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The White Lotus Society was a political, religious, and revolutionary movement that that rebelled against the government in imperial China.

The White Lotus Secret Society and the Demise of Mongol Rule in China

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The White Lotus Society / Sect (written in Chinese as 白莲教, and Romanized as ‘Bai Lian Jiao’) was a millenarian movement that existed in imperial China. As a religious movement, the teachings of the White Lotus Society were based mainly on Buddhist tradition, though some elements of Taoism and other indigenous Chinese practices were also incorporated into it. In addition, the White Lotus Society developed into a political movement, and took part in some notable rebellions in Chinese history.

Buddhist Beginnings

The White Lotus Society had its religious roots in the Pure Land School of Buddhism. This branch of Mahayana Buddhism was founded by Huiyuan during the 4th century AD on Mount Lu, in Jiangxi province. Huiyuan’s teachings were propagated from Donglin Temple, which he had founded, and by the time of the Northern Song Dynasty (between the 10th and 12th centuries), they had spread across southern China.

The Lotus Pond at Donglin Temple

The Lotus Pond at Donglin Temple (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It was, however, only during the middle of the 12th century that a Buddhist monk by the name of Cizhao founded the White Lotus Society. Some of this new movement’s practices included the veneration of the Amitabha Buddha, the observance of the five Buddhist rules of discipline, and the illustration of Buddhist teachings through drawings and pictures.

The teachings of this school were simple and easy to understand, and the use of images and drawings made the teachings of the Buddha accessible to all. As a result, many people became adherents of the White Lotus Society.

Changes in the White Lotus Society

It is perhaps due to the popularity of this new religious movement that the Chinese authorities were suspicious of it, and hence did not officially recognize them. The situation changed following the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty by Kublai Khan during the latter part of the 13th century.

The Mongol rulers of China acknowledged the White Lotus Society and even sponsored them. This aided the propagation of the movement’s teachings and brought the White Lotus Society to an even larger audience, thus turning it into an important branch of Buddhism.

A painting of Shizu, better known as Kublai Khan, as he would have appeared in the 1260s

A painting of Shizu, better known as Kublai Khan, as he would have appeared in the 1260s (Public Domain)

In time, however, the teachings of the White Lotus Society changed, especially when the common people began developing their own ideas about this religion. One of the most notable of these changes is the belief that the Buddha would descend from Heaven to bring salvation to mankind. Thus, the White Lotus Society had begun to take on a millenarian character. And this millenarian aspect of the movement was particularly attractive when the government was weak and corrupt, which caused suffering among the common people.

A Religious Arm of the Red Turban Rebellion

Adherents of the White Lotus Society who subscribed to this belief hoped to hasten the coming of the Amitabha Buddha / Maitreya Buddha by toppling the Yuan Dynasty. Therefore, they began to rebel against the government. Consequently, the White Lotus Society was banned by the Yuan government in 1308 and was only made legal again several years later.

A painting entitled ‘White Lotus Society’ by an unknown artist. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The movement was once again outlawed in 1322, as there had been an increase in the number of uprisings led by its followers against the government.

The Yuan Dynasty eventually came to an end as a result of the Red Turban Rebellion, which lasted from 1351 to 1368. The teachings of the White Lotus Society provided the religious basis for the rebellion, and the rebel groups were led by individuals from this movement.

One of these was Han Shantong, whose son took his place following his death. One of their generals was a peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang, who succeeded Han Shantong’s son as leader, defeated the Mongols, and established the Ming Dynasty.

Official court painting of the Hongwu Emperor (Zhu Yuanzhang), reigned 1368-1398 AD, Ming Dynasty, China

Official court painting of the Hongwu Emperor (Zhu Yuanzhang) , reigned 1368-1398 AD, Ming Dynasty, China (Public Domain)

The White Lotus Rebellion

Another important rebellion launched by members of the White Lotus Society was the White Lotus Rebellion. This took place during the Qing Dynasty, and lasted from 1796 to 1804. This rebellion was less successful than that of the Red Turbans, and the Qing government succeeded in crushing this uprising.

Nevertheless, the White Lotus Rebellion had exposed the weakness of the Qing government, weakened the power of the dynasty, and diminished its wealth. There impact can be seen in the Great Qing Legal Code, which contained the following section until 1912:

“[A]ll societies calling themselves at random White Lotus, communities of the Buddha Maitreya, or the Ming ts'un religion (Manichaeans), or the school of the White Cloud, etc., together with all who carry out deviant and heretical practices, or who in secret places have prints and images, gather the people by burning incense, meeting at night and dispersing by day, thus stirring up and misleading people under the pretext of cultivating virtue, shall be sentenced.”

One of the most interesting and powerful figures in the White Lotus Rebellion was Wang Cong’er, a female leader of one of the three branches of the White Lotus Society during her time. She used offensive and guerrilla warfare tactics against the Qing government and found some success through her strategies.

Although considered a rebel by the Qing government during her time, Wang Cong’er has been transformed into a heroine by some sources in modern times. Some have even compared this rebel leader to the legendary Chinese female warrior, Hua Mulan.

Mulan as depicted in the album ‘Gathering Gems of Beauty.’ (Public Domain)

Top Image: The White Lotus Society was a political, religious, and revolutionary movement that rebelled against the government in imperial China. Source: luceluceluce /Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren

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Szczepanski, K., 2017. The Red Turban Rebellion in China, 1351-1368. [Online]
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The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, 2017. White Lotus Rebellion. [Online]
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Theobald, U., 2012. Bailian jiao 白蓮教, the White Lotus Sect. [Online]
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Watkins, T., 2017. The White Lotus Religion. [Online]
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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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