White Lotus

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This article is about the White Lotus sect. For the aquatic plant Egyptian White Waterlily, see Nymphaea lotus. For the Eyes Set to Kill album, see White Lotus (album).
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The White Lotus (simplified Chinese: 白莲教; traditional Chinese: 白蓮教; pinyin: Báiliánjiào; Wade–Giles: Pai-lien chiao) was a religious and political movement that appealed to many Han Chinese who found solace in worship of Wusheng Laomu "Unborn Venerable Mother" (simplified Chinese: 无生老母; traditional Chinese: 無生老母), who was to gather all her children at the millennium into one family.[citation needed]

The doctrine of the White Lotus included a forecast of the imminent advent of the future Buddha, Maitreya.


It originated from a Pure Land Buddhism society White Lotus School (zh:白蓮宗).[1] The first signs of the White Lotus Society came during the late thirteenth century. Mongol rule over China, known also by its dynastic name, the Yuan dynasty, prompted small, yet popular demonstrations against its rule. The White Lotus Society took part in some of these protests as they grew into widespread dissent.[2]

The Mongols considered the White Lotus society a heterodox religious sect and banned it, forcing its members to go underground. Now a secret society, the White Lotus became an instrument of quasi-national resistance and religious organization.

White Lotus Revolution[edit]

Main article: Red Turban Rebellion

A revolution inspired by the White Lotus society, took shape in 1352 around Guangzhou. A Buddhist monk and former boy-beggar, Zhu Yuanzhang (Wade-Giles: Chu Yüan-chang), joined the rebellion. His exceptional intelligence took him to the head of a rebel army; he won people to his side by forbidding his soldiers to pillage in observance of White Lotus religious beliefs. By 1355 the rebellion had spread through much of China.

In 1356, Zhu Yuanzhang captured the important city of Nanjing (then called Jiqing) and made it his capital, renaming it Yingtian 應天. It was here that he began to discard his heterodox beliefs and so won the help of Confucian scholars who issued pronouncements for him and performed rituals in his claim of the Mandate of Heaven, the first step toward establishing new dynastic rule.

Meanwhile the Mongols were fighting among themselves, inhibiting their ability to suppress the rebellion. In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang extended his rule to Guangzhou, the same year that the Mongol ruler, Toghon Temür, fled to Karakorum. In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang and his army entered the former capital of Beijing and in 1371 his army moved through Sichuan to the southwest.

By 1387, after more than thirty years of war, Zhu Yuanzhang had liberated all of China. Having attained the Mandate of Heaven and the status of Emperor, he took the title Hongwu Emperor and founded a new dynasty - the Ming.

Uses of the term "White Lotus" in later periods[edit]

While traditional historiography has linked many Maitreyist and millenarian uprisings during the Ming and Qing dynasties as all related to the White Lotus, there are reasons to doubt that such connections existed. B J Ter Haar has argued that the term "White Lotus" became a label applied by late Ming and Qing imperial bureaucrats to any number of different popular uprisings, millenarian societies or "magical" practices such as mantra recitation and divination.[3] If this interpretation is correct, the steady rise in the number of White Lotus rebellions in imperial histories during the Ming and Qing does not necessarily reflect the increasing strength of a unified organization. Instead, this trend reflects a growing concern by imperial bureaucrats with any form of Buddhism practiced outside of the sanctioned frameworks of the monasteries.[3]

The White Lotus sect may have been one of the main ancestors of the Chinese organizations known as the Triads. The Triads were originally members and soldiers of the Tiandihui or "Heaven and Earth Society" during the period of the war between the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Triads' formation was not for criminal purposes, but to overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming to power. The White Lotus Society may have been one of five branches of the Heaven Earth Society which formed at the Shaolin Monastery from Ming loyalists. The Five branches, known by some as the "Five Ancestors", were the Black, Red, White, Yellow and Green Lodges. After there was no longer any need for the triads on the battlefield, some high-level military leaders resorted to criminal activity in order to find means of survival.

Later rebellions[edit]

Main article: White Lotus Rebellion

The White Lotus reemerged in the late 18th century in the form of an inspired Chinese movement in many different forms and sects.

One such large-scale rebellion was led by the female warrior, Wang Cong'er.

In 1774, one instance of a derivative sect, the Eight Trigrams arose in the form of underground meditation teachings and practice in Shandong province, not far from Beijing near the city of Linqing.[4] The leader, herbalist and martial artist Wang Lun, led an uprising that captured three small cities and laid siege to the larger city of Linqing, a strategic location on the north-south Grand Canal transportation route. After initial success, he was outnumbered and defeated by Qing troops, including local armies of Chinese soldiers known as the Green Standard Army.[4]

An account of Wang Lun's death was given to Qing authorities by a captured rebel.[4] Wang Lun remained sitting in his headquarters wearing a purple robe and two silver bracelets while he burned to death with his dagger and double-bladed sword beside him.[4] Wang Lun likely failed because he did not make any attempts to raise wide public support. He did not distribute captured wealth or food supplies, nor did he promise to lessen the tax burden. Unable to build up a support base, he was forced to quickly flee all three cities that he attacked in order to evade government troops. Though he passed through an area inhabited by almost a million peasants, his army never measured more than four thousand soldiers, many of whom had been forced into service.

In the first decade of the nineteenth century, there were several White Lotus sects active in the area around the capital city of Peking. Although believers had been arrested periodically, there had been no sect-organized violence in the area. The Eight Trigrams leader Lin Qing united several of these sects and with them build an organization that he would later lead in rebellion.[5]

A movement also arose in the mountainous region that separates Sichuan from Hubei and Shaanxi in central China as tax protests. The White Lotus led impoverished settlers into rebellion, promising personal salvation in return for their loyalty. Beginning as tax protests, the eventual rebellion gained growing support and sympathy from many ordinary people. The rebellion grew in number and power and eventually, into a serious concern for the government.

A systematic program of pacification followed in which the populace was resettled in hundreds of stockaded villages and organized into militia. In its last stage, the Qing suppression policy combined pursuit and extermination of rebel guerrilla bands with a program of amnesty for deserters. The rebellion came to an end in 1804. A decree from the Daoguang Emperor admitted, "it was extortion by local officials that goaded the people into rebellion..." Using the arrest of sectarian members as a threat, local officials and police extorted money from people. Actual participation in sect activities had no impact on an arrest; whether or not monetary demands were met, however, did.[citation needed]

Administrators also seized and destroyed sectarian scriptures used by the religious groups. One such official was Huang Yupian (黃育楩), who refuted the ideas found in the scriptures with orthodox Confucian and Buddhist views in A Detailed Refutation of Heresy (破邪詳辯 Pōxié Xiángbiàn), which was written in 1838. This book has since become an invaluable source in understanding the beliefs of these groups.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ CBETA T47 No. 1973 《廬山蓮宗寶鑑》
  2. ^ Mote, F.W. (1999). "Imperial China 900-1800, p. 529, Harvard University Press
  3. ^ a b Ter Haar, BJ (1992). The White Lotus Teachings in Chinese Religious History. Leiden: Brill. p. 242. 
  4. ^ a b c d Spence, Jonathan D. (1991). The Search for Modern China. W.W.Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-30780-1. 
  5. ^ Consolidation: The Formation of the Eight Trigrams