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  • Ritual and Mythology of the Chinese Triads: Creating an Identity
  • Michael Saso (bio)
Barend J. ter Haar . Ritual and Mythology of the Chinese Triads: Creating an Identity. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1998. xiii, 517 pp. Hardcover $215.00, ISBN 90-04-11063-1. Papercover (2000) $42.50, ISBN 90-04-11944-2.

This massive, exhaustive, one-of-a-kind scholarly masterpiece is truly a tour de force, a work so impressive in its scope and attention to fine detail as to be indispensable to libraries and scholars in the field of sinology. It does, however, require some effort and a great amount of dedication and time to read through the entire 517 pages of this thorough and intensive presentation. The book is divided into four parts, which in fact represent four very different pursuits: (1) Triad sources, Western and Chinese; (2) the performance of Triad and other Hui (similar trade group) rituals; (3) the narratives and lore of the Triads and other Hui associations; and (4) a concluding analysis of the data, separate from the presentation of the first three sections. This division makes the book much more useful as a source for university lectures and research, as well as a specialized reference for scholars.

There is, in fact, no "fault" or negative criticism that can be even suggested for this work, whose objectivity and completeness are unassailable. The built-in weaknesses of any "armchair" (library desk) scholarly presentation are true for all scholarly works: (1) The author has not done and cannot do fieldwork with modern Triads, due to the nature of the Triad associations today (i.e., they are, in fact, "mafia" or gangster organizations). (2) The very lack of field work argues for a weakness that is not insignificant, but is nevertheless solvable by a few caveats: the organization, rituals, and more than half of the myths used by the Triads are common to all Hui and Tang/Tong (same surname) associations in the modern Chinese diaspora.

Dr. Barend J. ter Haar overcomes the first of these challenges by stating clearly that he is not interested in the "gangster" aspect of the Triads, which has been adequately and fully described by British scholars and in the Police archives of Hong Kong, where the Triads are still a dominant and powerful force. But the [End Page 180] second of these built-in weaknesses to written-source presentation is unavoidable due to the necessity of delimiting one's field of research, thereby of necessity leaving out much of the relevance of (in this case) Triad ritual and legend to what is found universally in organizations known as Tong or Tang and Hui.

It is interesting to note that the Chinese of Southeast Asia, Honolulu, San Francisco, and New York's Chinatown identify the ethnic area where they live as "Tang Ren Jie," that is, the street where people of the Tang dynasty (619-906 ), rather than the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. to 200 C.E.), live. That is, the Chinese communities throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim and New York diaspora, where the Hui and Tang associations most frequently occur, identify themselves as "People of Tang [dynasty]" as opposed to "Han" people, thus adding a factor of self-identity to all Hui (trade) and Tang (lineage association) studies that is to be further explored and elucidated by ethnographic (field work) experience. Much of what is said of the Triads, with the exception of specific reference to Triads by name, is true of "Tang" lineage groups (people with the same surname or "ancestral" Tang shrine) and people of the same "Hui" (business or trade guilds) who have emigrated from Southeast China. This reality makes this work by Barend J. ter Haar much more valuable as a resource for further field study. The very challenge of desk-only research is in fact overcome by taking this fine manual to the field and looking for similarities and applications on a far broader research scale. [End Page 181]

Michael Saso

Michael Saso is a professor emeritus of religion at the University of Hawai'i and is now at the Advanced Asian Research and Language Institute at California State...


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