Secret society membership token

East Asia, 20th century

This gold piece has a square hole in the centre and an inscription on both sides, and is reminiscent of traditional Chinese copper alloy coins. But the gold metal, the octagonal shape, and the inscriptions tell us it is something special.

The inscription on the front reads Hong ying tong bao (top-bottom-right-left) and translates as ‘Circulating treasure (ie coin) of Hong ying’. The character ‘hong’ is associated with secret societies.

The inscription on the back is more difficult. The characters on the right and left read ‘san wen’, and translate as ‘three coins’, and refer to the three coins carried as a sign of membership. The top and bottom characters expand to read ‘Shun tian xing dao’ (Obey Heaven and Follow the Way) and ‘Zhong xin yi qi’ (Faithful in Heart, Loyal in Spirit). They are both slogans of the Heaven and Earth Society. But they are written in an abbreviated way that only the initiated would understand.

We can interpret the shape as embodying the Chinese expression ‘the eight sides and four directions’ (si mian ba fang) which means ‘everywhere’. The design of this membership token takes key elements from the older traditions of the society, and weaves them into a very beautiful contemporary piece.

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Weight: 6.71 grammes
Diameter: 21 mm


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This object features in A History of the World in 100 objects

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