San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The White Lotus Religion
in China

The White Lotus Religion in China was largely a Buddhist sect which incorporated some elements of Daoism (Taoism) and other native religions of China. It arose very early, perhaps going back to the twelfth century. The problem of identifying this religion's history is a matter of which groups are included. Most groups identified with the White Lotus Religion did not call themselves by that title. One must also distinguish between the White Lotus societies that were political and nationalistic militias having as little connection with the religion. The Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) in Northern Ireland is supposedly Catholic but it hard to detect any element of Christianity in their actions and behavior.

The White Lotus religious groups initially engaged only in chanting or reciting Buddhist sutras or some things akin to sutras which were supposed to clear the adherents souls and prepare them for entry into the Pure Land (Nirvana). Imperial authorities were very distrustful of such religious groups. The accusation that became standard was that these groups "practiced eating vegetables and serving devils." The "eating vegetables" was true; as Buddhists they were, of course, vegetarians.

After centuries of persecution the White Lotus religion changed. It shifted from being meditative to being messianic. It began looking toward the arrival of someone who would save them from their persecution. Any talk of a new leader coming was likely to make the authorities considerably more apprehensive about the sect and increase their persecution.

Finally, in 1796, open rebellion by the White Lotus sects against the Qing government broke out. The rebellion continued for eight years, until 1804. The government put down the rebellion but it was not able to exterminate the sects and the White Lotus Movement. The White Lotus religion continued well into the nineteenth century.

In 1842 an offshoot of the White Lotus Movement, called the Nien, rose up in rebellion in Shandong, Henan and Jiangsu provinces. The leaders chose this time to rebel because the Qing government was pre-occupied with the Taiping Rebellion in south central China. The Nien Rebellion lasted until 1868, but after 1864 it was doomed. In 1863 the stronghold of the rebellion, Chih-ho, was taken and its leader, Chang Loxing, was killed. The Nien Rebellion picked up remnants of the Taiping Rebellion after the Taipings were defeated in 1864, but with the defeat of the Taipings the government could bring the full strength of its army against the Niens. In 1868 the Nien Rebellion was contained.

The groups (Righteous and Harmonious Fists of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 might have had some affiliation with the militia groups associated in name with the White Lotus religious groups of the past but there is little evidence of an association with the White Lotus religious groups of the past.

The Falun Gong sect of present-day China fits into the scheme of the White Lotus religious groups and the government unjustified persecution of Falun Gong parallels the historic actions of the Qing Empire.

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