The term 'Triad' was given by the Hong Kong government to Chinese secret societies based on the triangular symbol which once represented such societies. The symbol is the Chinese character 'Hung,' encased in a triangle, representing the union of heaven, earth, and man. So Triads even today are sometimes referred to as the 'Hung Society' or the 'Heaven and Earth Society.' Get it right, or you'll get beaten roughly with plastic lawn chairs, I've seen it happen. The Triads, and depictions in the movies.
The purpose of these societies, it is said, was the overthrow of the Qing empire and the restoration of the Ming. The character 'Hung,' in addition to meaning the most auspicious and lucky color 'red,' also alludes to the founder of the Ming Dynasty, Hung Wu. Because of the treasonous nature of their enterprise they developed secret forms of communication and elaborate initiation ceremonies to impress upon new members the need for absolute loyalty and secrecy.
Triads have a rather elaborate history which is partly based on reality, partly myth. It involves not only a struggle against the Qing dynasty, but a retreat to the Shaolin monastery and the eventual famous burning of the monastery are an integral part. Only five survived the fire, and these are said to be the 'Five Ancestors' of modern triads. They go on to have a number of adventures which are still remembered by triad officials and sometimes represented in initiation rituals.
Triad origin mythology holds that when they recruited thousands of people to their cause, including Sun Yat-Sen, the Qing Dynasty was finally defeated. Whatever the cause of the collapse of the Qing, and whatever the triad's involvement, when it at last fell, triad societies no longer had a dedicated cause and so realigned their purposes. Some became (and in fact had been already) devoted strictly to criminal activities. Others were martial associations. Still others were like labor unions and trading associations. Many were some combination of all of these. Joining a Triad did not mean that you were a criminal, and there were many advantages to membership. The greatest advantage was that by joining the Triad you were joining an international fraternity of like-minded individuals who could then offer assistance and protection to you when necessary. Just like people who put down their fraternity affiliation on a resume these days in the hopes that their prospective employer also happens to be a Phi Beta Kappa.
It is important to note that the Triads are not synonymous with Chinese criminal syndicates. That is to say, not all syndicate members or criminals are automatically triad members. On the other hand, all triad members are criminals, if only because membership alone is considered a criminal offence under Hong Kong's 1994 Organized & Serious Crimes Ordinance. But even though everyone who is part of a triad is breaking the law through membership alone, most triad members are not otherwise criminally active. So membership in a given Triad may be estimated at 20,000, but only 2000 of those would be designated as 'active' -- i.e., engaged in criminal activity. On the other hand, a small street-level gang may have no Triad affiliation at all. Children who grow up to enter a street gang have usually made some triad contacts and it is likely they would join for the protection and status membership provides. When it comes right down to it, it's just like the fact that not all Republicans are NRA members, and vice versa, even though there is a very strong relationship between the two.
The triads then are not at all like the Mafia. The Mafia is known for strong familial ties, and a rigid pyramidal hierarchy. Triads on the other hand, are loose affiliations in the extreme. Although there is an hierarchy to Triad leadership, those lower on the ladder have much more freedom of lateral movement. In fact, rarely are the movements and activities of smaller gangs directed by the leaders of a triad. Triad members do not typically have to secure permission from the head of a triad in order to engage in a criminal activity, even if the activity involves partnering with people who are not members of the triad or are even in fact members of a different triad. So how does it all work, then?
Joining a triad can be a great advantage to a person who wishes to engage in criminal activity. Immediately upon entering a triad, they will have greater access to resources and be able to more easily partner with other members of the triad to pull off their money-making schemes. Not only that, claiming membership in a large criminal fraternity backs up an individual criminal and increases his status. Victims of extortion are much less likely to protest when they feel that the powerful and mysterious triads, who have tentacles all over the world, are leaning on them, as opposed to just feeling picked on by some 14 year old punk without much in the way of future prospects. The street punks themselves find greater self-respect in the fanciful idea that they belong to a fraternity of noble warriors whose history extends back hundreds of years. Although there is not necessarily a direct benefit to senior members of triad fraternities from the actions of junior members, benefits do move upward especially through monetary and other gifts given by junior triad members to their seniors on special occasions such as the Chinese New Year and other holidays.
Although triads originated in China, Hong Kong is the undisputed capital. Triad activity is most concentrated there. Triads do have international scope, however, with members in nearly every country in the world, especially strong in China, southeast Asia, and the United States. Triad criminal activity includes but is not limited to street-level crime like gambling, extortion, and prostitution, and international activities such as narcotics trafficking, counterfeiting, and smuggling goods and people.
In Hong Kong, it is estimated that there are 50 triad societies with a total membership of at least 80,000. Of these societies, about fifteen are criminally active. What follows is a list of the largest triads operating in Hong Kong:
Sun Yee On: The largest triad in Hong Kong with an estimated 25,000 members. In addition to activities in Hong Kong, intelligence reports since 1994 seem to indicate that they dominate the government of Guangdong Province on the mainland.
Wo Group: There are around nine subgroups in this triad grouping with a total membership of around 20,000. Different subgroups have been known to 'specialize' in different activities, the Wo Shing Yee controls dockworkers, the Wo On Lok specializes in loan-sharking, the Wo Hop To runs protection rackets, and so on. The original Wo group triad was the Wo Shing Wo, and it is the longest established triad in Hong Kong.
14K Triad: Also with roughly 20,000 members, the 14K originated with the fight by the Guomintang against communism. Chiang Kai-Shek ordered that a league of all triad societies be established and used to fight communist forces using guerrilla tactics. The '14' in the name refers to the address of the original headquarters of this effort. There are over thirty subgroups to the 14K, and it remains one of the most powerful triads internationally.
Big Circle Gang: Former Red Army Guards and PLA soldiers form a sort of loose affiliation of gangs, though they are not technically a triad society. They enter Hong Kong illegally and are known for violent armed robberies of jewelry stores, banks, and gold dealers. Often they are equipped with military weaponry such as assault rifles and grenade launchers. The name may derive from re-education detention camps in China to which Red Guards have been sent or escaped from, and which are marked on maps by a large circle.
At its most basic level, the heirarchy of triad members matters little except in each individual relationship between two members, each based on ties between the 'Dai-Lo,' or big brother, and 'Sai-Lo', or little brother. The big brothers give work, protection, and advice to the younger brothers, who give loyalty, support, and money in exchange. In many cases, this is the only relationship that matters.
But there is a triad heirarchy. It is not really known to what extent it is still used. Most analysts agree the lower level ranks are still commonly in place, but how many triad groups use the more complicated higher rankings and to what extent cannot be accurately measured. Along with the names of each rank, triad ranks also have numbers, all beginning with the number 4, which represents the four oceans which were said to surround China in ancient times, and so signifies the universe as a whole.
489: At the top of the triad hierarchy is the man known as Mountain Lord, First Route Marshal, or Dragon Head. The Dragon Head is an elected position, and the person in this position has final responisibility for the triad organization as a whole, including arbitrating conflict within various branches, and guiding the general direction the organization should be taking. His word is law. He is sometimes referred to as a 21 (4+8+9), the character for which reflects the symbol for 'hung,' as used to represent the Hung Society as a whole.
438: Below the Dragon Head are a number of positions of equal rank: The Assistant Mountain Lord, the Incense Master, and the Vanguard. The assistant acts as the Dragon Head's proxy in his absence, and is often conferred with by the Dragon Head for important decisions. The Incense Master and Vanguard officiate over triad rituals, in this respect they are extremely important in preserving the rituals and ensuring that they remain potent symbols of the triads history and power. In this regard, the number 438 becomes 15 (4+3+8), which further breaks down into 3 X 5: 3 symbolizing creation, and 5 symbolizing longevity. Of course, all this numerological massaging is suspect at best. Although these are common explanations for the rank numbers, it is more likely that the numbers had some significance as part of the ancient mystery rites from which triads developed, long ago, significance which has long been forgotten and supplanted by explanations based on more recent triad history and numerology.
426: The Red Pole. Red Poles were originally military unit leaders, they are now gang leaders. A Red Pole may have around fifty men under his command. He is the one who takes care of the messy aspects of triad life, if pressure needs to be put on, if someone needs to be rubbed out, the Red Pole is called and he carries out the assignment with his men.
415: At the same level as the Red Pole is the White Paper Fan, or administrativie officer. The White Paper Fan is responsible for keeping the books, investing the money, determining legal strategy, and so on. Typically highly educated and not a fighter, but may consult with a Red Pole on strategy.
432: The Straw Sandal, also at the same rank in a triad organization as Red Poles and White Paper Fans, is the triad messenger. Someone need a ransom notice? The Straw Sandal delivers. He also organizes branch meetings and gang fights.
49: At the bottom of the triad hierarchy are the 49s. Almost all triad members belong to this category. They are the footsoldiers of organized crime. 49 becomes 36 (4 X 9), the number of oaths a new recruit must swear before joining the triad.
According to recent police reports, many triads organize themselves out of Red Poles and 49s. The Red Poles might each be branch leaders. A council of Red Poles presides over the triad as a whole, with one of the Red Poles being elected as Chairperson, another as Treasurer. Most of the other ranks have fallen into disuse.
Triad Initiation Ceremonies
Elements of triad initiation are derived from all aspects of the history of triad societies. The ritualized aspect derives in part from when triads were more like cults. The swearing of absolute secrecy comes from their tradition of anti-government activities. Initiation fees are paid, dating from practices in place when triads were more similar to trade-guilds or cooperatives. Each element of the initiation ceremony represents some aspect of the myth and occasionally the reality of triad origins.
The initiation ceremony as it was practiced as recently as twenty years ago could take six hours to complete. These days, however, triad officials have little time to conduct such elaborate ceremonies, and fewer and fewer people even know the proper way to conduct one. Instead, new recruits are given a quick, fifteen minute ceremony in which they must swear the thirty-six oaths, and really that's about it. The longer ceremonies may still occasionally be conducted for promotions.
It begins, then, with entrance into the triad lodge. The lodge is not a fixed space, rather it is wherever the ceremony is set up. It could be someone's basement, or even an alleyway. As a result, the layout of the ceremonial chamber is adapted to meet the needs of the situation. The recruit is summoned to the lodge by a notice written on red paper or a strip of bamboo. The recruit must remove his shoes and socks, and bare his chest before entering. The Incense Master and the Vanguard preside over the ceremony.
Upon entering the lodge, there are three archways or gates through which the initiate must pass. In front of the first, on which a warning is written which reads, 'On entering the door, do not proceed further if you are not loyal,' the initiate does a ritual dance, then passes through. The archway itself is made of crossed swords, and entering the archway is called 'Passing the Mountain of Knives.' On the other side the Vanguard records information about his membership (of course, no written records are kept). The second gate is named the 'Loyalty and Righteousness Hall.' A sign on the arch declares 'Before the gate of loyalty and righteousness all men are equal.' After passing through this second arch, the initiate pays his initiation fee, handing it over in a little red envelope. Past the third gate is the 'Heaven and Earth Circle,' and a sign on the arch states, 'Through the Heaven and Earth Circle are Born the Hung Heroes.' The recruit must pass through the third arch, then the 'Heaven and Earth Circle' itself, a bamboo hoop. Passing through the hoop represents a sort of rebirth into triad society. On the other side of the Circle the initiate enters the main hall and must then navigate through a series of episodes symbolizing the history of the triads, with names like 'The Stepping Stones,' 'The Two Plank Bridge,' and 'The Fiery Pit.' Senior triad officials stand on either side, observing the progress of the initiate through the ritual.
At last, the initiate stands before the triad altar at the end of the hall, where senior triad leaders recite some triad poetry to him. Believe it or not, there are books full of triad poetry, kept carefully guarded and secreted away by some triad members. After the poetry slam, the initiate washes his face, removes his clothes, and is given white robes and straw sandals to wear. His old life washed away, he is now prepared for his rebirth as a triad member. In front of the altar, he swears the thirty-six oaths, and binds the oaths with blood -- usually a cock is killed and its blood dripped into a bowl of wine. Then yellow paper is burned and its ash added to the blood wine, and it is tasted by the initiate. The bowl is broken to illustrate what becomes of traitors. The recruit is now a 49. The ceremony ends with a trip to a restaurant for a feast of celebration.
The elaborate ceremony instills respect and fear of the institution into new triad recruits. As long as a sense of awe and respect fills his heart, he will be loyal. But ever since the crackdown on triads in Hong Kong, elaborate initiation ceremonies are a dying breed. Sometimes the new recruit may nowadays forgo the entire ceremony, instead swearing to an altar to Guan Yu, the God of War. Although Guan Yu is worshipped by all triads (and police) in Hong Kong, he actually does not figure in the original initiation ceremony, which adheres strictly to symbolism derived from the triad origin myths, in which Guan Yu does not play a part.
The Thirty-Six Oaths
I found many sources for the thirty-six oaths, each one differing widely from the other. The most legitimate list I could find comes from W.P. Morgan's Triad Societies in Hong Kong, written in 1960, and reprinted below. These days the oath-taking is much abbreviated, but this list can be considered a list of traditional Triad oaths, which the so-called honorable Triad men would follow.
- After having entered the Hung gates I must treat the parents and relatives of my sworn brothers as my own kin. I shall suffer death by five thunderbolts if I do not keep this oath.
- I shall assist my sworn brothers to bury their parents and brothers by offering financial or physical assistance. I shall be killed by five thunderbolts if I pretend to have no knowledge of their troubles.
- When Hung brothers visit my house, I shall provide them with board and lodging. I shall be killed by myriads of knives if I treat them as strangers.
- I will always acknowledge my Hung brothers when they identify themselves. If I ignore them I will be killed by myriads of swords.
- I shall not disclose the secrets of the Hung family, not even to my parents, brothers, or wife. I shall never disclose the secrets for money. I will be killed by myriads of swords if I do so.
- I shall never betray my sworn brothers. If, through a misunderstanding, I have caused the arrest of one of my brothers I must release him immediately. If I break this oath I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
- I will offer financial assistance to sworn brothers who are in trouble in order that they may pay their passage fee, etc. If I break this oath I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
- I must never cause harm or bring trouble to my sworn brothers or Incense Master. If I do so I will be killed by myriads of swords.
- I must never commit any indecent assaults on the wives, sisters, or daughters, of my sworn brothers. I shall be killed by five thunderbolts if I break this oath.
- I shall never embezzle cash or property from my sworn brothers. If I break this oath I will be killed by myriads of swords.
- I will take good care of the wives or children of sworn brothers entrusted to my keeping. If I do not I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
- If I have supplied false particulars about myself for the purpose of joining the Hung family I shall be killed by five thunderbolts.
- If I should change my mind and deny my membership of the Hung family I will be killed by myriads of swords.
- If I rob a sworn brother or assist an outsider to do so I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
- If I should take advantage of a sworn brother or force unfair business deals upon him I will be killed by myriads of swords.
- If I knowingly convert my sworn brother's cash or property to my own use I shall be killed by five thunderbolts.
- If I have wrongly taken a sworn brother's cash or property during a robbery I must return them to him. If I do not I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
- If I am arrested after committing an offence I must accept my punishment an not try to place blame on my sworn brothers. If I do so I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
- If any of my sworn brothers are killed, or arrested, or have departed to some other place, I will assist their wives and children who may be in need. If I pretend to have no knowledge of their difficulties I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
- When any of my sworn brothers have been assaulted or blamed by others, I must come forward and help him if he is in the right or advise him to desist if he is wrong. If he has been repeatedly insulted by others I shall inform our other brothers and arrange to help him physically or financially. If I do not keep this oath I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
- If it comes to my knowledge that the Government is seeking any of my sworn brothers who has come from other provinces or from overseas, I shall immediately inform him in order that he may make his escape. If I break this oath I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
- I must not conspire with outsiders to cheat my sworn brothers at gambling. If I do so I will be killed by myriads of swords.
- I shall not cause discord amongst my sworn brothers by spreading false reports about any of them. If I do so I will be killed by myriads of swords.
- I shall not appoint myself as Incense Master without authority. After entering the Hung gates for three years the loyal and faithful ones may be promoted by the Incense Master with the support of his sworn brothers. I shall be killed by five thunderbolts if I make any unauthorized promotions myself.
- If my natural brothers are involved in a dispute or law suit with my sworn brothers I must not help either party against the other but must attempt to have the matter settled amicably. If I break this oath I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
- After entering the Hung gates I must forget any previous grudges I may have borne against my sworn brothers. If I do not do so I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
- I must not trespass upon the territory occupied by my sworn brothers. I shall be killed by five thunderbolts if I pretend to have no knowledge of my brothers' rights in such matters.
- I must not covet or seek to share any property or cash obtained by my sworn brothers. If I have such ideas I will be killed.
- I must not disclose any address where my sworn brothers keep their wealth nor must I conspire to make wrong use of such knowledge. If I do so I will be killed by myriads of swords.
- I must not give support to outsiders if so doing is against the interests of any of my sworn brothers. If I do not keep this oath I will be killed by myriads of swords.
- I must not take advantage of the Hung brotherhood in order to opress or take violent or unreasonable advantage of others. I must be content and honest. If I break this oath I will be killed by five thunderbolts.
- I shall be killed by five thunderbolts if I behave indecently towards small children of my sworn brothers' families.
- If any of my sworn brothers has committed a big offence I must not inform upon them to the Government for the purposes of obtaining a reward. I shall be killed by five thunderbolts if I break this oath.
- I must not take to myself the wives and concubines of my sworn brothers nor commit adultery with them. If I do so I will be killed by myriads of swords.
- I must never reveal Hung secrets or signs when speaking to outsiders. If I do so I will be killed by myriads of swords.
- After entering the Hung gates I shall be loyal and faithful and shall endeavour to overthrow Ch'ing and restore Ming by co-ordinating my efforts with those of my sworn brethren even though my brethren and I may not be in the same professions. Our common aim is to avenge our Five Ancestors.
[UPDATE: For those sharp triad boyz who have posted below requesting that this information be removed because it is super top-secret sensitive information: while I appreciate the vote of confidence, where have you been? This information is public knowledge and can be gathered by anyone with a library card (which is how I got it). For that matter, you can find another translation of the oaths, and more triad information, over at wikipedia now. This article was written solely to increase your understanding and enjoyment of Hong Kong movies with Triad themes. Kids, don't play with these oaths at home!]