Criminology Chinese Triad Society
T. Wing Lo, Sharon Ingrid Kwok
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0115


In the 17th century, the Chinese triad society, also known as the Hung Mun, Tien Tei Wei (Heaven and Earth Society), or San Hwo Hui (Three United Society), was founded to overthrow the Ch’ing dynasty and restore the Ming dynasty in China. Guided by a strong patriotic doctrine, the triad maintained a rigid central control over the behavior and activities of its members, who regarded themselves as blood brothers and were expected to be loyal and righteous. The early triad society still maintained its secret and cultural features, as reflected in its paraphernalia, organizational structure, recruitment mechanism, initiation ceremony, oaths, rituals, secret codes, and communication system. There were clear rules, codes of conduct, and chains of command. In the early 1900s, the Hung Mun gradually disintegrated into many triad societies or gangs that operated independently from each other in different parts of China. With the Chinese Communist Party in power in 1949, many triad members escaped to Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Chinatowns in overseas countries together with thousands of refugees. In the beginning, refugees from the same ethnic groups united themselves to protect their own interests against other ethnic groups in a definite neighborhood. With the infiltration of triad elements, some of these groups were gradually transformed into triad societies (or tongs in Chinatowns overseas), which used violence to protect them in a dominated territory. In postwar decades, Hong Kong was the capital of triads, and it was suggested by a police commissioner that one in every six of the 3 million Hong Kong inhabitants was a triad member. Because of their entrenched subculture and cohesion, triads are regarded as effective in enforcing control in local territories, but it is argued that their hierarchical structure is incompatible with the dynamic nature of many forms of transnational organized crime, such as human smuggling. On the other hand, China’s open door policy in the 1980s encouraged triads to shift their moneymaking focus onto mainland China. In view of assistance provided by triads to smuggle out democratic leaders after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 and China’s resumption of sovereignty of Hong Kong in 1997, China applied a “united front” tactic to recruit Hong Kong triads to the communist camp. A label of patriotic triad was bestowed on triad leaders, who were able to set foot in China. Triads experienced a process of mainlandization as a result of China’s economic growth and rising demand for limited goods and services. They network with Chinese officials and enterprises and forge cooperative relationships with mainland criminal groups, trying to capitalize in the booming underworld. They exchange crime techniques with Chinese counterparts and import sex workers and dangerous drugs from the mainland into Hong Kong. Today, a business approach has developed alongside the traditional triad crime. Triads have been engaged in legitimate businesses and worked with entrepreneurs and professionals to make financial gain in business markets. They are less structurally organized than their patriotic counterparts of the past, and triad rituals have been simplified.

General Overviews

Early works on triad societies focused on history and rituals that were based on those used in Hung Mun in ancient times. They described triad myths as the origin of patriotic culture. Among them, Schlegel 1866, Stanton 1900, and Morgan 1960 are authoritative triad literature accepted in the court of Hong Kong. They are often referred to by the police in prosecuting offenses related to triad membership. Chu 2000 provides a description of the development of triad societies in Hong Kong. Chu argued that the emergence of triads in Hong Kong was not a response to local needs, nor a purposive migration of triads from mainland China, but rather a consequence of an influx of refugees from the mainland to Hong Kong during the postwar and post-communist takeover decades. Chin 1990 finds that ordinary street crimes, such as vice, gambling, extortion, and drug dealing, are facilitated by the traditional triad hierarchical structure. Through such structural and subcultural control, triad societies are able to compel their members to run illicit activities. Liu 2001 also provides a comprehensive background of triad history, activities, political involvement, relationships with Chinese officials, and operations in overseas markets. Lo and Kwok 2012 examines the impact of socioeconomic changes on triad organized crime in modern times. The authors contend that triads are bound by the same codes of conduct and chains of command that ensure the formation of blood brothers with one solitary aspiration. With such authority and manipulation amid the triad syndicate, this aspiration inevitably results in the running of illicit activities in triad-controlled territories. As a result of socioeconomic changes, triads move from localization to mainlandization, triad brotherhood to entrepreneurship, and cohesion to disorganization. Lo and Kwok 2013 suggests that as the intimacy between Hong Kong and China has grown deeper, an upsurge of cross-border crime has emerged since the 1990s. Prosperity in China spawned a process of mainlandization of triad activities because of an ever-increasing demand for licit and illicit services in Chinese communities. The relationship among triads, tongs, and transnational organized crime is examined.

  • Chin, K. 1990. Chinese subculture and criminality: Non-traditional crime groups in America. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

    This book portrays triad as an ancient Chinese secret society, bound by oaths, regarding members as blood brothers in one family, and dedicated to restoring the ancient ruler to the throne at the beginning, which later became criminal syndicates using partial rituals for their own moneymaking purposes.

  • Chu, Y. K. 2000. The triads as business. London: Routledge.

    Most of the early Hong Kong triads started as noncriminal mutual-aid groups, which was a collective response to the exploitation by criminals and monopolization in the labor market. At first, they started to unite to protect each other, and, eventually, these mutual-aid groups became triads to sell protection services.

  • Liu, B. 2001. The Hong Kong triad societies: Before and after the 1997 change-over. Hong Kong: Net e-Publishing.

    The book documents the history of triad societies and provides a detailed account of triad activities in different settings, such as schools, communities, the entertainment and film industry, and casinos. The development of triad societies in Hong Kong and overseas countries is discussed. A chapter on the relationship between Hong Kong triads and Beijing officials is worth reading.

  • Lo, T. W., and S. I. Kwok. 2012. Traditional organized crime in the modern world: How triad societies respond to socioeconomic change. In Traditional organized crime in the modern world. Edited by D. Siegel and H. van de Bunt, 67–89. New York: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4614-3212-8

    The paper contends that triads were cohesive criminal organizations focally aimed at monetary gain in dominated territories. Socioeconomic changes in Hong Kong and China have forced triads to move from a rigid territorial base and cohesive structure to more reliance on flexible and instrumental social networks. They are entrepreneurially oriented and involved in a wide range of licit and illicit businesses based in Hong Kong but have spread to mainland China. Different kinds of crime are discussed.

  • Lo, T. W., and S. I. Kwok. 2013. Chinese triads and tongs. In Encyclopedia of criminology and criminal justice. Edited by G. Bruinsma and D. Weisburd. New York: Springer.

    This paper provides an overview of Chinese triad societies, their organizational structure, rituals and subculture, criminal activities, and issues related to the patriotic triads and mainlandization of triad activities. It has a special section on the discussion of tong and its relations with triads and transnational organized crime.

  • Morgan, W. P. 1960. Triad societies in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Government Printer.

    An authoritative literature of triad societies, published by the Hong Kong Police Force, outlines the historical development of the structure, subculture, and rituals of traditional triad societies. It provides the names of a large number of triad societies in Hong Kong.

  • Schlegel, G. 1866. Thian ti hwui: The Hung league/Heaven-earth-league. Batavia, Dutch East Indies: Lange.

    This volume is a classic historical study of the triad society, known as Thian ti hwui (Heaven and Earth Society) in ancient times. It starts with a discussion of the political history of the Hung League (Hung Mun). There are detailed accounts of structure and subculture, including instruments of the lodge, poems, the government of Hung League with different grades of senior officers, and the use of secret signs with the setting of wine cups or chopsticks and on the way they smoke tobacco or opium.

  • Stanton, W. 1900. The Triad Society or Heaven and Earth Association. Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh.

    This book provides a classic historical overview of the triad society named Heaven and Earth Association in ancient times. It starts with an introduction to the early secret societies, such as the White Lotus, and examines triad society in and outside of China. It includes are detailed accounts of triad origins, rituals, initiatory ceremonies, certificates of membership, signs, and test words.

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