“The Dragon Syndicates” by Martin Booth

The blood-soaked history of the Chinese secret societies that started the heroin trade and invented the "death by myriad swords."

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A small band of Chinese men in matching red pajamas barks out cryptic twaddle about avenging the monks of the Shaolin Temple, then nimble feet and sharpened metal stars fly through the air and another small band of Chinese men, in matching black pajamas, is killed with much gore and eloquent shrieking. A scene from a Hong Kong martial arts movie? Well, yes. But until I read the British novelist and historian Martin Booth’s “The Dragon Syndicates: The Global Phenomenon of the Triads,” I didn’t know where the vocabulary of those movies came from. Booth’s literate, action-packed overview of Chinese secret societies paints a scary picture of ritualism and thuggery in modern China and worldwide, and incidentally answers most of my questions about Bruce Lee films and the arcane skits on Wu-Tang Clan records.

The term “Triad” comes from one of the most prominent early groups, the Three United Society — the three in question being heaven, earth and man — and refers to either a society or one of its members. Triad societies have operated in China for 2,000 years as more or less Masonic-style fraternities, trade guilds and forums for political dissidence. They incorporated elements of Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and ancestor worship into their complex ceremonial rites and imagery. When the ethnic Manchus overthrew the Ming dynasty in the 17th century and inaugurated the Q’ing dynasty, the Triads adopted the goal of returning the Ming to power, wresting China back from the foreigners.

But the secret societies quickly evolved into extortion and protection mobs as well, and got rich off the 19th-century opium trade — Booth notes that since this trade was run by Europeans with the compliance of the Q’ing, the Triads could claim they were inserting themselves into the trade in order to resist foreign domination. When Chinese began to emigrate and open businesses in new overseas Chinatowns, Booth says they were (and still are) often obliged to pay “insurance” money, just as they were back home, so as not to put themselves in the way of jolly Triad punishments, like a decisive meat cleaver to the fingers or the “death by myriad swords.”

The Q’ing Dynasty was felled in 1912 by the Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party, whose head, Sun Yat-sen, himself a Triad, had rallied Triads to unite and fight for the republican cause. Chiang Kai-shek was a Triad, too, and Booth contends that his presidency both before and after the Kuomintang government fled to Taiwan in 1949 was marked by giddy criminality and collusion in the opium trade. The Triads flourished under this misrule, and most of the societies’ noncriminal ideologies dropped away until they simply became crime syndicates with elaborately silly initiation rituals.

Strongly discouraged from remaining in China after the Communists took over, the Triads established themselves primarily in British-ruled Hong Kong. In the past half-century opiates have remained at the core of their far-flung operations, but Booth claims that they also peddle counterfeit CDs, videotapes, computer programs and credit cards; smuggle indigent emigrants overseas in slave-ship conditions for absurdly steep fares; run gambling and prostitution houses wherever there’s a large Chinese population; engage in low-level loan-sharking and high-stakes financial-market skulduggery; demand and receive protection payments from businesses large and small; and still haul out the myriad swords when inter- or intragang protocol is breached. And these days, enticed by China’s economic reforms, they’re regaining their foothold on the mainland.

Booth elegantly places the story of the secret societies in the greater context of China’s history, and his discussion of the importance to their solidarity of “guanxi” — the Chinese concept of loyalty to clan and obligation to repay favors — is incisive. He posits intriguingly that, beginning in the ’50s, the Triads not only provided most of the world’s heroin supply, but virtually created the whole market, most devastatingly by offering heroin as a novel experience for American soldiers in Vietnam. More trivially, I was delighted to learn that there used to be a Hong Kong Triad chief called Limpy Ho.

The book is by no means flawless: In some passages, so many names are piled on top of one another that it becomes impossible to keep track of who or what Booth is talking about. And the later pages necessarily become more speculative. Although organized-crime trails are always deliberately convoluted, he doesn’t convince me that all Chinese organized crime is still part of a global Triad network, that all of the crimes he itemizes are really connected to Triads, or that the term “Triad” even means anything now that higher political and social ends have been abandoned. Finally, he gives the unsettling and, I’d hope, wrong impression that most Chinese people are either merciless Triad predators or helpless Triad prey — could any organization that’s illegal everywhere be that pervasive? Nevertheless, Booth has fashioned a rip-roaring survey that dispels the mystery of the Triads’ rituals and reveals them as a confederacy of gangsters like any other, only one that’s so enduringly efficient it’s no wonder if it continues to thrive. But he does leave room for that “if.”

Greg Villepique plays guitar in the band Aerial Love Feed.

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