The profound disdain with which most governments—Qing, Republican, Communist, or, in the case of Southeast Asia, colonial—have treated Chinese secret societies, as well as the undeniable involvement of many of these societies in violent and criminal activities, have obscured the religious elements at the core of the early Heaven and Earth Society (Tiandihui), the most widespread and well-known of Chinese secret societies. The vast historiography treating Chinese secret societies, often grounded in documents produced by hostile governments, has in large measure reproduced the image of secret societies contained in these documents, even if not all scholars have embraced the moral and legal assumptions of their sources. Consequently, society practices and symbols which would be treated as religious in other contexts are frequently dismissed as epiphenomenal or “esoteric” (Stanton 1900, 9; Morgan I960, 5), or as functional means of unifying “dissident” groups (Yang 1961, 61–64).

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