An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Zhang Jiao 張角

Aug 9, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

Zhang Jiao (died 184 CE) was a leader of the Yellow Turban rebellion (huangjin qiyi 黃巾起義)in the last decades of the Eastern Han period 東漢 (25-220 CE) and the founder of the Daoist tradition of the Taiping School (Taiping dao 太平道). He hailed from Julu 巨鹿 (modern Pingxiang 平鄉, Hebei). According to legend, the Daoist master Yu Ji 于吉 handed him over the scripture Taiping qingling shu 太平清領書 (better known as Taipingjing 太平經) that gave him the impetus to found his own school.

Zhang Jiao soon attracted numerous followers to whom he promised not only religious salvation, but also a better empire on earth. He called himself Daxian liangshi 大賢良師 "Great wise and excellent teacher" and instructed his followers in the teachings of Huang-Lao thought 黄老, a state philosophy flourishing during the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE), as well as the belief in the power of Yin and Yang 陰陽 and the Five Agents 五行. Following popular belief, he also made use of talismans (fulu 符籙) and charms (zhouyu 咒語) to protect his followers, and admonished them to keep to austerity and simplicity.

Like many early Daoists masters, Zhang Jiao was mainly a healer who cured diseases not with the use of medicine, but by charms, incantations and exorcism, and had his patients confessed their sins and promised repentence. His method was very simple. The talismans were burnt and the ash consumed with water. If the ill person felt better, it was thought that he or she had found the right way, or Dao.

The centre of Zhang Jiao's philosophy was the concept of the Great Unity in the Central Yellow (zhonghuang taiyi 中黄太一), which meant a unification of polical government with the natural structure of the universe. His home province Jizhou 冀州 (modern Shanxi) was afflicted by natural disasters, and so he found tens of thousands of adherents in the ten years he was active. He sent out eight trusted disciples to recruit new followers in all provinces of the Han empire.

In the first years the movement of Zhang Jiao was purely religious, but when it became apparent that the Han court was affected by internal struggles between state officials, eunuchs and the kinsmen of empresses (waiqi 外戚), Zhang Jiao's followers foresaw the coming end of the dynasty and urged their religious leader to raise weapons. Between 179 and 181 Zhang Jiao created a huge army with 36 divisions (fang 方) that were each led by a supreme commander (qushuai tongling 渠帥統領). Another ranks of commander was "divine commissioner" (shenshangshisanzheng 三正) or "three linkages" (santong 三統) between Heaven, Earth and mankind, and accordingly adopted the military titles of Celestial General (tiangong jiangjun 天公將軍), Terrestrial General (digong jiangjun 地公將軍) and Human General (rengong jiangjun 人公將軍).

The three Zhang brothers proclaimed their will to overthrow the Han dynasty with the assumption that the "Blue Heaven" (cangtian 蒼天) was already death (i.e. the Heavenly Mandate of the Han), and it was time for the Yellow Heaven (huangtian 黄天) to take over the reign of the empire. Accidentally it was the first year (jiazi 甲子, 184 CE) of a new sexagenary cycle (see calendar), which meant that the time was auspicious enough for a new beginning under the motto of "Great Peace of the Yellow Heaven" (huangtian taiping 黄天泰平). Zhang's followers wrote the characters jiazi on all gates of cities, administrative buldings and shrines.

It was decided that on the fifth day of the third month in the jiazi year the uprising would begin. Until that day, Zhang Jiao decided to take up his residence in Yecheng 鄴城 and to establish contact with court eunuchs that might try to respond to the uprising by bringing the court into turmoil. Yet one of Zhang's followers, a certain Tang Zhou 唐周 from Jinan 濟南 (or Tang Ke 唐客 from Peiyin 沛陰), unveiled these plans, and the internal rebellion in the palace failed.

Zhang Jiao thereupon decided to raise weapons prematurely, and his followers in six provinces began the uprising. As a sign of their participation in the rebellion they wore yellow headscarves, the so-called "yellow turbans" (huangjin 黄巾). They burnt down local government bureaus, looted the district cities and forced the government officials to flee. The whole empire, especially the north, was in turmoil, but Zhang Jiao died in the same year, and in all regions private armies were raised that soon put down the rebellion. Some of the leaders of these armies eventually became those warlords that made an end to the Han dynasty.

Zhang Jiao was the first Daoist leader who tried to gain political domination, but he was never venerated as a Daoist saint. According to the Song period 宋 (960-1279) book Jilebian 鷄肋編 he became a saint in the pantheon of the Persian religion of Manicheism which had some adherents in the Chinese empire. Zhang's personal name Jiao 角 was by them also declared a taboo character.

During the Qing period 清 (1644-1911), the White Lotus movement (bailian 白蓮) imitated Zhang Jiao's slogan and declared that the "Yellow Heaven" had ended and was to be replaced by the "Blue Heaven".

Qing Xitai 卿希泰, ed. (1994). Zhongguo daojiao 中國道教 (Shanghai: Zhishi chubanshe), Vol. 1, 220.