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The Yellow Turban Uprising

Jun 28, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The Yellow Turban Uprising (huangjin qiyi 黃巾起義) was a large popular rebellion that contributed to the end of the Later Han dynasty 後漢 (25-220 CE) and the rise of several warlords that would eventually divide the empire among them. The rebels wore a yellow headscarf, which gave the uprising its name. The first leader of the rebels was Zhang Jiao 張角 (d. 184 CE).

The reasons for the uprising are to be sought in the worsening economic situation of many peasants. Endebted to landowners, peasants could often only survive when selling their land and becoming tenant farmers. In addition to the high rent paid for the fields the worked, tenant farmers had to deliver corvée labour for eminent families and had to serve for all kinds of means, often as soldiers for small private armies (buqu 部曲). A further problem was that the central government was very weak after the death of Emperor He 漢和帝 (r. 88-105). Only children or very young persons were enthroned, and politics was in the hands of empresses and their kinsmen, or those of eunuchs. Taxes were often not sufficient to cover the expenses of the government. Local officials were not correctly appointed, offices were sold, and the local government did not care for a regular administration. This was particularly to be seen in the missing administration of the state granaries. In case of drought or natural disasters, there were no means of relief to be delivered to the hungry population. Peasants left their lands and wandered around in search for food and labour.

In the decades between the reigns of the emperors An 漢安帝 (r. 106-125) and Ling 漢靈帝 (r. 167-188), there were hundreds of small peasant uprisings against local authorities, the most important of which were Zhang Bolu's 張伯路 rebellion in Qingzou 青州 (modern Shandong), Zhang Ying's 張嬰 uprising in Guangling 廣陵 (Jiangsu and Anhui), or Gongsun Ju's 公孫舉 rebellion in the region of Mt. Taishan 太山 (Shandong, Jiangsu). Many uprisings were not only protests, but their leaders proclaimed themselves emperor, adopted reign mottos and even appointed state officials. Many leaders were inspired by religious ideas, mainly coming from Daoist traditions.

One leader called Zhang Jiao hailed from Julu 巨鹿 (modern Pingxiang 平鄉, Hebei) and was a master of the Daoist Taiping tradition 太平道. He adopted the title of "Grand Worthy Master" (da xianliang shi 大賢良師). Zhang was very popular because he worked as a healer among the common population and preached physical salvation. He began establishing his own "church" in eight provinces of China, with 36 parishes administered by so-called "channel masters" (qushi 渠師) or "grand regional [parsons]" (dafang 大方). This kind of parallel state posed a threat to the regular government so that Minister of Education (situ 司徒) Yang Ci 楊賜 (d. 185 CE) memorialized to Emperor Ling that the "parsons" were better to be arrested and executed.

Zhang Jiao at that time began preparing the rebellion with the slogan that "the bluegray Heaven (i. e. the Han dynasty) is dead, the Yellow Heaven (i. e. the Taiping dynasty) will be established". This event was predicted to happen in the year with the first pair of the cyclical signs, jiazi 甲子 (184 CE), to mark a new beginning. The characters jiazi were also the symbol of the rebels, and were therefore painted on the buildings of the Taiping offices. The grand parson (dafang) Ma Yuanyi 馬元義 had contact to some persons at the court, especially the eunuchs Feng Xu 封胥 and Xu Feng 徐奉, who responded enthusiastically to his plans to overthrow the Han dynasty from inside the court. Ma Yuanyi was also an important contact person coordinating the exact date for the common uprising of all adherents of Zhang Jiao's "church". Yet one month before the envisaged date, Ma Yuanyi was betrayed by Tang Zhou 唐周, another disciple of Zhang Jiao, arrested and torn into pieces. In the capital Luoyang 洛陽 (today in Henan) and other cities, more than thousand followers of Zhang Jiao were massacred. Zhang Jiao, facing imminent danger, instantly announced the premature beginning of the rebellion.

In all 36 "parishes", the Yellow Turbans rose simultaneously. Zhang called himself "Celestial General" (tiangong jiangjun 天公將軍), his brother Zhang Bao 張寳 (d. 184 CE) was the "Terrestrial General" (digong jiangjun 地公將軍), and Zhang Liang 張梁 (d. 184 CE) the "Human General" (rengong jiangjun 人公將軍). The whole empire was shocked by this uprising, and Emperor Ling could not but order all governors and generals to fight with all their power against the Yellow Turbans.

The regent He Jin 何進 (d. 189 CE) was appointed commander of the garrisons around the capital, and special commanders (duwei 督尉) protecting the eight passes towards the metropolitan area were appointed. Huangfu Song 皇甫嵩 (d. 195), Zhu Sui 朱㒞 (d. 195) and Lu Zhi 盧植 (d. 192) were to unite all elite troops from throughout the empire. The danger was so threatening that officials formerly accused of factionalism (danggu 黨錮) were pardoned, released from jail to serve the dynasty again. Yet all these measures were not sufficient, so that the court relied on high provincial officials and military commanders to put down the rebellions. The most important of these men were Yuan Shao 袁紹 (d. 202), Yuan Shu 袁術 (d. 199), Gongsun Zan 公孫瓚 (d. 199), Cao Cao 曹操 (155-220, father of the eventual founder of the Wei empire 魏, 220-265), Sun Jian 孫堅 (155-191, father of the founder of the Wu empire 吳, 222-280) and Liu Bei 劉備 (161-222, founder of the Shu empire 蜀, 221-263).

The uprising was so effective and widespread that the saying of the "ant bandits" (yizei 蟻賊) was spreading. At the beginning, the rebellion concentrated on the region of Julu 巨鹿, Yingchuan 潁川 and Nanyang 南陽 (southeast of the capital Luoyang). The rebels burnt down the buildings of the government and killed or drove away rich landowners. Zhang Mancheng 張曼成 (d. 184) conquered Nanyang and killed governor (taishou 太守) Chu Gong 褚貢 (d. 184). Bo Cai 波才 defeated general Zhu Sui and managed to encircle the troops of Huangfu Song in Changshe 長社 (modern Changge 長葛, Henan). Governor Zhao Qian 趙謙 (d. 192) of Runan 汝南 was killed, likewise governor Liu Wei 劉衛 (d. 192) and the regional inspector (cishi 刺史) of Youzhou 幽州, Guo Xun 郭勳. The princes Liu Xu 劉續 (d. 184) of Anping 安平 and Liu Zhong 劉忠 (d. 184) of Ganling 甘陵 (d. 190) were taken captives. Zhang Jiao himself took the city of Guangzong 廣宗 (modern Weixian 威縣, Hebei) and defeated Lu Zhi and the general Dong Zhuo 董卓 (d. 192).

The success of the Yellow Turban uprising instigated a great number of other rebellions, the most famous of which, the Five-pecks-of-grain school (Wudoumi dao 五斗米道) in the region of Hanzhong (between modern Sichuan and Shaanxi), was led by Zhang Xiu 張修 (d. 191). There were also some native tribes (the Qiang 羌 of Xianling 先零, the Hu 胡 of Huangzhong 湟中 and the Man 蠻 of Wuling 武陵 and Bandun 板楯) in the western and southwestern part of the empire that rebelled against the Chinese government.

The main fault of the Yellow Turban strategy was that they did not fight in a concerted action, but each division operated by itself. This circumstance made it easier to separate each contingent and to fight the unexperienced soldiers with heavily concentrated forces. The local magnates recruited soldiers from among the peasantry and so took away part of the recruitment sources for the Yellow Turbans.

The forces of Bo Cai in Yingchuan were the first to suffer defeat. Huangfu Song, Cao Cao and Zhu Sui assaulted their camp, crushed their lines and massacred the surviving soldiers.

The Yellow Turbans in Runan also suffered defeat. Zhu Sui then attacked the rebels in Nanyang and defeated them after a fierce battle at Wancheng 宛城. The rest escaped to Jingshan 精山 (modern Nanyang, Henan), where they were annihilated. Zhang Jiao had died from a disease, and his contingents were led by his brother Zhang Liang. The latter also died during the defense of Guangzong against Huangfu Song. The corpse of Zhang Jiao was desecrated, the surviving Yellow Turban troops were massacred. Zhang Bao also died in battle.

The death of the three leaders was by no means the end of the Yellow Turban movement. Guo Da led the uprising in Bogu (modern Xiangfen, Shanxi) and conquered the commanderies of Taiyuan and Hedong. In the provinces of Qingzhou 青州 (modern Shandong) and Xuzhou 徐州 (northern Jiangsu), the Yellow Turbans kept active, and in the province of Yizhou 益州 (modern Sichuan), Ma Xiang 馬相 and Zhao Chi 趙祇 also led a group of Yellow Turbans. They killed the regional inspector of Yizhou, while in the east, the Yellow Turbans disrupted the local government of several provinces before they were defeated by Cao Cao. Even then, Xu He 徐和 and Sima Juhe 司馬俱和 stayed active in that region.

In 207, Liu Bin 劉贇, Prince of Jinan 濟南, was killed by Yellow Turbans. In the province of Jizhou 冀州 (modern Hebei and Shanxi), Zhang Niujiao 張牛角 and Zhang Yan 張燕 (or Chu Feiyan 褚飛燕) led groups of rebels. The latter commanded the Black Mountain Army (heishanjun 黑山軍). With no means to fight him, the court decided to grant him the title of Leader of the court gentleman calming troubles (pingnan zhonglangjiang 平難中郎將). Yuan Shao and Cao Cao finally pacified the province of Jizhou.

The uprising of the Yellow Turbans lasted more than 20 years and influenced the memory of a whole generation. It had been well organised and thoroughly planned and indeed brought the Han dynasty to the brink of destruction. It was the largest popular uprising China had seen until that day. To call its projected dynasty an "own government by the peasants" (nongmin ziji de zhengquan 農民自己的政權), as some Communist historians do, is certainly not justified because we do not know enough about the state that Zhang Jiao planned to establish, this was certainly not a democratic government in the proper sense of the word.

Xie Guihua 謝桂華 (1992). "Huangjin qiyi 黃巾起義", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 406-408.