Early Days in China
Freemasonry spread rapidly throughout Europe in the 18th century and to America, India and to the East. There were numbers of Freemasons who were administrators or armed forces personnel among the expanding sea-borne empires of Britain, Sweden, Holland and France. Also, some merchants trading with Asian countries were members of the Craft. It was with a ship of the Swedish East India Company, the 'Prince Carl', that freemasonry first reached China. The masons on board had a document giving them permission to hold meetings 'wherever they came ashore' and they did so in Canton (now called Guangzhou) in late 1759. Apparently, there are no records of the working of the lodge at that time. The engraved list of lodges of 1768 under the Premier Grand Lodge of England shows No. 407, the Lodge of Amity, meeting in Canton. It is not well documented but there is some conjecture that this English lodge may have met in the Swedish Factory of the Swedish East India Company. The merchants were keen to trade for Chinese porcelain, silk and tea. Some commissioned China decorated with Masonic emblems and bowls still exists in museums. This period saw greater discontent over restrictions on trade between the Chinese and the 'barbarian' European merchants in Canton. The foreign merchants, possibly buoyed by the victories at Trafalgar and Waterloo, felt that they should press the Chinese for greater concessions. Another factor was the growth in opium trading and the increasing demands for tea and silk. These differences over trade between the Chinese and particularly Britain led to the 'opium wars', resulting in the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 and with the ceding of the barren rock of Hong Kong to the British.
Soon after the British acquired the territory of Hong Kong, two lodges were established. The first was Royal Sussex Lodge No. 501 EC warranted on 18 September 1844, named after the Duke of Sussex, who was then the Grand Master in London. The first meeting was held on 3 April 1845. Later, the Lodge moved to Guangzhou and then on to Shanghai, returning to Hong Kong in 1952. The first senior warden of the Lodge was Richard John, Viscount Suirdale, the Fourth Earl of Donoughmore. The second lodge, Zetland Lodge No 525 EC, warranted on 21 March 1846 was named after the Marquis of Zetland, Grand Master 1844 to 1870. Zetland claims seniority, as it has remained in Hong Kong since its formation. The formation of other Lodges and Orders followed. Zetland Lodge undertook the first purpose built Masonic hall for its meetings on the upper part of Zetland Street but it was destroyed in the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. After the war, the site of the first hall was sold to the Hong Kong Electric Company and there is an electric sub-station still on the site. A second Masonic hall was erected on the site of an old hotel on 1, Kennedy Road and the dedication of the building was held on 30 January 1950. The first Irish Lodge to be consecrated in Hong Kong after the Pacific War was Shamrock Lodge No 712 in 1947. A former member of Shamrock Lodge No 712, W. Bro. William Lamprill, was present at the Foundation Stone Laying in 1947. He was initiated in May 1947 and is now ninety-nine years of age residing at the China Coast Community in Kowloon. The rededication of Zetland Hall took place on 30 January 2000.
District Grand Lodge of Northern China
In China, a warrant was granted to the Northern Lodge of China No. 570 EC in 1849. The first meetings were held in houses of Chinese construction in Shanghai not far from the Cathedral compound. The first Masonic hall in Shanghai was constructed on Nanking Road (formerly known as Park Lane) but later another was built on Canton Road in 1861. Thereafter, lodges were formed in Kiukiang, Qingdao, Wei Hai Wei and Tianjin, and eventually in most of the ports of China were open to foreigners (the Treaty Ports) and the inland cities of Nanjing, Beijing, Harbin and Chengdu. These operated under charters granted by various countries including England, Massachusetts, Scotland, Ireland, Germany and later the Philippines. The first Irish lodge to be erected in China was Lodge Erin No 463 warranted on 8 October 1919 in Shanghai. The Lodge transferred to Hong Kong in 1952. The District Grand Lodge of Northern China was strong and active and many of the Masonic halls constructed in the early 1900's are still standing but now in use for other purposes. The one in Tienjin is now being used as a restaurant entitled 'The Cat Doesn't Care'. There were about six different Constitutions operating in China with the utmost cordiality.
During the Qing Dynasty, the Imperial Government imposed restrictions on Chinese persons and it was almost impossible for a Chinese to become a freemason although in 1873, the leader of a Chinese educational mission in Massachusetts may well have done so. The first known Chinese to become a mason in China was a lieutenant in the Imperial Chinese Navy who was initiated into Star of Southern China No. 2013 EC in Guangzhou in 1889. In Hong Kong, early Chinese Freemasons included Sir Kai Ho Kai and the Honourable Wei Yuk who were initiated into Lodge St. John No 618 SC and took an active part in the formation of the University of Hong Kong. By the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War, many lodges in China had an increase in Chinese members, especially those meeting under the Grand Lodge of the Philippines.
Initially, the effect of hostilities on Masons by the Japanese in China was not great. Later, the Japanese authorities began a Nazi inspired investigation into freemasonry in Shanghai and harassed many prominent members who were held in custody for many weeks. In Japan, there were well-established laws against secret societies but lodges of foreigners had been assured originally that these would not affect them. Japanese nationals at that time were not permitted to join lodges. Freemasons in some of the occupied areas of China were able to continue and meet but it became gradually more difficult for the lodges to operate. Foochow Lodge No 1912 EC in Fuzhou met for the greater part of the war until 1944.
Hong Kong fell on December 1941. Several of the Hong Kong lodges met informally and under dangerous conditions in prisoner of war camps. Cathy Lodge No. 4373 EC met in Stanley prison where a minute book was kept.
The End of Hostilities and Formation of the Grand Lodge of China
With the end of hostilities, the lodges in China and Hong Kong revived, although some moved from the provinces into Shanghai, Tianjin and Hong Kong. With the Japanese occupation over, there was a new enthusiasm towards Freemasonry and the intention of forming a new Grand Lodge of China. There were six Philippine lodges meeting in China which were entirely Chinese. They were desirous of forming a Grand Lodge of China and the members of other Constitutions led by the English supported this cause. A Concordat was drafted in early February 1949. Eight points were laid down and two special notes were added:
- Permission to open one Lodge under the Chinese Constitution in Hong Kong to enable some forty Chinese Masons to practice under their own forms and ritual, and in the sincere belief that this will promote harmony and friendship between Chinese and English Masons
- A restriction of jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of China to 'the three symbolic degrees'.
This Concordat was communicated to Grand Lodge in London in 1949 with the informal agreement of the Irish and Scottish colleagues in Shanghai. The new Grand Lodge was consecrated on 18 March 1949 at the Masonic Temple, Route Dufour, Shanghai. Members of various Constitutions were present at the consecration.
By January 1949, the northern cities of Beijing and Tienjin were in the hands of the Communists. By the end of the year, the whole of China was under their authority. The Chinese did not intend to have the main facilities of their port and main facilities left into foreign hands and this is still the case today. With the establishment of the People's Republic of China, most of the lodges continued to meet, but those that met in the American Masonic Temple in Shanghai decided to close down. The Korean War had commenced and America was opposed to Communism. The English District Grand Master of Northern China offered to close if the Central People's Government requested it, affirming that regular Freemasons always give obedience to the lawful government of whichever country they are in. No request was made and the British lodges meeting in at the Masonic Hall in Beijing Road West in Shanghai continued to meet. The earlier enthusiasm waned and the chances of survival became doubtful. The policy adopted in respect of foreign enterprises would have the effect of Europeans leaving China and with it many brethren. This was because its largely foreign membership had by then left China and not because of any outward conflict with the authorities. Many of the lodges transferred their warrants to Hong Kong as it was under British rule. The last lodge, Northern Lodge, meeting there did so until 1962 when it transferred to Hong Kong (now extinct). It seems that a more stringent policy was soon adopted towards the Chinese and the authorities were taking an increasing interest in the Craft. The Ministry of the Interior required the Grand Lodge of China to register. One understands that the Grand Lodge was constantly under interference and molestation by the authorities and was unable to register. Therefore, the files and regalia were transferred surreptitiously to Hong Kong. Many Chinese brethren also followed the Nationalist Government to Taiwan.
In Taiwan, the inception of US Military Assistance Advisory Group in 1951 added to the number of Masons. It followed an application to the Grand Lodge of China in Hong Kong for permission to consecrate a Lodge in Taipei. After some difficulty with the authorities, Liberty Lodge No. 7 was consecrated in 1952 and initiations were held under dispensation. The Grand Lodge was then reactivated in Taipei in 1955, as were the six former mainland Lodges. The position of the PRC has always been that Taiwan is only a province of the PRC and there is only 'one China'. Following the establishment of the Grand Lodge of China on the mainland, only eight foreign jurisdictions had established fraternal relations with the Grand Lodge of China. Now at least eighty-eight jurisdictions, including all the USA forty-nine jurisdictions have recognized the Grand Lodge in Taipei as does the Irish Constitution.
Change of Sovereignty in Hong Kong
On the 30 June 1997, in Hong Kong, the Union Jack flag was lowered after about 150 years of British rule and the Chinese flag hoisted. The territory of Hong Kong was thus handed over and designated a Special Administration Region of the People's Republic of China. The Basic Law of the SAR permits organizations such as the Craft to continue without interference, as long as it does not contravene the law. To this point in time, there has been no interference by the authorities in the operation of the Craft in Hong Kong. Brethren of the Grand Lodge of China, as reconstituted in Taipei, have visited Hong Kong and have been given every courtesy. While many of our former Masonic Halls in the PRC are still standing and have been visited, this was for sentimental reasons and Masonic research purposes only.
Masonic Halls in China
Photographs of two former Masonic Halls in China are included here:
- Masonic Hall, Wei Hai Wei, PRC. Erected May 1910
- Masonic Hall, Qing Dao, PRC. Erected 1935
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