The Red Swastika Society: Faith-based Humanitarianism in 20th Century China

Updated: Apr 3


Red Swastika Society member with flag and armband 1920-40s © Unknown Author/ Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons


Not long before the rise to power of the Communist Party in China, and the founding of the People’s Republic (1949), the country had been the dwelling to a constellation of religious groups – also referred to as “redemptive societies” – gathered under the umbrella of the Chinese salvationist religion. The flourishing of such salvationist groups was a phenomenon that had its apex during Republican China (1912–1949), having its inception in that period straddling the end of bi-millenarian Imperial China and the beginning of its modern era (Palmer 2011, 1). At that time – when the civil war between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party was raging – the growing need for relief interventions had favored the propagation of many philanthropic organizations, originally based on the local charities of the Qing period, the shantangs (Goossaert and Palmer 2011, 79, 106; Pfeiff 2017, 1, 7). One of the most prominent of them was the Red Swastika Society (红卍字会 hóng wàn zì huì), which later happened to become the largest relief organization during the Sino-Japanese War. The Red Swastika Society was established in 1922 as the nationwide charity branch of the Daoyuan (道院, School of the Tao), the latter among those redemptive societies which posed themselves as a “Way” transcending all religions (Goossaert and Palmer 2011, 79, 101; Palmer 2011, 31).


The millenarian genesis of the swastika and its place within Chinese traditional religion

Despite its origins as an ancient religious icon in many – predominantly Eurasians – cultures, its adoption by the German Nazi Party in the 1930s has led the swastika to be heavily stigmatized. In the aftermath of World War II and to these days, it is still largely associated with Nazism and considered a symbol of hate, antisemitism, and white supremacy (Wagoner 2009, 13).


Nonetheless, for Hinduist, Buddhist and Jaini countries, swastika remains a symbol of auspiciousness. The word swastika is a derivative of the Sanskrit world “swasti”, composed of “su” (well), and the verb “asti” (to be), while “-ka” is added as a suffix (d’Alviella 1891, 40-41). In general, it stands for the world wheel, eternally changing around a fixed center, the Deity. Further precisely, it bears the name of swastika when its arms are bent in a clockwise direction (卐), standing for the course taken daily by the sun. In Hinduism it symbolizes the solar deity, Surya. When its arms are turned in a left-facing, anti-clockwise direction (卍), the symbol takes the name of sauwastika and epitomizes Kali, the goddess of darkness, time and change. How is this then related to China? Buddhism made its appearance in the Asian country around 2000 years ago, brought by missionaries from India, and the symbol of swastika entered the Chinese writing system since the Liao Dynasty (AD 907-1125) (SandHI 2016, 50, 91).


In traditional Chinese religion, the swastika (卍/卐/萬, wàn) represents the totality of beings emanated and regulated by Taiyi (太一), the “Great One”. It is also called Tianmen (天門, “Gate of Heaven”), or Tianshu (天樞, “Pivot of Heaven”). Its equivalent symbol in Taoism is the Taijitu (太极图), or the “Symbol of the Supreme Pole”. It encapsulates the concept of Yin and Yang: the splitting of the supreme principle into a duality, whose complementary tension generates the vital energy of centrifugal emanation and centripetal reabsorption in the single principle (Guénon 1990, 70-71, 124-125). Coming to the meaning of the red swastika, in particular, it represents the infinite sacred virtues of the Heart of Buddha (SandHI 2016, 99).


The relief work of the Red Swastika Society and its adherence to Red Cross principles

The Daoyuan – as well as other newly created religious movements – is a unique outcome of the Republican period and its socio-political landscape. However, the organization made efforts towards combining Chinese and Western ideas of philanthropy. This happened at a time when the late imperial order had collapsed in China, and modern, Western forms of social organization were on the rise, as well as reformulations of Chinese religion, society and culture. Christian missions exerted influence on Chinese religious and philanthropic societies by introducing models of national religious organizations (Pfeiff 2017, 2; Goossaert and Palmer 2011, 30-31, 34). As well, the Daoyuan considered spiritual traditions as useful and beneficial as Western science and rationality, regarding them as complementary (Pfeiff 2017, 2).


On its side, the Red Swastika Society posed itself at the intersection of spirituality, tradition and modernity. It was founded on the model of existing local charities, but it combined Chinese tradition of relief with influences from the humanitarian work of the International Red Cross. The fact that China already had one officially recognized national organization in the network of the International Red Cross prevented the Red Swastika Society from gaining membership. Features of the Red Cross work became part of the Red Swastika’s emergency relief program nevertheless (Palmer 2011, 31; Pfeiff 2017, 1). Xiong Xiling, premier and finance minister of the Republic of China from July 1913 to February 1914, provides a notable example of the Daoyuan approach. The philanthropist advocated the compatibility of Western-style models with Chinese traditional philanthropy. Xiong also played a prominent role in humanitarian aid within his country and abroad. He was involved in the work of the Chinese Red Cross and took part at the same time in various humanitarian projects. Concerning his involvement in the Red Swastika’s network, he became the leader of its administrative center in Beijing, as well as in Shanghai and its associated branches in the Eastern provinces. The fact that emergency-aid activities during armed conflicts paired with the commitment to long-term relief is just an example of how the foreign models combined with philanthropic tradition (Pfeiff 2017, 3-4).


In 1934 a general meeting was held in Shanghai that gathered all the branches of the Red Swastika Society, in order to deliberate on the reforms of its religious practices after their suppression by the government, and to better align with the Red Cross emergency relief program. On that occasion, a proposal was brought forward for the establishment of a scientific institute for the study of philosophy, whose goal was to examine the relationship between medicine, psychology and spiritual practices, and to spread knowledge about the complementary relationship between Eastern and Western cultures. The 1934 meeting also gave impetus to the extension of women participation within the Red Swastika, with a stronger incorporation of its other branch, the Women’s Moral Society. Xiong Xiling went further by suggesting the creation of the Red Swastika Women’s Relief Society, to offer educated women the possibility to be actively involved in philanthropy. They were mainly set to offer “comfort work” according to the Daoyuan’s approach to wellbeing, based on psychological help through praying and medical treatment. It must be pointed out that, during the Sino-Japanese War, Chinese and Korean women were forced into prostitution and were known as “comfort women”. However, comfort work and spiritual guidance of the Red Swastika Society was a response to wartime traumas. Eventually, the Red Swastika Women’s Relief Society existed only for a short period during the war (Pfeiff 2017, 6-7).


As relief work during the 1930s went under gradual politicization, the Red Swastika Society responded by adopting principles of neutrality and impartiality in its agenda, similar to those of the Red Cross. In particular, after the Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1937, the adherence to non-interference in political affairs allowed the organization to pass off emergency relief activities as unaffiliated with the Chinese government, thus providing protection for thousands of refugees (Pfeiff 2017, 7-8).


The fate of the Red Swastika and the other redemptive societies

Essentially, what characterizes the religious philanthropy of China’s Republican-period was the ascendant of larger, pan-Chinese organizations, which expanded rapidly under the conditions of Japanese occupation and civil war (Goossaert and Palmer 2011, 79, 212). The Red Swastika Society posed itself as an alternative to the models of the International Red Cross Movement in the aftermath of the First World War. However, the imposition of reforms on philanthropic societies during the Nanjing Decade gave impetus for an alignment with the work of the Chinese Red Cross (Pfeiff 2017, 8). In such a context, redemptive societies rushed to integrate modern forms of national association, philanthropy and public engagement into their traditional models. At a time when Chinese traditional religion was often labeled as a set of superstition’s practices, they adopted strategies to survive those unstable political times (Palmer 2011, 30-31). While adhering to Red Cross models and principles, and transforming its agenda and rituals, the Red Swastika Society also played a role in supporting and contributing to the anti-Japanese defense. Its approach to humanitarianism remained based on the Daoyuan religion nonetheless. Despite its disappearance from the mainland in 1953, redemptive societies are spread overseas and seem to retain an important role within Chinese religious culture to this day (Pfeiff 2017, 8).



Giulia Secci is a member of European Guanxi's Editorial Team. She holds a B.A. in Communication and Society from the University of Milan, where she also pursued a M.A. in International Relations, discussing her thesis on China's strategy in the Arctic. She did an internship at the Complutense Institute of International Studies (ICEI), while also assisting an International Public Law Professor. Since 2017 she is part of MSOI-UNYA Italy, becoming National Vice-Coordinator in 2022. Recently, she joined an Italian association - La Grande Occasione - to help develop a cooperation project between Monferrato Italian territory and the Penghu Islands, in the Taiwan Strait. She speaks Italian, English, Spanish, some German and French, and is studying Chinese. You can find her on LinkedIn and Instagram.



The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.


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References

d’Alviella, The Count Goblet (1891). “The Migration of Symbols”. Chiswick Press: Charles Whittingham and Co. Tooks Court, Chancery Lane, London.


Goossaert, Vincent, & Palmer, David A. (2011). The Religious Question in Modern China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Guénon, René (1990). Simboli della scienza sacra. Milano: Adelphi Edizioni.


Palmer, David A. (2011). “Chinese Redemptive Societies and Salvationist Religion: Historical Phenomenon or Sociological Category?”. In: Journal of Chinese Theatre, Ritual and Folklore/ Minsu Quyi 172, pp. 1–40 (pre-publication).


Pfeiff, Alexandra (2017). “The Red Swastika Society’s Humanitarian Work: A Re-interpretation of the Red Cross in China”. In: New Global Studies (De Gruyter), n. 20160021.


SandHI, (2016). Exploring the Pattern and Ideogram of Swastika. A Universal Principle of Sustainability. The Science & Heritage Initiative, Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur. Kolkata: Cygnus Advertising (India) Pvt. Ltd.


Wagoner, Brady (2009). Symbolic Transformation: The Mind in Movement Through Culture and Society. Routledge.

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