chapter  14
Triads
Pages 15

Before anything else, two questions demand immediate answers. Where does the term “triad” come from? And what does it mean? The first is much easier to answer than the second. “ ‘Triad’ was coined,” Paul Lunde notes, “in 1821 by Dr. Milne of Malacca in the first English description of the Three Unities Society.”1 Dr. William Milne (1785-1822) was the western “pioneer in the study of Chinese secret societies,” a Scottish missionary, and principal of the AngloChinese college in Malacca, which is located in the southern region of the Malay peninsula, on the straits of Malacca, and in the present country of Malaysia.2 “Triad” is thus shorthand, inspired by something known as the Three Unities Society, which itself calls for definition. Sources conflict as to the preferred name for this group. Lunde uses “unities”; others refer to it as the “Three United Society.”3 The “three unities society” and the “three united society” are English names for yet another entity, the Samhehui, which was a secret society in the tradition of the Tiandihui. “After suppressing the Lin Shuangwen rebellion in 1786,” Yiu Kong Chu notes,

the Qing government in China declared the Tiandihui an illegal society. Consequently, all societies which adopted the name and ritual of the Tiandihui were forced to go underground or to change their names to escape detention. One of those was the Samhehui (Three United Society), better known as “Triad.” 4

So this is, in brief, the origins of the term “triad.” Now what does “triad” or in its fuller designation the “Three United Society” mean? Put more simply, what three things are united? Martin Booth suggests that members see the world as “tripartite, a unity of the three main powers of nature: heaven, earth and man.”5 Whether this world view was integral to, or had any influence on, the criminal ethos that increasingly infused the triads as they developed is beyond the author. What is evident is the mystical nature of the concept of the threesome. It is not unique to Chinese or triad culture. Threesomes play crucial roles, for example, in Christianity, with a Deity known as the Trinity consisting of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and in aspects of Jewish thought.6 For secret societies association with a threesome could only enhance

the desired aura of an impenetrable presence. And practically speaking, the concept of a threesome led to all sorts of material objects: “Many of the early society flags, used in ceremonies or paraded into battle, bore a triangle. Both the name and the emblem are the origin of the modern term for all Chinese secret societies-the Triads.”7 Thus, the term “triad” was coined with a particular organization in mind, the Samhehui (Three United Society), but eventually embraced “all Chinese secret societies.” In the midst of all this nomenclature, one should not lose sight of a crucial fact: the term “triad” is a foreign invention, by William Milne, and used primarily by foreigners to refer to Chinese secret societies. The Chinese themselves “refer to the societies either under their individual names or, collectively, as Hak Sh’e Wui, the Black Society.”8 The fact that “triad” is shorthand has two important consequences. For outsiders attempting to understand them, shorthand can promote stereotyping: if you have seen one, you have seen most or all. For insiders, stereotypical thought about them has strategic value, as the shorthand becomes an obstacle to the kind of precise analysis that might inform law enforcement approaches which could damage them. Having explained the meaning of the term “triad” and where it originated, we can now turn to the secret societies themselves-their origins, criminalization, domestic development, and expansion overseas. But first we set a stage that assembles salient facts from Chinese geography and history. Our concern here is with information that will help us better understand the triads. Let us begin with geography. Situated in eastern Asia, China is a vast country, with a land area of 9,569,901 km2, and a water area of 27,060 km2. It is the third largest country in the world after Russia and Canada. If one does not count territories whose inclusion is controversial, China slips to fourth and the US becomes the third largest country. Either way, the distances are still daunting. From east to west the country spans 5,026 km (3,123 miles). Its total coastline is about 14,500 km and its land boundaries total 22,117 km. The long list of countries with which China shares borders would facilitate the transnational expansion of any Chinese organization. To illustrate this critical point, consider the following. In alphabetical order, the Chinese border with Afghanistan is 76 km, Bhutan 470 km, Burma 2,185 km, India 3,380 km; with Kazakhstan 1,533 km, Kyrgyzstan 858 km, Laos 423 km, Mongolia 4,677 km, Nepal 1,236 km, North Korea 1,416 km, Pakistan 523 km, Russia (northeast) 3,605 km, Russia (northwest) 40 km, Tajikistan 414 km, and Vietnam 1,281 km. In addition to these fourteen countries, China has borders with its two special administrative regions, 30 km with Hong Kong and 0.34 km with Macau.9