The Yellow Turban Rebellion was a peasant revolt in China against the Han dynasty. The uprising broke out in the year 184 during the reign of Emperor Ling. It took 21 years until the uprising was suppressed in the year 205.

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 labor 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.

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 (present-day Pingxiang County, Hebei). 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 that were levied upon them.

The rebels were the first but not last followers of the Way of Supreme Peace (太平道) and venerated the deity Huang-Lao, who according to Zhang Jue had given him a sacred book called the Crucial Keys to the Way of Peace (太平要术).

When the rebellion was proclaimed, the sixteen-word slogan was created by Zhang Jue:”The Azure Sky is already dead; the Yellow Sky will soon rise. When the year is jiǎzǐ, there will be prosperity under heaven!”(苍天已死,黄天当立。岁在甲子,天下大吉).

The rebels were mostly concentrated in three areas. The group led by Zhang Jue and his two brothers gained their support from the region just north of the Yellow River, near Zhang Jue’s home territory of Julu and his base in Wei Commandery. A second major rising took place in Guangyang and Zhuo commanderies in You Province, in the neighbourhood of present-day Beijing. The third center of rebellion was in the three commanderies of Yingchuan, Runan and Nanyang. This force had evidently been intended to co-operate with the traitors inside Luoyang in the attempt to seize the capital, but even without that support, the rebels in this region were a major threat.

In the third month of 184, soon after the rebellion had broken out, the rebel leader Zhang Mancheng defeated and killed the Grand Administrator of Nanyang, and in the fourth month, at the beginning of summer, the imperial army under Zhu Jun was defeated by Bo Cai in Yingchuan, while the Grand Administrator of Runan was defeated by another force of rebels.

The rebels were defeated in February 185, but only two months later, the rebellion broke out again. In 185, it spread to the Taihang Mountains on the western border of Hebei and in 186 it reached Shaanxi, Hebei, and Liaoning, in 188 it reached Shanxi. In the same year, a second independent uprising took place in Sichuan, but it was not coordinated with the Yellow Turban Rebellion in other parts of the country.

In 192, the warlord Cao Cao was able to gain the submission of a rebel army after they marched into Yan Province. The rebels eventually ceased to pose a military challenge by 205.

The Han armies gained victory at high cost. Over wide areas the offices of the government had been destroyed, magistrates 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 noncombatants 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 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 was murdered in 192, setting the stage for Cao Cao’s rise to power.

Despite the negativity portrayed in Luo Guanzhong’s historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, being a large scale rebellion against corrupted authority, several peasant uprisings in China were patterned after the Yellow Turban Rebellion or claimed to be its spiritual successors.

Edited from Wikipedia


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