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The Fellowship of Goodness 同善社 (Tongshanshe) Jiao, Yupeng


Tongshanshe, the Fellowship of Goodness, was one of the largest redemptive societies in China before 1949. It was also labeled as a counterrevolutionary huidaomen (会道门) group by the Chinese Communist Party. In Chinese, the term “huidaomen” is composed of three different words: hui, dao, and men. “Hui”, “Dao”, and “Men” refer to any organization, association, or society composed of people who share similar interests or religious ideas. It can be either religious or secular or even both. Essentially, huidaomen was never a unified, monolithic organization in Chinese society. It was more like a general category and a generic term the government used to describe all voluntary associations. The term “huidaomen” has its precedent in late imperial China under the name “White Lotus Teachings.” The White Lotus sect was originally a lay Buddhist movement initiated by Monk Huiyuan of Lushan in the early fifth century. According to B.J. Ter Haar, the name “White Lotus” was used by non-elites as an autonym for lay Buddhist gatherings before the mid-fourteenth century. From the sixteenth century on, “White Lotus” was more and more frequently used and finally became a label for all potentially rebellious groups related to religion. Ter Haar further points out that by the late Ming dynasty, Christianity, millenarian teachings, lay Buddhist, and even sexual techniques were all labeled “White Lotus.” But people within such groups did not necessarily call themselves “White Lotus.” This label existed only in official propaganda. “White Lotus” was only a generic term without precise specifications. The government could use it as a political label for all the voluntary associations that had rebellious potentials. The PRC’s use of “huidaomen” came from the same logic of political labeling. In 2004, the Chinese Academy of Social Science published two-volume primary sources on huidaomen called A Collection of Historical Materials on the Chinese Huidaomen: Their Organization and Distribution across A Century. The sources of this collection mainly come from more than 3,500 local gazetteers published in the PRC after October of 1949. In this collection of sources, the compilation committee defines huidaomen clearly as “feudal associations that operated secretly in order to spread their religious teachings.” The book points out that the term “huidaomen” began to be used since the early PRC when the new government noticed the widespread networks of secret societies in China. Based on the information provided by the more than three thousand local gazetteers in A Collection of Historical Materials on the Chinese Huidaomen and my own case study of Poyang County in Jiangxi, I accept a broader definition of huidaomen, as the Chinese Academy of Social Science does. Almost all voluntary groups in China were indeed labeled as huidaomen from the late 1940s onward in political campaigns. It is inappropriate to define huidaomen exclusively as religious societies. Tongshanshe was one of the largest nation-wide redemptive societies in China during the Republican Era. During the late Qing period, Peng Ruzun (1868-1950) of Yongchuan County in Sichuan Province (now Chongqing) who was a former follower of the Way of Anterior Heaven (Xiantiandao) established Tongshanshe. Peng advocated a secular way of religious practice that participants in the Tongshanshe could become immortals through self-cultivation without fasting or becoming monks. Such secularized and simplified religious practice was widely welcomed. In 1910, Peng left Sichuan and went to Beijing to preach. Peng’s trip to Beijing gained tremendous support from former aristocrats of the Qing Dynasty and the leading warlords, including Duan Qirui and Cao Kun. In 1917, during the warlord period, Tongshanshe officially registered at the Northern Warlords Government in Beijing. Tongshanshe also established its central headquarters in Beijing. The government then provided Tongshanshe with formal support in developing branches across China. By 1923, Tongshanshe had already established provincial-level organizations in all provinces in China. In Beijing, Tongshanshe ran a publishing house that published a number of religious books on self-cultivation and morality. Tongshanshe also functioned as a charity organization providing support for funerals of ordinary people and mass education. In 1925, Peng built another Tongshanshe headquarters in Wuhan and claimed that Tongshanshe had a membership of over one million people. The name “Tongshanshe” even became a “free-floating signifier” of similar self-cultivation groups which shows the exceptional popularity of Tongshanshe in China. According to my study, Tongshanshe was largely an elite-based religious organization. Tongshanshe members were primarily rich merchants and even local politicians. Such an elite base was in sharp contrast to many traditional sectarian groups in China which were more attractive to the marginalized groups. Tongshanshe embraced religious syncretism, similar to many new religious organizations since the late Qing. It had widely absorbed Buddhism, Daoism, and Chinese popular religion. But Tongshanshe was predominantly a salvationist group. According to Tongshanshe's teachings, humans were living in a morally degenerating society. Peng Ruzun claimed that the end of the world was coming -- only those who firmly believed in Tongshanshe's teachings would survive the final apocalypse. The interpretation of Tongshanshe's millenarianism was not unified. Tongshanshe in different regions responded to the "end of the world" in diverse ways. Many local Tongshanshe groups in Southern China absorbed local military forces and practiced traditional Chinese martial arts, believing that martial arts would protect people from the final apocalypse. Other people, possibly under Peng Ruzun's instruction, believed that a new emperor would be born in China and would defeat all secular political powers. Both the Nationalist Government before 1949 and the Communist regime after 1949 saw Tongshanshe as a leading counterrevolutionary religious organization. From 1927 to the end of the Nationalist regime in 1949 on mainland China, the Nationalist government banned Tongshanshe multiple times. Due to the Nationalist Government's weak control of rural society, however, such suppressive policies were not carried out effectively outside big cities. After 1949, the Communist Party launched waves of Anti-Counterrevolutionary Campaigns. Labeled as a leading huidaomen group, Tongshanshe organizations were fatally destroyed by such campaigns and basically disappeared on the mainland. Tongshanshe also established its organizations in Taiwan and many Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. It continues operating today.

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