An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Taiping dao 太平道, the Way of the Great Peace

Aug 29, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The Taipingdao 太平道, the "Way of the Great Peace", was one of the oldest schools of religious Daoism. Its origins lie in popular religious movements during the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220). Only during the 160s and 170s, the figure of a leader appeared in the person of Zhang Jiao 張角 (d. 184 CE). Zhang became the head of the Yellow Turban movement (Huangjin qiyi 黄巾起義), a peasant rebellion in Eastern China that tried to overthrow the Han dynasty, or at least to change the unbearable social and economical conditions of the peasantry.

Zhang Jiao propagated the belief in ghosts, immortals and deities, wrote talismans, organized incantations and healed ill persons. The word taiping "great peace" for his movement first appears in Zhang Lu's 張魯 (d. 216, 245 or 259 CE) biography in the official history Sanguozhi 三國志. The term is derived from the name of a Daoist writing from that period, the Taipingjing 太平經, but was also used for the rebellious movement of his adherents. The combination of religion and social change was an integral point of Zhang Lu's teachings, just like in the movement of the Way of Five-pecks-of-grain (wudoumi dao 五斗米道) that emerged around the same time in Sichuan.

The adherents of Zhang Jiao's religious school believed in the effect of Yin and Yang and the Five Agents onto life, and the use of talismans and incantations to repel bad spirits and diseases. Ill persons were believed to be possessed by ghosts, also because of their earlier misdoings. Repentance (si guo 思過) was therefore an important means of relief.

Talismans were written, burnt and given as a potion to drink (fushui 符水 "talisman water"). The sinner had to express his repentance in the shape of kowtow before Heaven and Earth in a lucid place that opened to all four directions. All spirits would then appreciate his humiliation and ask Heaven to forgive the sinner. The talisman was written with red ink, with characters only known to the celestial spirits. After being consumed the talismanic power would support ill persons to become aware of their earlier misdoings, so they had a chance to repent.

In the political sphere, the peasant armies of the Yellow Turbans revered the colour yellow as that of the future dynasty. Their highest deity was Zhonghuang taiyi 中黄太乙 "Greatest One of the Central Yellow". The Yellow Turbans expected a coming ruler that would represent the spiritual force of the central and most important and auspicious element of the yellow earth. Zhang Jiao, as the great, wise and good teacher (da xianliang shi 大賢良師), propagated that the epoch of Blue Heaven (cangtian 蒼天) was over and would be replaced by that of Yellow Heaven (huangtian 黄天) in the year with the cyclical signs jiazi 甲子 (being the first year in the the 60-years cycle), namely 184 CE. The element fire, represented by the Han dynasty, was to be replaced by the element earth.

The armies of the Yellow Turbans were able to occupy the whole of northern China and the Yangtze River plain within a short time. The rebel army was divided into divisions (dafang 大方) and brigades (xiaofang 小方). His divisions were commanded by trustful generals, like Ma Yuanyi 馬元義 (d. 184 CE), who conquered the Yangtze Basin and marched towards the capital Luoyang 洛陽 (today in Henan). Yet Ma was captured by the Han government through treason committed by officer of him called Tang Zhou 唐周. Zhang Jiao himself was called the 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 rebels burnt down the official buildings of the government and thus attracted a huge following by their fighting against the suppressive government. After ten months of heavy fighting, the armies of the Han dynasty were able to crush the main forces of the Yellow Turbans. Yet it was not until 188 that their last stronghold could be taken. It seems that some of the followers had fled to Sichuan to join Zhang Lu's state of the Five-Pecks-of-Grain.

In spite of the failure of the uprising, some basic features of Zhang Jiao's religion influenced Daoist practice, like the number 36 of the military division, the nine-section staves (jiujie zhang 九節杖) the priests had used, the yellow robes and caps, the drinking of talisman water and the use of incantations to get rid of diseases. During the Tang 唐 (618-907) and the Song 宋 (960-1279) periods, some "enlightened" Daoist schools (mingjiao 明教) revered Zhang Jiao as an ancient teacher. During the White Lotus rebellion 白蓮教 at the end of the 18th century, the leaders proclaimed the end of the Yellow Epoch in favour of the Blue Epoch, which is quite the reverse of the Yellow Turban movement, but was clearly influenced by it.

Li Yangzheng 李養正, ed. (1993). Daojiao shouce 道教手冊 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 94.
Qing Xitai 卿希泰, ed. (1994). Zhongguo daojiao 中國道教 (Shanghai: Zhishi chubanshe), Vol. 1, 92-94.