In the densely forested border area between the provinces Hubei, Sichuan and Shaanxi, a lot of homeless peasant refugees (liumin 流民, see also shed people) had gathered to escape the grip of landowners, creditors and tax collectors. Until 1772 and 1773 already several hundred thousand persons belonged to these outlaws, and numbers constantly rose by immigrants from the provinces of Henan, Anhui and Jiangxi. In the bad climate of the region that made agriculture a scarcely profitable business, the inhabitants made their lives by working in the land clearing business, in the paper industry, or in the smithry business.
Under such hard conditions, a lot of people resorted to the harbour of religion and became followers of the many secret White Lotus societies. A saviour deity that only required people living in a modest and cooperative way with each other (sharing income, sharing food, mutual support in case of need) provided a strong appeal for the White Lotus leaders. The first leader proclaiming the coming of a new age was Fan Mingde 樊明德 in Henan. Liu Song 劉松, Liu Zhixie 劉之協 and Song Zhiqing 宋之清 in Hebei, Sichuan and Anhui even prognosticated the return of the Ming dynasty (they used the character code Niu-Ba 牛八 for the character of the surname of the Ming rulers, Zhu 朱). In 1795 a collective uprising was carefully planned, and societies willing to participate were equipped with swords and gunpowder.
The local government instantly took harsh measures to catch and arrest all adherents of the White Lotus societies and thereby even intensified the resistance of the White Lotus leaders against government and dynasty. In February 1796 Zhang Zhengmo 張正謨 and Nie Jieren 聶傑人 rose in rebellion in the region of Yidu 宜都 and Zhijiang 枝江 in Hubei. A month later Wang Cong'er 王聰兒 and Yao Zhifu 姚之富 rebelled in the region of Xiangyang 襄陽. The various rebel societies did not cooperate with each other but fought for themselves, barricaded behind timber palisades or fortified villages to resist the local gendarms. Only the troops of the Xiangyang rebels were able to build up a large army that was able to challenge the Qing troops in the field.
Half a year later White Lotus societies in Sichuan joined the rebellion under the leadership of Xu Tiande 徐添德 in Dazhou 達州 and Wang Sanhuai 王三槐 and Leng Tianlu 冷天祿 in Dongxiang 東鄉 (modern Xuanhan 宣漢). In February 1797 the rebel armies of Hubei spread out and looted all the region and began wandering to the neighbouring provinces. The regular Qing troops were only able to persue them and was not able to root out any base of the locust-like White Lotus army. In July the Qing finally managed to encircle the rebel base in Sichuan, so that the Hubei rebels approached for relief. Although Wang Cong'er was talented enough to build up effectively brigades under different commanders, his soldiers were not able to cooperate with each other, so that each company after the other was repelled and disintegrated.
In March 1798 the Hubei rebels were trapped by the Qing army near Yunxi 鄖西, and its leaders died. The Sichuan rebels likewise had suffered great losses. Yet the files of the rebels were constantly filled with new recruits, and the local population supported the insurgents, provided them with food and gunpowder, carried their supplies and scouted them through the mountain hills. In early 1800 the rebels were nevertheless again defeated near Jiangyou 江油 in Sichuan.
The Qing generals had adopted a new method to cut the rebels off their supplies of material and recruits. The government had palisades built for villages and forcibly settled down the peasants of the hilly lands into these defense compounds (zhaibao 寨堡, cunluo 村落). All economic activities were to take place within these compounds. At the same time, village militia (xiangyong 鄉勇) were recruited and trained to fight against White Lotus "bandits". These measures helped to deprived the White Lotus rebels of food and supplies and took them away the necessary manpower to staff their army. The Qing army step by step encircled the last rebel groups in the triangle of the provinces Hubei, Sichuan and Shaanxi, where the rebellion had begun. In late 1804 the war against the White Lotus heretics could be declared as terminated.
The nine-years long White Lotus war had devastated a large number of districts in Central China. It had cost the lives of countless civilians and regular troops, including more than 400 high officers, and consumed more than 200 million liang/tael, which corresponded to four times the annual revenues of the state treasury. It had proved the inability of the Qing government to cope effectfully with large-scale popular uprisings and the wide-spread corruption among both the civilian government and the military establishment.
The Heavenly Order Society was one of the few White Lotus movement of late imperial China that managed to associate different societies into one. It came into being by the cooperation of the Eight Trigrams Society (Bagua jiao 八卦教, also called Nine Palaces Society, Jiugong jiao 九宮教), the Flowering Society (Ronghua jiao 榮華會), and the White Sun (Baiyang jiao 白陽教), Red Sun (Hongyang jiao 紅陽教) and Blue Sun (Qingyang jiao 青陽教) societies. The most important leaders of this new united society were Li Wencheng 李文成 and Feng Keshan 馮克善 from Henan and Lin Qing 林清 from Daxing 大興 near Beijing.
The society was organised in eight groups (corresponding to the eight trigrams). The mainly used scripture of the adherents was the Sanfo yingjie tongguan tongshu 三佛應劫統觀通書, and they venerated the Birthless Old Mother, but also the sun. They believed in the three progressive eons (sanji 三際), calling the past "dimension-less extreme" (wuji 無極), the present the "greatest extreme" (taiji 太極), and the future "august extreme" (huangji 皇極), but also prognosticated the decline of the Red Sun (hongyang 紅陽) and the ascent of the White Sun (baiyang 白陽), thus favouring the rise of a new dynasty. In 1813 the Heavenly Order Society rose in rebellion against the Qing dynasty and devastated the provinces of Henan, Shandong and Zhili. Some groups even invaded the Imperial City.