or at least fake a much fiercer attack with less attempt to do real damage). Does all this sound like a bit much? Some Kenpo practitioners to this day retain special handshakes and “hidden hand” salutations which are different for each and every form in their system. These movements are performed so that those on your side of the room can see you flashing the correct hand sign before bringing your salute to the front and in essence hiding it from the rest of the audience.

As time passed and conditions dispersed these variations invariably sifted down into the general populace. The famous Bridge Hand of Hung Gar is based on Chinese stregnth building theory—true—but it also carries a message of revolution “If every Chinese lifted a single finger we could banish all foreigners.” Other even more famous salutations are less relaxed on the expulsion of foreign influence calling in essence for death and exile. And for those who have already noticed it, we will say nothing more about the similarity for the names Hung Gar and the Hung League.


There are those, and you may count me among them, who believe that society cannot exist without secret or at least “special interest” groups. The broad, homogenous aspects of social nuance cannot even address the specific needs of smaller groups. People may trust and attend their church, bowling league, the Freemasons, the Chinese Cultural Center or you, if you can, the Skulls and Bones; the Bohemian Club or any other organization they chose. But collect they will, especially in times of great adversity and change. It is ironic though that so many people who would be loathe to attend such organizations are perfectly calm believing that their own rulers are members of such societies.

While the Chinese trust such organizations they do so with some very real reservations. Too many full scale rebellions have been fueled by the pressure from such groups. Often they tart out with little more than parochial interests which catch, ignite then ravage the nation. One tosses one’s matches with caution into the dry undergrowth.

And politics being ever the art of the possible Tangs have often played the roles of shuttle cock kicked back and forth between powerful feet. The Empress Dowager, for instance, played an insidious game blaming the Boxer Rebellion f the Tangs while secretly hoping that they would indeed expel the Western powers. She lost this risky bet, though, and the penalties heaped on China essentially ended the entire dynastic history. So Kung Fu men, or Boxers if you will, decided the fate of the longest lived and largest civilization in history. How’s that for relevance?

White Lotus, Tai Ping, White Eyebrow, Red Eyebrow, Red Lantern: rebellions often take their name from the organizations which birthed and bred them. The history of empire is the chronology of rebellion. Such rebellions are so obviously the working of national fate that, as in the case of the Song dynasty, the leader is sometimes encouraged to take his place up front at the urging of a sword point. (Learning from this beginning, Zhao Kuan Yin, ascending the throne, made sure there would be no further such turns of fate. Highly enlightened he did this through rewards.)

To see Kung Fu as a continuous history isolated from all the other streams of culture, feeding it and being engorged by it in return, would be a mistake. Culture, its needs and benefits, are so often of a single piece that we can only deconstruct them at the risk of killing the thing we want to study. What, then, is a Tang? It’s not a single thing at all. It brings together people, needs, their local ideas and national interests. They are not always good things but they are more often than not community by choice instead of accident. Throughout the dynastic history of China they have been one of the most powerful influences to “spin the wheel” of power and privilege again to demonstrate the persistent view that “the only thing that remains the same is change.”

Here are a few highlights, if you will, from the long history of special groups and hidden causes…

The Red Eyebrows: In the year 9 of the common era (C.E.) China’s throne was usurped by one Wang Mang: a reformer introducing taxation, more commerce and private land ownership. A counter-movement called the Red Eyebrows (due to their signal red painted eyebrows) arose in Shantung. Wang Mang was eventually assassinated and history still connects the Red Eyebrows to this. Eventually they became outlaws and needed to be suppressed by the government.

In 170 C.E. Chang Chueh claiming to be the descendent of Chang Tao Ling, the first “Taoist pope”, organized a rebellion with his troops donning their distinctive “Yellow Turbans”. So powerful did the become that most of Northern China was controlled by them in a single month after the rebellion started. When their time was over they were followed by the famous Three Kingdoms period not in small part inspired by the Yellow Turbans.

As the great Sung dynasty retreated before the oncoming Mongols many of the people they left abandoned organized themselves into an anti-Mongol revolt known collectively as the White Lotus. Though the original White Lotus Society was formed in 376 a rebel leader called Han ShanTung revised the effort in 1344. Calliing on the appearance of the “Buddha of the Future” and some lucky omens the White Lotus was instrumental in repelling the Mongols and beginning the famous Ming dynasty. As the new rulers tried to control their former allies they found them irrepressible splitting into and associating with a host of other groups including The Incense Smelling Sect, the White Yang Branch; the Triad Society, the Nine Heavenly Mansions society and more. So, once more, the seeming repression of the sects created even more of them.


Do the Tangs still exist? The pressures of modernity may be repainting their faces but we bet that they will outlast this century. Here are more doorways we photographed in an hour weaving through Grant St., San Francisco.

Leave a Reply

What do you have to say?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.