The commonly accepted myth about triads is that they began as a resistance movement to the Manchu emperors. The Manchu were from a country north of China (Manchuria) and were seen as foreign rulers, who took China's northern capital (Peking) by force, and established their dynasty around 1674.

In the thirteen year of rule of the second Manchu emperor (Kiang Hsi), a monastery of fighting monks ("Siu Lam") were recruited by the emperor to defeat a rebellion in Fukien. These monasteries received some imperial power as a reward. Due to court jealousies, these Fukien Buddhist monks were then themselves seen as a threat, and an army was sent
to suppress them. Eighteen monks escaped, but only 5 survived further, who are thought to have founded 5 monasteries, and five secret societies, dedicated to overthrowing the Manchu (also known as the Ching) dynasty, and restoring the previous Chinese Ming dynasty, which was seen as a golden age for China. Their motto became "Crush the Ch'ing, establish the Ming".

The family name of the Ming emperors was "Hung", and their colour was red, so both Hung and red are associated with Chinese secret societies. The societies called themselves the "Hung Mun". Secret codes were developed, to frustrate the emperor's spies. However, this secrecy, and the martial arts training, eventually led to the associations being used for criminal purposes, instead of political ones. During this period many Hung Mun were seen as protectors of the people against a repressive and sometimes vicious regime of the emperor.

These secret societies played roles in several rebellions against the Manchus, notably the White Lotus Society rebellion in Szechuan, Hupeh and Shansi in the mid-1790's; the "Cudgels" uprising in Kwangsi province, 1847 to 1850; and Hung Hsiu Chuan's Kwangsi-based rebellion 1851-1865. Hung called himself Christ's brother, and rebellion (called T'ai Ping) was crushed with the aid of the Western powers. The Boxer Rebellion in Peking in 1896-1900, involved the White Lotus Society, as well as other triads called the "Big Swords" and the "Red Fists". Sun Yat Sen, the founder of Republican China, was allied with the Hsing Chung triad society, in his 1906 rebellion. Meanwhile, the Western powers and Japan virtually raped China, enforcing opium drug sales by war, stealing gold and heritage antiques, and demanding huge recompensation for any affront.

The Manchus (the Ch'ing) were overthrown in 1911, but there were no Mings left to restore.

Sun Yat Sen's successor was warlord Yuan Shik Kai, who worked with the triads in corruption. The Nationalist government set up in 1927 in Nanking was headed by a known killer and criminal member of the Shang Hai Green Gang, Chiang Kai Shek. The triads took over the government of southern China, and fought the Communists, later under Mao Tse Tung, for total control. The Western powers used this "Green Tang" organized crime group to suppress any labour unrest, and to kill off communists.

When the Japanese invaded most major Chinese cities in World War Two, the Triads offered to work for them instead. In Hong Kong, the Triads ran criminal enterprises for the Japanese. The Japanese united the gangs under an association called the "Hing Ah Kee Kwan" (Asia Flourishing Organization). The gangsters were used to help police the residents of Hong Kong, and to suppress any anti-Japanese activity. The gangs were paid through a Japanese front company, called Lee Yuen Company.

Following World War Two, the target of the West and the Triads became Communists again, and Chiang Kai Shek's nationalist government campaigned to increase Triad membership. In Southern China, this campaign was under Nationalist army lieutenant general, Kot Siu Wong, who had his headquarters at number 14, Po Wah Road, Canton. This is where the name of the "14 K" triad is thought to have originated. It was estimated that in 1947, there were 300,000 Triad members in Hong Kong alone.

When Mao Tse Tung's communists were victorious by 1949, these Triad nationalists were dispersed to Hong Kong, Macao, Thailand, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Perth Australia. [The remnants of Chiang Kai Shek's KMT (Kuomintang) south China army was forced into the Burmese highlands, where they became pivotal to smuggling drugs to the West, via Thailand, under Khun Sa]. The Communists suppressed triads on the mainland, executing and imprisoning many. Mao's Prime Minister, Chou En Lai, banned cultivation and use of opium in 1950.

In 1956 there was a major riot in Kowloon, which was exploited by triads from Taiwan. Emergency (Detection Orders) Regulations were passed by the colonial government, and 10,000 suspected mobsters were arrested. Triads went into a semi- dormant period. But the cultural revolution in mainland China was one of several factors which caused massive emigration and social problems, including a resurgence of Triad criminal activity, much of it centering around Hong Kong, but extending to several continents.