Yellow Turban Rebellion

Not to be confused with Red Turban Rebellion.
Yellow Turban Rebellion
Part of the wars at the end of the Han dynasty

A Qing dynasty illustration of the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, showing Liu Bei, Zhang Fei, and Guan Yu fighting Yellow Turban rebels
Date184 205 CE
Result Rebellion suppressed, Han victory
Han dynasty Yellow Turban rebels
Commanders and leaders
Emperor Ling
He Jin
Liu Bei
Huangfu Song
Lu Zhi
Zhu Jun
Cao Cao
Sun Jian
Zhang Jue
Zhang Bao 
Zhang Liang 
Zhang Mancheng 
Bo Cai 
350,000 2,000,000 (360,000 were initially followers of Zhang Jue)[1]
Casualties and losses
Death toll said to be from 3–7 million[2][3]
Yellow Turban Rebellion
Traditional Chinese 黃巾之亂
Simplified Chinese 黄巾之乱
Literal meaning "Yellow Turban Conflict"

The Yellow Turban Rebellion, also translated as the Yellow Scarves 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.[4] The rebellion, which got its name from the color 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.[5] The revolt was also used as the opening event in Luo Guanzhong's 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 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.

Because of its plan for a new beginning, the Taoist sect of Zhang Jue was to prove to be the Han dynasty's most dangerous enemy. In preparation for his revolt, Zhang Jue sent disciples out to gain support and organize followers throughout north China. They were helped by local political discontent, and by droughts and plague among the people. 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.[6]

Zhang Jue planned a rising throughout the 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.[6]



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.

Taoist sect

The rebels were the first but not last followers of the Way of Supreme Peace (Chinese: 太平道; pinyin: Tàipíng Dào) 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 (simplified Chinese: 太平要术; traditional Chinese: 太平要術; pinyin: Tàipíng Yàoshù). Zhang Jue was said to be a sorcerer and styled himself as the "Great Teacher". The sect taught the principles of equal rights of all peoples and equal distribution of land; when the rebellion was proclaimed, the sixteen-word slogan was created by Zhang Jue:

"The Azure Sky[7] is already dead; the Yellow Sky[8] will soon rise.
When the year is jiǎzǐ,[9] there will be prosperity under heaven!"
(simplified Chinese: 苍天已死,黄天当立。岁在甲子,天下大吉。; traditional Chinese: 蒼天已死,黃天當立。歲在甲子,天下大吉。)

Since all the three brothers were healers, they spread it easily by telling their patients to spread it amongst the peasants.

Religious practices

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, and they told their followers that in the jiazi year, 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 there came the term Yellow Turbans.[6]

Nearly all of the religious practices of the sect were communal activities (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 theorized 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.[10]

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. It is further worthy to note that 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.[11]

Military action

An Eastern Han glazed ceramic statue of a horse with bridle and halter headgear, from Sichuan, late 2nd century to early 3rd century AD
A mural showing chariots and cavalry, from the Dahuting Tomb (Chinese: 打虎亭汉墓, Pinyin: Dahuting Han mu) of the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), located in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China

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.[6]

In the first weeks of the uprising, the Han government was chiefly concerned with finding and executing the traitors at the capital and with the immediate defence of the city. General-in-Chief He Jin, the half-brother of Empress He, was placed in charge of putting the rebellion down in the capital. In the third month, when these preparations had been made, three armies were sent out to deal with the rebellion. One was sent east against Zhang Jue. The other two, commanded by Huangfu Song and by Zhu Jun, were sent against the rebels in Yingchuan, Runan and Nanyang. Zhu recommended Sun Jian's appointment to call up troops and join his forces. With such widespread rebellion to deal with, the imperial commanders were anxious to gain any reinforcements that they could, and the territory of the lower Yangtze River, not directly affected by Zhang Jue's movement, was close enough to be a convenient source of recruits for the imperial army. Sun Jian rallied his troops, and he marched to join Zhu Jun's army with 1,000 men under his command. The fighting against the rebels of Yingchuan, Runan and Nanyang was frequently fierce, with varying success.[6]

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.[6]

In the middle of 184, however, the tide turned. In the fifth month, Huangfu Song and Zhu Jun combined their armies to defeat Bo Cai, and in the sixth month they destroyed the rebels of Runan at the Battle at Xihua in Henan. Then the two generals went separate ways, Huangfu to join in the attack on the rebels north of the Yellow River, and Zhu to deal with the rebels of Nanyang. By this time, a new Grand Administrator had defeated Zhang Mancheng and killed him. In that campaign, however, the rebels were able to capture the capital of the commandery, Wan, and took refuge there.[6]

For the next several months, the core of the campaign was the fighting in and around Wan, until the place was finally stormed and the defenders massacred in the 11th month, at the beginning of 185. The capture of Wan was the last great defeat of the rebels. Their forces in the North China Plain had been destroyed in the field by the imperial armies during the summer, their strongholds were besieged and captured, and the three Zhang brothers were dead. The remaining, scattered rebels were pursued by commandery and county forces in various mopping-up operations, and in the 12th month of the Chinese year, mid-February 185, the government issued a proclamation of celebration, changing the era name to Zhongping (中平), or "pacification achieved."[6]

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.[6]

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.

Aftermath and impact

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.[6]

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.

In fiction

Guan Yu slays Guan Hai in this illustration.

The rebellion is portrayed in the opening chapters of Luo Guanzhong's 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).[12] 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 the Dynasty Warriors video game franchise, remaining largely unchanged throughout the series.


  1. Ropp, Paul S (10 June 2010). China in World History. Oxford University Press. p. 40. ISBN 9780199798766.
  2. Tom. "The 10 Most Lethal Civil Wars Ever Fought". Realitypod. Retrieved 9 January 2015.
  3. Singh, Gunjesh. "Bloodiest War's Fought through History.". Quora. Retrieved 9 January 2015.
  4. Smitha, Frank E. "DYNASTIC RULE and the CHINESE (9 of 13)". Macrohistory and World Timeline. Retrieved 19 February 2015. 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.
  5. Bowker, John (1997). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Generals of the South, Rafe de Crespigny(pages 85-92)
  7. Referring to the Han government
  8. Referring to the Yellow Turban Rebellion
  9. That is, at the beginning of the next cycle
  10. The Scripture on Great Peace: The Taiping Jing and the Beginnings of Daoism. University of California Press. 2007. ISBN 9780520932920.
  11. W.Scott Morton. China: "Its History and Culture". ISBN 0-07-043424-7.
  12. Roberts, Moss (1991). Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel. California: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-22503-1.
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