White Lotus (Pai-lien chiao) sectarianism appealed to Chinese, most notably to women and to the poor, who found solace in worship of the Eternal Mother who was to gather all her children at the millennium into one family. The doctrine of the White Lotus includes an alleged forecast to the advent of the Buddha.
The first signs of the White Lotus society came during the late 13th century. Mongol rule over China, known also by its dynastic name, the Yuan era, prompted small, yet popular demonstrations against foreign rule. . The White Lotus Society organized these protests into wide- spread dissent. The Mongols considered the White Lotus society a religious sect and banned its existence, forcing its members to go underground. Now a secret society, the White Lotus became an instrument of national morale and religious doctrine.
A revolution, inspired by the White Lotus society, took shape in 1352 around Guangzhou. A Buddhist monk and former boy beggar, Zhu Yuanzhang, (Chu Yüan-chang) threw off his vestments and joined the rebellion. His exceptional intelligence took him to the head of a rebel army; he won people to his side by forbidding his soldiers to pillage, in observance of White Lotus religious beliefs. By 1355 the rebellion had spread through much of China. In 1356, Zhu Yuanzhang captured Nanjing and made it his capital. It was here that he won the help of Confucian scholars who issued pronouncements for him and performed rituals in his claim of the Mandate of Heaven, the first step toward establishing new dynastic rule. Meanwhile the Mongols were fighting among themselves, inhibiting their ability to suppress the rebellion. In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang extended his rule to Guangzhou -- the same year that the Mongol ruler, Toghan Temur, fled to Karakorum. Zhu Yuanzhang and his army entered the former Mongol capital, Beijing, and in 1371 his army moved through Sichuan. By 1387, after more than thirty years of war, Zhu Yuanzhang had liberated all of China. Having attained the Mandate of Heaven and the status of Emperor, he took the title Hong-wu and founded a new dynasty -- the Ming.
The Ming dynasty derives its name from the White Lotus’ messianic figures of Big and Little Ming Wang (Brilliant Kings), who were thought to have been sent by Buddha Maitreya to the world to restore peace and order.
The White Lotus reemerged in the late 18th century in the form of an inspired Chinese movement to overthrow the Ch’ing dynasty, led by Wang Lun, a master of martial arts and herbal medicine. The movements arose in the mountainous region that separates Sichuan province from Hubei and Shaanxi provinces in central China as tax protests. The White Lotus led impoverished settlers into the movements, promising personal salvation in return for their loyalty. Beginning as tax protests, the eventual rebellion gained growing support and sympathy from many citizens. The rebellion grew in number and power and eventually, into a serious concern for the government.
Ho-shen, a corrupt general, was sent by the Emperor Qianlong (Ch'ien-lung) (reigned 1711–99) to quell the uprising. Surprisingly, the ill-organized rebels managed to defeat the presumably inadequate and inefficient imperial forces. Ho-shen had been known to embezzle funds and resources earmarked for the defeat of the White Lotus- and thus accounted for his defeat. Upon assuming effective power in 1799, Emperor Jiaqing (Chia Ch’ing) (reigned 1796–1820) disposed of Ho-shen and gave support to the efforts of more vigorous Manchu commanders as a way of restoring discipline and morale.
A systematic program of pacification followed in which the populace was resettled in hundreds of stockaded villages and organized into militia. In its last stage, the Qing suppression policy combined pursuit and extermination of rebel guerrilla bands with a program of amnesty for deserters. The rebellion came to an end in 1804. A decree from the Emperor Tao Kuang admitted, "…it was extortion by local officials that goaded the people into rebellion…"
Using the arrest of sectarian members as a threat, local officials and police extorted money from people. Actual participation in sect activities had no impact on an arrest; whether or not monetary demands were met, however, did.
The end of the White Lotus Rebellion in 1804 also brought an end to the myth of military invincibility of the Manchu, perhaps contributing to the greater frequency of rebellions in the 19th century.
The White Lotus would again make an appearance in the 1890s. A branch sect called the I Ho Ch’uan (Fists in the Name of Harmony and Justice) began a serious anti- foreigner rebellion in response to the humiliations suffered by China at the hands of European and American powers. The Europeans would later call this band of rebels the Boxers.