|Yellow Turban Rebellion|
|Part of the wars at the end of the Han dynasty|
Map showing the extent of the Yellow Turban Rebellion in China in 184 AD
|Han dynasty||Yellow Turban rebels|
|Commanders and leaders|
Zhang Bao †
Zhang Liang †
|350,000||2,000,000 (360,000 were initially followers of Zhang Jue)|
|Casualties and losses|
|Death toll said to be from 3-7 million|
|Yellow Turban Rebellion|
|Literal meaning||"Yellow Turban Conflict"|
The Yellow Turban Rebellion, also translated as the Yellow Scarves Rebellion, was a peasant revolt in China against the Eastern Han dynasty. The uprising broke out in 184 AD during the reign of Emperor Ling. Although the main rebellion was suppressed by 185 AD, pockets of resistance continued and smaller rebellions emerged in later years. It took 21 years until the uprising was fully suppressed in 205 AD. The rebellion, which got its name from the colour of the cloths that the rebels wore on their heads, marked an important point in the history of Taoism due to the rebels' association with secret Taoist societies. The revolt was also used as the opening event in the 14th-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
A major cause of the rebellion was an agrarian crisis, in which famine forced many farmers and former military settlers in the north to seek employment in the south, where large landowners exploited the labour surplus to amass large fortunes. The situation was further aggravated by smaller floods along the lower course of the Yellow River. The peasants were further oppressed by high taxes imposed in order to fund the construction of fortifications along the Silk Road and garrisons against foreign infiltration and invasion. In this situation, landowners, landless peasants and unemployed former soldiers formed armed bands (around 170) and eventually private armies, setting the stage for armed conflict.
At the same time, the Han central government was weakening internally. The power of the landowners had become a longstanding problem, but in the run-up to the rebellion, the court eunuchs in particular gained considerably in influence over the emperor, which they abused to enrich themselves. Ten of the most powerful eunuchs formed a group known as the Ten Attendants, and Emperor Ling referred to one of them (Zhang Rang) as his "foster father". The government was widely regarded as corrupt and incapable and the famines and floods were seen as an indication that a decadent emperor had lost his Mandate of Heaven.
Because of its plan for a new beginning, the Taoist sect of Zhang Jue proved to be the Han dynasty's most dangerous enemy. In preparation for his revolt, Zhang Jue sent disciples out to gain support and organise followers throughout north China. Political discontent, as well as droughts and plagues, fuelled public resentment against the Han government. The rebels even had allies in the imperial court, and they were able to make their preparations while government officials were either ignorant of their intentions or intimidated by their power.
Zhang Jue planned a rising throughout the Han Empire, but before the call to arms had been issued the plan was betrayed, the rebel sympathisers in Luoyang were arrested and executed, and the revolt in the provinces had to begin ahead of time, in the second month of 184. Despite the premature call and an inevitable lack of co-ordination, tens of thousands of men rose in rebellion, government offices were plundered and destroyed and the imperial armies were immediately forced onto the defensive.
The rebellion was led by Zhang Jue (also referred to as Zhang Jiao, known to his followers as the "General of Heaven") and his two younger brothers Zhang Bao () and Zhang Liang (), who were born in Julu Commandery. The brothers had founded a Taoist religious sect in present-day Shandong. They were healers, usually accepting patients pro bono who could not afford to pay them. The brothers saw the harshness of the world through their work with the peasants who were often abused by the local government, overburdened and hungry due to the heavy taxes levied upon them.
The rebels were the first followers of the Way of Supreme Peace (; Huang-Lao, who according to Zhang Jue, had given him a sacred book called the Crucial Keys to the Way of Peace (?; ) based on the Taipingjing. Zhang Jue, who was said to be a sorcerer, called himself the "Great Teacher" (?). When the rebellion was proclaimed, Zhang Jue created a 16-word slogan:) and venerated the deity
Since all the three brothers were healers, they spread the slogan easily by telling their patients to spread it among the peasants.
Zhang Jue used a form of Taoism to cure the sick by confession of sins and by faith healing. The religion and the politics of the Zhang brothers were based on belief in an apocalyptic change in the order of the world. They told their followers that in the jiazi year, the beginning of the new sexagenary cycle, the sky would become yellow, and that under this new heaven the rule of the Han dynasty would end and a new era of government begin. The characters jiazi became a symbol of the coming change and, later, when the followers of Zhang Jue went to battle they wore a yellow cloth bound about their heads as a badge. From this came the term Yellow Turbans.
Nearly all of the religious practices of the sect were communal activities (e.g. collective trances, fasts). A typical worship service consisted largely of music and chanting, the burning of incense, and sermons or anecdotes that could be given by any member of the congregation including women and those perceived as barbarians. Several Xiongnu leaders such as Yufuluo are known to have at least lent their support to the sect and a number of scholars have theorised that Zhang Jue may have derived some of his teachings from shamanism as he appeared as a mystical healer with a direct link to the heavens.
While many of the beliefs of the early Path of Supreme Peace have been lost, it is very likely that they had some relation to the Way of the Celestial Masters, considering Zhang Jue claimed to be a descendant of Zhang Daoling. Many of the writings found in the 52 surviving chapters of the Taiping Jing that are found in the Daozang have a direct relationship to the Way of the Celestial Masters. Regardless, it is quite likely that any discrepancies found within the Way were suppressed by later Taoist sects.
Before the rebellion started, Zhang Jue had sent Ma Yuanyi () to recruit followers from Jing and Yang provinces and gather them in Ye. As Ma Yuanyi frequently travelled to Luoyang, the Han imperial capital, he managed to build connections with Feng Xu () and Xu Feng (), two members of the influential eunuch faction in the imperial court, and convince them to secretly collaborate with Zhang Jue. They set 3 April 184 as the date for the rebellion. However, before the plans were set in motion, Tang Zhou () betrayed Ma Yuanyi and reported him to the authorities. Ma Yuanyi was arrested and executed by dismemberment in Luoyang.
After Emperor Ling learnt that Zhang Jue was plotting a revolt, he ordered Zhou Bin (), Prefect of the Palace Parks (), to conduct an investigation and capture all the conspirators. Hundreds of people were arrested and executed during this time.
When Zhang Jue heard that the Han government had caught wind about his plans to rebel, he quickly sent messengers to contact his allies throughout China and take action immediately. Sometime between 29 February and 29 March 184, Zhang Jue started the Yellow Turban Rebellion with some 360,000 followers under his command, all of whom wore yellow headscarves or turbans. He called himself "Lord General of Heaven" (?), while his brothers Zhang Bao and Zhang Liang were respectively called "Lord General of Earth" (?) and "Lord General of People" (?). The rebels attacked government offices, pillaged counties and villages, and seized control of commanderies. Within 10 days, the rebellion had spread throughout China and caused much alarm to the Han imperial court in Luoyang.
The rebels were mostly concentrated in Ji, Jing, You and Yu provinces. The group led by Zhang Jue and his brothers gained their support in Ji Province, located just north of the Yellow River, near Zhang Jue's home territory of Julu Commandery (; around present-day Pingxiang County, Hebei) and Wei Commandery (; around present-day Handan, Hebei). A second major uprising took place in Guangyang Commandery (; around present-day Beijing) and Zhuo Commandery (; around present-day Zhuozhou, Hebei) in You Province. The third centre of the rebellion was in Yingchuan Commandery (; around present-day Xuchang, Henan) and Runan Commandery (; around present-day Xinyang, Henan) in Yu Province, and Nanyang Commandery (; around present-day Nanyang, Henan) in northern Jing Province.
On 1 April 184, Emperor Ling appointed his brother-in-law He Jin, the Intendant of Henan (), as General-in-Chief () and ordered him to supervise the imperial armies to suppress the rebellion. At the same time, Emperor Ling also appointed three generals - Lu Zhi, Huangfu Song and Zhu Jun - to lead three separate armies to deal with the rebels. Lu Zhi went for Zhang Jue's base in Ji Province, while Huangfu Song and Zhu Jun headed to Yingchuan Commandery. They had a total of about 40,000 troops.
Zhao Qian (), the administrator of Runan Commandery (; around present-day Xinyang, Henan), led his troops to attack the rebels before Zhu Jun arrived, but was defeated at Shaoling (; in present-day southeastern Henan). When Chen County (; present-day Huaiyang County, Henan) was under attack by the rebels, seven of Zhao Qian's subordinates, who were non-military personnel, armed themselves with swords and attempted to fight the rebels but were all killed. Later, after the rebellion was suppressed, Emperor Ling issued an edict to honour the seven as the "Seven Virtuous" ().
Chen State (; around present-day Zhoukou, Henan), one of the commanderies in Yu Province and the princedom of Liu Chong (), was rather peaceful during the rebellion. This was because the rebels feared Liu Chong, who was famous for his prowess in archery, and an elite archer unit under his command.
The rebels in Runan Commandery, led by Bo Cai (), initially defeated Zhu Jun in battle and drove him back. The imperial court then sent Cao Cao, a cavalry commandant, to lead reinforcements to assist Zhu Jun. Sometime between 28 May and 25 June, Zhu Jun, Huangfu Song and Cao Cao joined forces and defeated Bo Cai at Changshe (; east of present-day Changge, Henan). While Bo Cai attempted to flee, Huangfu Song and Zhu Jun pursued him to Yangzhai County (; present-day Yuzhou, Henan) and defeated him again there, causing the rebels to scatter.
Huangfu Song and Zhu Jun then defeated the rebels in Runan Commandery, led by Peng Tuo (), at Xihua County (; south of present-day Xihua County, Henan). The imperial court then ordered them to split up: Huangfu Song would attack the rebels at Dong Commandery (; around present-day Puyang County, Henan), while Zhu Jun would attack the rebels at Nanyang Commandery (; around present-day Nanyang, Henan). During this time, Wang Yun, the Inspector of Yu Province, found evidence that the rebels had been secretly maintaining contact with Zhang Rang (), the leader of the eunuch faction in Luoyang, so he reported it to Emperor Ling, who scolded Zhang Rang but did not punish him.
In the meantime, Lu Zhi defeated Zhang Jue's rebel forces in Julu Commandery and besieged the rebel leader in Guangzong County (; southeast of present-day Guangzong County, Hebei). However, after a eunuch falsely accused him of treason, Emperor Ling ordered Lu Zhi to be removed from his command and escorted back to Luoyang as a prisoner. The imperial court then ordered the general Dong Zhuo to take over Lu Zhi's position and attack Zhang Jue. However, Dong Zhuo failed and retreated.
On 23 or 24 September, Huangfu Song and Fu Xie (), a Major under him, defeated the rebels at Cangting (; north of present-day Yanggu County, Shandong), captured their leader Bu Ji (), and killed over 7,000 rebels, including other minor leaders Zhang Bo () and Liang Zhongning (). On 25 September, the imperial court ordered him to replace Dong Zhuo and lead his troops north to Guangzong County and attack Zhang Jue.
Zhang Jue died of illness while under attack by Huangfu Song in Guangzong County. Between 21 November and 20 December, Huangfu Song kept attacking Zhang Liang, who had taken over command of his brother's followers at Guangzong County, but could not overcome the rebels because Zhang Liang probably had the best fighters among the Yellow Turbans with him. Huangfu Song then switched to a defensive approach to trick the rebels into lowering their guard, which they did. He then seized the opportunity to strike back at night and inflicted a devastating defeat on the rebels. Zhang Liang was killed in action along with some 30,000 rebels, while another 50,000 rebels who attempted to flee across the river ended up drowning. Huangfu Song also burnt over 30,000 carts containing supplies for the rebels and captured most of their family members. Huangfu Song then had Zhang Jue's body excavated and decapitated, and sent his head to the imperial court in Luoyang.
In recognition of Huangfu Song's achievements, Emperor Ling promoted him to Left General of Chariots and Cavalry (). Between 21 December 184 and 18 January 185, Huangfu Song joined forces with Guo Dian (), the Administrator of Julu Commandery, to attack the remaining rebels led by Zhang Jue's other brother, Zhang Bao. They defeated the rebels at Xiaquyang County (?; west of present-day Jinzhou, Hebei), killed Zhang Bao and received the surrender of over 100,000 rebels.
On 24 March 184, the rebels led by Zhang Mancheng () killed Chu Gong (), the Administrator of Nanyang Commandery (; around present-day Nanyang, Henan), and occupied the commandery's capital, Wancheng (; present-day Wancheng District, Nanyang, Henan). Chu Gong's successor, Qin Jie (), rallied local forces in Nanyang Commandery to attack Zhang Mancheng and defeated and killed him between 26 June and 25 July, before reinforcements led by Zhu Jun showed up.
After Zhang Mancheng's death, Zhao Hong () became the new rebel leader in Wancheng. Around October 184 or after, Qin Jie and Zhu Jun combined forces with Xu Qiu (), the Inspector of Jing Province, to attack Wancheng with an army of about 18,000. They defeated and killed Zhao Hong.
Following Zhao Hong's death, Han Zhong () and the remaining rebels seized control of Wancheng and continued to resist imperial forces. Zhu Jun ordered his troops to pretend to attack from the southwest, while he secretly led 5,000 elite soldiers to infiltrate Wancheng from the northeast. Han Zhong retreated into the citadel and wanted to surrender. Qin Jie, Xu Qiu and Zhang Chao (), a Major under Zhu Jun, all urged Zhu Jun to accept Han Zhong's surrender but he refused. Later, Zhu Jun pretended to lift the siege to lure Han Zhong to come out and attack. Han Zhong fell for the ruse, lost the battle and tried to flee north while some 10,000 of his men were slaughtered by imperial forces. In desperation, Han Zhong surrendered to Zhu Jun, but Qin Jie, who hated him, had him executed.
On 11 January 185, Zhu Jun defeated another rebel force led by Sun Xia (), who then fled towards Xi'e County (; north of present-day Nanyang, Henan). Zhu Jun pursued him there, defeated him and caused the remaining rebels to disperse.
Sun Jian, then a minor official serving in Xiapi County (; south of present-day Pizhou, Jiangsu) in Xu Province, came to join Zhu Jun's army as a Major. He brought along with him several young men from Xiapi County and other soldiers he recruited from the Huai River region.
In Yang Province, the rebels attacked Shu County (; in present-day central Anhui), a county in Lujiang Commandery (; around present-day Lu'an, Anhui), and set fire to buildings. Yang Xu (), the Administrator of Lujiang Commandery, managed to rally thousands of able-bodied men aged 19 or above to help him in fighting the rebels and putting out the fires. He succeeded, restoring peace and stability in the region.
By the beginning of 185, the rebellion had mostly been suppressed following Zhu Jun's recapture of Wancheng in Nanyang Commandery and Huangfu Song's victories over the Zhang brothers in Ji Province. The remaining, scattered rebels were pursued by government forces in various mopping-up operations, and in mid-February 185, Emperor Ling issued a proclamation of celebration by changing his era name from Guanghe () to Zhongping (; "pacification achieved").
Although the Yellow Turban Rebellion ended by February 185, smaller rebellions by Yellow Turban remnants continued to break out throughout China over the following decades, even in provinces which were previously largely unaffected.
Between 16 March and 13 April 188, Guo Tai () led some 100,000 Yellow Turban remnants to start a rebellion in Xihe Commandery (; around present-day Fenyang, Shanxi). As they originated from Baibo Valley (; "White Wave Valley") in Xihe Commandery, they later became known as the "White Wave Bandits" (). They allied with the Xiongnu leader Yufuluo and attacked Taiyuan Commandery (; around present-day Taiyuan, Shanxi) and Hedong Commandery (; around present-day Yuncheng, Shanxi). Between 27 October and 25 November 189, when the bandits attacked Hedong Commandery, the warlord Dong Zhuo sent his son-in-law Niu Fu to lead troops to attack them, but Niu Fu failed to defeat them.
Around mid-195, Emperor Xian fled from the imperial capital Chang'an, where he had been held hostage by Dong Zhuo's followers, led by Li Jue and Guo Si, since Dong Zhuo's death in 192. He returned to the ruins of the old imperial capital Luoyang, which Dong Zhuo burnt down in 191 while forcefully relocating its residents to Chang'an. Dong Cheng (a former subordinate of Niu Fu) and Yang Feng (a former White Wave bandit) protected Emperor Xian in Luoyang when Li Jue and Guo Si tried to pursue and bring the emperor back to Chang'an. Dong Cheng and Yang Feng summoned the White Wave Bandits, led by Li Le (), Han Xian, Hu Cai () and others, to come to Emperor Xian's aid. Xiongnu forces led by Qubei () also responded to the call and came to help Emperor Xian resist Li Jue and Guo Si's forces. Between 195 and 196, the warlord Cao Cao led his forces into Luoyang and escorted Emperor Xian to his own base in Xu (?; present-day Xuchang, Henan) and established the new imperial capital there.
Between 12 July and 10 August 185, Ma Xiang () and Zhao Zhi () led Yellow Turban remnants to start a rebellion in Yi Province (covering present-day Sichuan and Chongqing). They killed Li Sheng (; Prefect of Mianzhu County ), Zhao Bu (; Administrator of Ba Commandery ) and Xi Jian (; Inspector of Yi Province). Ma Xiang even declared himself emperor. The rebellion was suppressed by local forces led by Jia Long (), a former subordinate of Xi Jian.
Around 189, Zhang Rao () led some 200,000 Yellow Turban remnants to ravage Qing Province. He defeated imperial forces under Kong Rong, the Han-appointed Chancellor of Beihai State (; around present-day Weifang, Shandong) in Qing Province. Later, Kong Rong was besieged in Duchang County (; present-day Changyi, Shandong) by thousands of Yellow Turban rebels led by Guan Hai (). Taishi Ci, then a military officer under Kong Rong, managed to break out of the siege and seek help from Liu Bei, who was then the Chancellor of the nearby Pingyuan State (). Liu Bei brought along 3,000 troops to attack Guan Hai and succeeded in saving Kong Rong.
In the 200s, Xu He () and Sima Ju () led Yellow Turban remnants from Jinan Commandery (; around present-day Zhangqiu, Shandong) and Le'an Commandery (; around present-day Zibo, Shandong) respectively to ravage Qing Province. They were defeated and killed by Xiahou Yuan, Zang Ba and Lü Qian sometime between 206 and 209.[e]
Around May 192, some hundreds of thousands of Yellow Turban remnants from Qing Province swarmed into Yan Province and killed Zheng Sui (), the Chancellor of Rencheng State (; around present-day Zoucheng, Shandong), before moving into Dongping Commandery (; around present-day Dongping County, Shandong). Liu Dai, the Inspector of Yan Province, wanted to lead his troops to attack the rebels but the general Bao Xin advised him against it. Liu Dai ignored Bao Xin's advice, attacked the rebels, and met his end. Bao Xin and another official, Wan Qian (), went to Dong Commandery (; around present-day Puyang, Henan) to invite Cao Cao to be the new Governor of Yan Province. Bao Xin then led government forces to attack the rebels at the east of Shouzhang County (; south of present-day Dongping County, Shandong) but was killed in action. Later, despite having fewer troops, Cao Cao managed to defeat the rebels in Jibei State. The rebels, numbering over 300,000, surrendered to Cao Cao along with their families. Cao Cao then recruited their best warriors and organised them to form an elite military unit, the Qingzhou[f] Army (; also translated as "Qingzhou Corps").
In Runan Commandery (; around present-day Xinyang, Henan) and Yingchuan Commandery (; around present-day Xuchang, Henan), thousands of Yellow Turban remnants remained active under the leadership of He Yi (), Liu Pi (), Huang Shao (), He Man () and others. They were initially allied with the warlords Yuan Shu and Sun Jian, but became an independent force in the 190s. Between 17 March and 15 April 196, the warlord Cao Cao led his forces to attack them and killed Liu Pi, Huang Shao and He Man. He Yi and the others surrendered to Cao Cao.
There were other Yellow Turban remnant forces led by Gong Du (/) and Wu Ba () in Runan Commandery. Wu Ba was defeated and captured by the general Li Tong. Gong Du posed a threat to Cao Cao when he allied with Cao Cao's rival, Liu Bei, and seized control of Runan Commandery in 201. Cao Cao first sent Cai Yang () to eliminate them, but after Cai Yang was killed, he personally led his troops to attack them and defeated them. Liu Bei fled south to join Liu Biao, while Gong Du and the remaining rebels dispersed.
In the 200s, Chen Bai () and Wan Cheng () started a rebellion in Jiuzhen Commandery (; present-day Thanh Hóa Province, Vietnam) in Jiao Province. In 202, they were defeated and captured by Zhu Zhi, the commandery's Administrator.
The Han armies gained victory at high cost. Over wide areas, government offices had been destroyed, officials had been killed, and whole districts were cut off from the writ of the central government. Rebel deaths numbered in the hundreds of thousands, while many non-combatants had been left homeless or destitute by the wars, and the economy and society over great parts of this most populous region of the empire were left in ruins and without resources. Unrest remained and bandits appeared in every district; the Han government, in no position to put down all the lesser disturbances, was forced to patch up the situation as best it could. A long period of consolidation was needed to restore some measure of peace and prosperity, but that breathing space was not given.
While the rebellion was eventually defeated, the military leaders and local administrators gained self-governing powers in the process. This hastened the collapse of the Han dynasty in 220. After Emperor Ling died in 189, a power struggle between He Jin and the eunuchs ensued in which He Jin was assassinated on 22 September 189. He Jin's chief ally, Yuan Shao, retaliated by setting the palace on fire and slaughtering the eunuchs. Finally, the warlord Dong Zhuo was able to gain control over the underage heir to the throne which he used as a legitimation for occupying the capital, which was ransacked on the occasion. Because of his cruelty, Dong Zhuo was murdered in 192, setting the stage for Cao Cao's rise to power.
Despite the negative manner in which the 14th-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms describes the Yellow Turban Rebellion, many subsequent peasant uprisings in China drew inspiration from the Yellow Turban Rebellion and even claimed to be its spiritual successors.
The rebellion is portrayed in the opening chapters of the 14th-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which portrays the Zhang brothers as sorcerers, having been provided the Taiping Jing from the "old immortal spirit from the southern lands" (sometimes identified as Zhuangzi).
Many fictional Yellow Turban figures were created for the novel, including:
Though not a fictional character, Liao Hua was presented in the novel as having been a Yellow Turban rebel in his earlier days; this is historically unlikely, given his date of death and predicted lifespan.
The rebellion also appears as an early stage in each iteration of Koei's Dynasty Warriors video game franchise, remaining largely unchanged throughout the series. It is also featured in Total War: Three Kingdoms as playable factions in a DLC led by He Yi, Gong Du, and Huang Shao.
By the year 205 (21 years after it had begun) the Yellow Turban Rebellion was over, and rule by the Han family was shattered and at its end.