Freemasonry in China

Masonic Articles and Essays

Freemasonry in China

Bro... Chaloner Alabaster

Date Published: 9/2/2020

A fascinating article describing the rich history of Masonic symbolism and mystic faith in China, hailing from the earliest times of recorded history. 

The question is continually asked — Are there any traces of Freemasonry in China? Having lately given some considerable attention to the subject, the following notes of the result of my researches may be of interest to the brethren. Not only there are, but I venture to think I shall be able to show, traces of Freemasonry in China ; I have found existing there a mystic faith on which there seems some reason to believe our Craft is founded.

That Masonry exists in China at the present day in the same form that it exists in Europe may be safely answered in the negative. Secret Lodges, professedly founded for the cultivation of virtue and the development of benevolence, exist by the thousand, and in their rituals, when we have information regarding them, there are striking resemblances to those in use among ourselves. The members are sworn to brotherhood and mutual support; they make themselves known to each other by secret signs, and gain admittance to their Lodges in the same manner. The initiation of new brothers is conducted with the symbolic mystery which attends the entry of a mason into the Craft, and the members are bound to secrecy by penalties like those in force among us.

But there, so far as I have found, the likeness ends. Masonic symbols, such as we employ, are not in use among them. They have never heard of Solomon, or Hiram, or the Temple at Jerusalem, or any other of the Jewish Kings and Heroes whose names are handed down in our modern rituals. They claim no brotherhood with foreign Craftsmen, know none of our passwords, use our signs differently, and agree only in chance symbols with the Craftsmen of other lands.

But if we go deeper down we find that these various brotherhoods, the date of whose origin is in most cases but recent (as with the Lodges which exist with us), one and all profess 'but to revive an ancient Faith, the mysteries of which have become lost, or at the best obscured, and further, that their various rituals and signs are supposed to be in some measure founded on ancient rites and symbols which have been handed down from the earliest ages.

Going then to the records we possess of the earliest historic times in China, I find clear evidence of the existence of a mystic faith expressed in allegoric form and illustrated, as with us, by symbols. The secrets of this faith were orally transmitted, the chiefs alone pretending to have full knowledge of them.

I find, moreover, that in these earliest ages this faith took a Masonic form, the secrets being recorded in symbol buildings like to the Tabernacle Moses put up in the desert, and the Temple his successor Solomon built in Jerusalem; that the various officers in the hierarchy of this religion were distinguished by the symbolic jewels held by them during their term of office, and that, as with us, at the rites of their religion they wore leather aprons, such as have come down to us, marked with the insignia of their rank.

I find, too, in the language of the books that they held sacred, as containing what was known of the great law in knowledge of, and conformity with, which all happiness consisted, constant use of pure Masonic phraseology. As then, it is known among us that modern masonry is not identical in ritual or organization with the masonry on which it bases its foundation, it is sufficient to establish the identity that we should find resemblances so great as those I have brought to public notice.

(1) SYMBOLIC BUILDINGS OR LODGES.—The chief symbolic buildings of which we have record in China are the temples Hsia, Shang, and Chou, respectively, which will be found figured in page 185 of the "Memoires sur la Chine" and the Temples of Heaven, Earth, and Man, still existing in Peking, a ground plan of which can be seen in Du Halde’s work on China.1

(2) APRONS.—Of the lambskin apron of the Entered Apprentice I find the prototype in the lambskin in which the old Chinese Emperor, mentioned in the Book of Odes, girt himself when, having previously divested himself of his Imperial robes, he, bareheaded and barefooted, offered himself as sacrifice for his people ; and of the aprons worn by other ranks in Masonry, in the symbolical adorned aprons worn by the high officers at the Imperial sacrifices. The symbols on the aprons which have come down to us are different from those in use in modern Blue Masonry, being a plant, an axe, and a symbol, the meaning of which is matter of dispute ; but the second symbol is identical with one I find figured in Higgins' "Anacalypsis," on an undoubted Masonic monument, and the other two with the symbols figured on the upper coat which answers to our modern scarves and are clearly and closely connected with the symbols in use among the Rosicrucians, which is admitted to be a branch of our Order, claimed indeed to be a higher rank of the mystic Priesthood in which the better informed hold Freemasonry to have had its foundation.

(3) SQUARE. — Of the symbolic square we have in the State religion of China continual representation from the earliest data till now. In Du Halde, which I quote as a book all can easily have access to, will be seen among the symbolic instruments of music, the suspended square made ordinarily of jade or resonant stone, and struck during the course of the rites with a symbolic meaning. In the "Shu-king" you will find more than once quotation of the more ancient ode, "Kuee said: I strike the stone, I tap the stone, and e'en the very beasts are moved in harmony; " or in plainer English:

“By the square, are all things brought into their proper place: it needs but for it to be brought in force, and even brute creation yields obedience to the laws it symbols.”

Brother Giles has objected that the square in the jewel I refer to is not a square but an obtuse angle, and his objection is at first sight very forcible, but the fact is that the symbolism is the same; we from the center of the oblong tracing-board draw four lines N.S.E. and W., and take two enclosing a right-angle as the symbol of the whole. The symbol of the forces of nature as opposed to the forces of the 'Without' is represented by the compasses, the old Chinese divided the oval tracing-board into three parts symbolically representing Heaven, Earth, and Man, and therefore used an obtuse angle.

(4) ASHLAR.—The ashlar is identical with the ancient Chinese symbol for the earth, the square stone which they say in their old writings figured the earth as the circle figured heaven, and the various altars to earth at Pekin and the different capital cities in China perpetuate the symbol to the present time. In the Lodge of which these Temples are the oldest representative the cubic block of stone has the same significance the Chinese have ever given it.

(5) THE COVERED AND THE BARE FOOT.— At the spring festival in which the earthen symbol of earth and labour by which we are brought to birth, and the staff of life are carried in procession, we see following the image an urchin with one foot shod and the other bare, and wonder whether there be perchance connection between that and the Masonic ceremony in which the candidate is led round the Lodge half-shod. Both ceremonies are symbolical and both identical, though the explanation given in our Lodges is not the same. The Chinese give theirs as being that the infant’s feet here represent the Yin and Yang: the bare and shining foot, which is the symbol of the light of the sun; the covered foot, its opposite, is often figured by the night or moon. And as all things on this our world must bear the imprint of the foot of man, so in this symbolic procession the child who represents mankind, with equal pace marks out the use and need of the two opposites from which they think that ail things came to be the events of the year to come, arriving as man in his march determines.

(6) THE SQUARE AND COMPASSES.— In the language, which is even a better record of past ages than brass or Stone, I find in the earliest works that have come down to us the word " Kueichü," literally the compasses and square, used as the symbol of right conduct. The man who had the compasses and square, and regulated his life thereby being then as now (for the expression has come down to modern times) considered to possess the secrets and to carry out the principles of true propriety. And here I may remark that the square and compasses have a much deeper symbolic meaning than most masons associate with them, and that there can be no doubt that it was in this deeper sense the Chinese used the symbol.

Again, in the same book, the "Shu-King," the most ancient work in China, I find the magistrates spoken of as the " Chunjên," literally the level men, the level being the emblem of their authority and the type of the conduct looked for from them.

Further, I find in one of the most ancient of the documents of which this work is a collection, the three chief officers of State in whose hand the supreme direction lay, spoken of as the "San Chai" — the three houses or builders ; in other words, the three grand masters, to whom the management of the Grand Lodge was then entrusted.

There is, too, reason for thinking that the character by which the root or source of things is represented, "hên," that which China’s sages tell us is the most important of all our duties to attend to, is a hieroglyphic picture of the skillet, an emblem held by masons in high respect.

And, finally, not to multiply instances, I find one of the most ancient names by which the Deity is spoken of in China is that of the First Builder, or as masons say, the Great Architect of the Universe.

Of course, those who, like a recent writer in Blackwood, trace masonry no farther back than the wandering guilds of masons who undertook the building of the varlous Cathedrals of Europe in the age of the Gothic Revival, will see nothing in this, but casual resemblance ; but for them the first article of our profession is sufficient answer whether or not, as they allege, these early guilds are the first Lodges in regard of which we have complete particulars and to which we can trace an uninterrupted connection. It is not to them that we profess to go back. Masonry is not, as they allege, a benefit society of operative masons guarded by mysteries, and secret laws. It is a beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated By symbols. It would be better said "the true system of morality," for of morality there are no two perfect systems.

The system we profess dates back to far earlier ages than Solomon or Moses ; and in all ancient writings, whether the Vedas, or the Bible, or the Shi-King, we find that system veiled in allegory as with us, and illustrated, for its transmission, by symbols, the full beauty and meaning of which are only known to those who are learned in the Mystic Faith. As a society in their present form the masons are of modern date, but the essence of masonry, on the traditions of which their rituals and charges, signs and symbols are in most part founded, we find existing in the earliest times to which we can go back.

With us for centuries the secrets lost in part were transmitted by the Free Guilds of Masons who gave us a name, and the two orders of the Templars and the Rosicrucians now joined with us ; in China they have in uninterrupted order been handed down from dynasty to dynasty, the reigning Emperor, whether of native birth, or Tartar, being recognized as Grand Master. By the learned in the mysteries the secrets have from age to age been orally handed down; by them each successive ruler has been initiated ; and although the veil can be pierced by those that have the wit to do so, to the multitude the secret bas been kept inviolate as truly as with us.2

* FREEMASONRY IN CHINA. — The following article is from the Hong Kong Telegraph, 16th April, 1889, has reached us both from Bro. Girling, of Hong Kong, and Bro., Lewis, of Amoy. It is signed C. A. and the writer is, without doubt, Bro. Chaloner Alabaster, as appears from the allusion made by him to Bro. H. A. Giles, who, in his Freemasonry in China (Amoy, 1880, p. 19), demurs to some previous conclusions of Bro. Alabaster; which conclusions, the latter brother in the Hong Kong Telegraph above referred to, again maintains and upholds. That so many correspondents should have favored us simultaneously with Chinese Notes is a curious coincidence.

ARS QUATUOR CORONATORUM, TRANSACTIONS OF THE QUATUOR CORONATI LODGE No. 2076 LONDON, Ars Quatuor Coronatorum Vol. ii (for 1889) of Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076, London, England, pp. 119-22.

1 See also AQC, vol i, p. 98.

2 If this number of AQC should be seen by Bro. Alabaster, the wish may be conveyed to him, that he will favour us, for insertion in our columns, with a statement of the grounds upon which he bases his contention that some of the secrets of Masonry have been either preserved from loss, or rescued from oblivion, by the Templars and the Rosicrucians? — EDITOR.

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