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Shanghai’s Shadowy ‘Green Gang’

A glimpse into the powerful organized crime syndicate which arose in the Ming and Qing Dynasties


Shanghai’s Shadowy ‘Green Gang’

A glimpse into the powerful organized crime syndicate which arose in the Ming and Qing Dynasties


Almost every country has their infamous organized crime networks: Italy has the mafia, Japan has the Yakuza and Mexican cartels regularly make headlines. Hong Kong has the Triads, but what about the mainland?

Today, a concoction of international drug and people trafficking groups combined with regular instances of corruption and subsequent corruption crackdowns make that a complex question, but if you go as far back as the Ming and Qing dynasties and the Republican era, there was a far more readily identifiable, powerful organized crime network operating in China:  the Green Gang (青帮).

The origins of the Green Gang can be traced back to the Ming and Qing dynasties, which relied on the Grand Canal to transport grains from the south to the north. In the reign of Emperor Yongzheng in the Qing Dynasty, the government announced it would recruit talent to manage grain transport. Three sworn brothers, Weng Yan (翁岩), Qian Jian (钱坚) and Pan Qing (潘清) applied and were admitted. The three brothers formed an organization which relied on Luojiao (罗教), a Buddhist sect founded by in the mid-Ming dynasty, to attract workers. The organization basically became a union, but wasn’t above strongarm tactics. It became quite popular, protecting workers from some local corrupt officials or local thugs.

The founders were apparently solid managers. The organizational structure was just like a government and had different departments, like the Ministry of Rites, the Ministry of Works and the Ministry of Personnel Affairs were established.

They had very strict standards for recruits. If an outsider wanted to join, he had to find a current member of the organization who would like to accept him as his apprentice. The apprentices needed to pass a six-year test first, when the master would observe every detail about them to test their loyalty and backbone. If they passed the test successfully, there would be another year for them to learn the regulations, rules and manners. After all these procedures they could officially be admitted as members.

But gradually they were considered a threat by the authorities, so the organization was largely driven underground. And because of the upheavals of the 19th century, including the Taiping Rebellion and the change in course of the Yellow River around 1855, the shipments of grain along the Grand Canal were severely disrupted and finally ended.

The boatmen either joined local rebellions or shifted to the coast to join the salt smuggling trade. In northern Jiangsu Province in the 1870s, boatmen and salt smugglers began to organize into what was called the Anqing Daoyou (安清道友, literally “Friends of the Way of Tranquility and Purity”), which was believed to be the direct precursor to the Green Gang in the early 20th century.



It was in 20th century Shanghai that the Green Gang really bloomed. Since the Grand Canal had fallen out of use, Shanghai became an important transshipment point for the sea route. And as one of the treaty ports, it was a gateway for foreign trade. Both the economic and the political environment favored organized crime. At that time, most workers in the city joined secret societies, of which the Green Gang was the largest. It gained huge wealth and power by developing all kinds of social networks. Their business involved opium traffic, gambling, extortion and prostitution, and almost all of Shanghai’s underworld was within its control.

The Green Gang also stepped into the political field, and even had some high-profile politicians and scions of powerful families as members.

The membership even included Chen Qimei (陈其美), a Chinese revolutionary activist and one of the founders of the Republic of China, the eldest member of what later came to be known as the Chen Family, one of the four most powerful and influential families at the time. There was also Yuan Kewen (袁克文), an expert of Chinese traditional literature and a master of calligraphy and Chinese ink painting, the son of Yuan Shikai (袁世凯,1859 –1916), a general, politician and the first President of the Republic of China, an often reviled historical figure who also attempted to restore the monarchy in China, claiming himself to be the Hongxian Emperor.

Chiang Kai-shek (蒋介石, 1887 –1975), an influential member of Kuomingtang (KMT) and the leader of the Republic of China from 1928 to his death, was introduced to the Green Gang, though he never formally joined the gang. It is widely believed they had an alliance of sorts, however.

Sorting historical fact from hearsay is a tough endeavor, but it is believed that in his early years, Chiang used to acknowledge Huang Jinrong (黄金荣), one of the bosses of the Green Gang, as his master in order to receive financial backing, but when Chiang came to power, Huang annulled Chiang’s membership and concealed the records to protect his reputation.

Despite this, the ties between Chiang and the Green Gang continued.

The most well-known boss of the Green Gang was Du Yuesheng (杜月笙), regarded at the time as the godfather of Shanghai, who would later go on to play a role in Hong Kong triads. Together with Huang Jinrong and Zhang Xiaolin (张啸林), they were called the “Three Bigwigs of the Green Gang (青帮三大亨)”.

Because of the divisions in China in the Warlord Era, the power of Chiang’s govenment was limited and he had to rely on local gangs to exert actual control over society. The Green Gang also needed protection from the Kuomintang. Under Du’s leadership, the Green Gang and the Kuomintang, forged an alliance though Chiang Kai-Shek.

The KMT used the Green Gang as enforcers to break up pro-communist union meetings and strikes in Shanghai. They even offered help in the 1927 Shanghai Purge, a massacre of approximately 5,000 pro-Communist strikers in Shanghai in April 1927, which was ordered by Chiang Kai-shek.

Du also provided financial support to the KMT by sharing the profits from his opium trade. Chiang Kai-shek’s brother-in-law, the financial minister Tse-ven Soong (宋子文), also partnered with the pro-Chiang Green Gang to pressure Shanghai banks to buy up national securities. In return, Du was allowed to run labor unions and continue with his drug-dealing business.

When Japan invaded China in 1937, Du fled Shanghai to Hong Kong and later to Chongqing. But members of the Green Gang continued to smuggle weapons and goods to the KMT throughout the war, and Du himself was a board member of the Chinese Red Cross, providing many rescues. Du was always keen to devote himself to charities, and helped found many hospitals and schools.

But when Du returned to Shanghai in 1945 after Japan’s surrender, he wasn’t received like a hero as he had expected, because many local residents thought he had abandoned the city during the Japanese occupation. And the cozy ties between Du and Chiang also ended in the late 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s son Chiang Ching-Kuo (蒋经国) launched an anti-corruption campaign in Shanghai, with Du’s son arrested. Though Du finally managed to secure his release by threatening to disclose the crimes of Chiang’s relatives, the alliance was finished.

When the KMT retreated to Taiwan in 1949, Du refused to leave with them. But apparently Shanghai under the control of the Communist Party was a hostile location due to his earlier deeds. So he finally decided to flee to Hong Kong again and spent the remainder of his life there until his death in 1951.

When the Communist Party took power, they didn’t move on those gangsters immediately. Over time, they either died or their influence waned.

Zhang Xiaolin, who cooperated with the Japanese during the war, had already been assassinated by his bodyguard. Of the Three Bigwigs, Huang Jinrong was the only one who stayed in Shanghai.

In 1951, he published a confession letter, saying he felt guilty and begged for forgiveness. But as a way of socialist transformation, at the age of over 80, Huang was required to sweep the street every morning just in front of the Great World, a popular entertainment venue run by Huang himself. Two years later he passed away.

Today, the Green Gang still exists in Taiwan, albeit in a far less powerful form. Its impact on history, however, remains large in the public consciousness.


Cover image from douban.com