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Re: The Academic Corner of Sanguo

Unread postby waywardauthor » Sat Nov 18, 2017 9:02 am

[The following is the entirety of an article partially transcribed from the 1958 edition of Monumenta Serica]


Written by Paul Michaud




Late in the Eastern Han period, in 184, China experienced a great revolt that has since been known, from an emblem of its adherents, as the Yellow Turban rebellion. The Yellow Turbans were not bandits; they were the members of a religious movement that, seemingly, had developed a new social and political order of its own which it aimed to establish over the empire. A study of this rebellion is important for several reasons. It was a factor in the downfall of the Han dynasty, when the Chinese first extended their area of political control to include most of what would henceforth constitute China, and create the early forms of most of their political institutions. Furthermore, it offers an insight into the general phenomenon of dynastic decline. Finally, as a rebellion with religious overtones, characterized by fanaticism, violence, and opposition to the established bureaucratic pattern, it is an example of a type of rebellion, repeated more or less in later rebellions, that has some analogies even with that of the present-day Communists.

At first one is strongly tempted to explain this rebellion of the Yellow Turbans in the traditional manner: as caused by discontented peasants, unbearable economic conditions, and superstitious beliefs exploited for political advantages. The facts could be construed to fit this preconceived theory; however, an objective analysis of these same facts does not necessarily lead one to such conclusion. First of all, we do not know that Zhang Jue, the founder of the Yellow Turbans, recruited the greatest part of his followers from discontented peasants. We do not know the exact role of economic conditions in bringing about the rebellion. Conditions were undoubtedly very difficult for many. Our sources are meagre. However, they offer no evidence of a sharp worsening of the economic conditions during the sixty odd years preceding the rebellion, nor do they offer conclusive proof of a radical change for the worse in the years immediately preceding the out- break. Superstitious beliefs apparently were used by the Yellow Turbans to gain political advantages; however, we have only vague suggestions of the methods and extent of these tactics. From all the evidence at hand, the rebellion of the Yellow Turbans appears to have been caused by the chance appearance of a new religious movement at a time when political conditions were such as to offer it an unusual opportunity. Some sixteen years before the rebellion, in 168, the eunuchs had seized power, and this action seems to have brought in its wake a serious breakdown in the morale of Han officialdom. Although we cannot determine with complete accuracy to what extent the eunuchs wrecked the bureaucratic regime, it is clear that their own incompetence, their favor to many incapable officials, and their ban on the Confucian party had disturbed the political order of the empire. It is quite possible that Zhang Jue, perhaps until then entirely religious in his objectives, saw in the political confusion an opportunity to gain for himself great political power. It is also possible that the lack of leadership on the part of the government enabled Zhang Jue to command more complete loyalty on the part of his followers.

The political significance of the rebellion of the Yellow Tur- bans appears to have been somewhat different from what is often believed. They had a definite responsibility in the ultimate down- fall of the House of Han; however, they did not destroy the Han directly. The religion of the Yellow Turbans presents an intricate problem which, with the evidence at hand, cannot be solved as wholly as would be desired. We can say, however, that Zhang Jue, the founder of the Yellow Turbans, was an independent master whose sect apparently had elements of Hsien Taoism and of Buddhism.


Sometime after the year 170 of our era, some century and half after the restoration of the dynasty following Wang Mang's usurpation, a certain Zhang Jue founded a movement which he called the Way of Great Peace. Its members later became known as the Yellow Turbans. In the second month of 184, 3 the members of the movement rose in a rebellion which continued through most of that year and was to be followed shortly by a number of more or less related revolts during the years following. The central government was caught by surprise and it was a full month be- fore resistance was organized. The pei chung lang chiang Lu Zhi was sent against Zhang Jue. The tso chung lang chiang Huangfu Song and the yu chung lang chiang Zhu Jun were both sent to pacify the province of Yu. In the fourth month, Zhu Jun met with the Yellow Turbans of the commandery of Runan. They were under the command of a leader named Bo Cai. The imperial forces were beaten. Upon hearing of the defeat of his colleague, Huangfu Song withdrew into the city of Changshe, where the victorious Bo Cai went to besiege him. By use of trickery Huangfu Song managed to fight his way out of the city and by uniting his forces with those of Zhu Jun and those of Cao Cao he inflicted a great defeat on the rebels. These events took place during the fifth month. During the sixth month Huangfu Song and Zhu Jun routed and destroyed the Yellow Turbans of the commanderies of Runan and Chenguo. They pacified these two commanderies and also the commandery of Yingchuan and destroyed the Yellow Turbans there.

In the meanwhile, Lu Zhi had marched against Zhang Jue. He finally met him in battle in the sixth month and defeated him. The leader of the Yellow Turbans took refuge in the city of Guangzong. Lu Zhi undertook to besiege him. At that time a eunuch sent by imperial order came to the camp of Lu Zhi to look the situation over and to make a report. However, it seems that the eunuch was willing to write a favorable report only if he was given a reward. Lu Zhi refused to pay the bribe and this caused him to be called back to the capital and exiled. Dong Zhuo was sent to replace him. While this was taking place Huangfu Song was achieving victory after victory. Finally, in the eighth month, he was sent to replace Dong Zhuo at the siege of Guangzong. Huangfu Song carefully planned his attack during two months; during the tenth month he finally attacked the city. He defeated and killed Zhang Liang who had taken the place of his brother Jue, the latter having died from natural causes shortly after the siege had begun. After this victory, Huangfu Song went in pursuit of Zhang Bao, the other brother of Zhang Jue. He overtook him in the eleventh month, defeated his army and killed him.

At the beginning of the seventh month Zhu Jun had been sent against the Yellow Turbans of the province of Jing. The rebels had entrenched themselves in the city of Wancheng. The siege lasted more than four months and it was only during the eleventh month that Zhu Jun succeeded in storming the city. This was the end of the rebellion; also during the eleventh month there were some mopping up expeditions of rather small importance. Then a general amnesty was declared throughout the empire

Meanwhile, in the seventh month of 184, the members of yet another religious movement called the Five Bushels of Rice broke out in rebellion. Our sources merely record that the incident took place; they do not tell us the outcome. Then, during the years following the Yellow Turban rebellion, bandits arose in numerous parts of the empire. In 189 the emperor died. In a move aimed at frightening the powerful eunuchs, the regent called the generals of the empire to the capital. Several generals answered the call, among them Dong Zhuo who, however, had plans of his own. Shortly after his arrival at the capital he replaced the boy emperor by another youth and set himself up as the virtual ruler. His example was soon followed by other ambitious men and the empire was divided between several factions. Dong Zhuo was murdered in 193, but by that time the emperor had become a mere pawn, and until the official end of the dynasty, in 220, five different groups vied for supreme power.



The exact causes of the rebellion of the Yellow Turbans are not readily available in our sources. Starting from the assumption that great rebellions do not usually break out without rea- sons we shall try in this chapter to discover what brought about this particular rebellion. In this effort we are handicapped, first of all, by the fact that the Yellow Turbans themselves have left nothing of their story. We possess no authentic fragment either of their political or administrative documents or of any body of religious literature from their hands. It is indeed difficult to say how much of such writings ever existed. For the most trust- worthy information on the movement and its causes we must rely on reports by their Buddhist adversaries and on general records of the period preserved by Confucian historians. This fact forces us to seek an explanation solely through the evidence of the actions of the Yellow Turbans and the testimony of outside observers. Was the rebellion inherent in the religious character of Zhang Jue's movement, or were the causes for the rebellion primarily in the economic or political conditions of the time? In this chapter we shall consider the possible effects of the economic and political conditions.

Was the rebellion of the Yellow Turbans a violent answer to intolerable economic conditions? Our sources do not provide a ready answer as to what exactly were the economic conditions of the Latter Han dynasty. At most they strongly imply that the empire was not highly prosperous and that the conditions were possibly bad. The long decline of the ruling house of Liu had started already in A. D. 89 with the coming to the throne of Emperor He. The responsibilities of governing the empire proved too heavy for weak emperors; power was slipping from their feeble hands and different factions arose that fought for power. At first the struggle was largely between the affinal relatives of the emperors. However, the very power of these relatives-in-law helped create the eunuch faction which was to gain complete control in 168, some sixteen years before the outbreak of the rebellion. While the capital was thus converted into a battle- ground for political warfare the frontier provinces were submitted to the pressures of the different barbarian tribes. The population meanwhile underwent a great growth, and the empire was frequently visited by natural catastrophes. These different factors very possibly caused a deterioration in the economic picture of the empire, as is perhaps evidenced by the rise of numerous bandits in different parts of the empire after 132. However, the weakness of the house of Liu, the barbarian invasions, the growth of population and the natural catastrophes appear to have been somewhat constant factors. Although they possibly prepared the ground for the rebellion it is almost impossible to say that they caused it. It is indeed impossible, with the materials at hand, to ascertain whether these factors did actually create conditions so unbearable as to cause a rebellion. We find no evidence of a sharp worsening of the economic conditions in the years preceding the rebellion. On the contrary, oar sources strongly suggest that the conditions were more critical during the reign of Emperor An (107-125).

Could the Yellow Turbans have been forced to rebel because of an intensive religious persecution? This possibility cannot be excluded; however, as we shall see in a later chapter, there is no evidence that this was the case. What then caused the rebellion of the Yellow Turbans? We have no definite answer to this question. In the light of our evidence, I believe that the responsibility for the uprising officialdom, started during the struggle for power between the affinal relatives of the emperors and completed when the eunuchs seized power in 168. This demoralization of the Han officialdom did not necessarily create unbearable economic conditions; but it did undermine the administrative machine, shake the people's loyalty to the emperor, close avenues to peaceful reforms, and very possibly fire the hopes of ambitious opportunists.


In considering the possible economic or political causes for the rebellion, it is appropriate to consider first of all the character of the ruling house of Liu. Their decline appears to have started in A.D. 89 with the coming to the throne of Prince Zhao, the future Emperor He. Beginning with this emperor who himself came to the throne at ten, all the emperors of the Latter Han dynasty began their rule at a tender age. The youth of the new ruler necessitated that a regency be established. The Empress Dowager assumed the functions of regent and, as a rule, relied on her family for help and support. By the time the emperor became of age he was faced with a powerful faction. It appears that He and the following emperors were afflicted with rather weak personalities. They also seem to have been bitterly resentful of their relatives' power. Their weakness and their desire to do away with their affinal relatives helped create the eunuch faction. It would be beyond the scope of this work to make a detailed analysis of all the intrigues that took place during the Latter Han dynasty. However, it must be pointed out that these palace intrigues did not necessarily upset the economic conditions of the empire. The struggle between the different factions was confined within the walls of the palace; it did not precipitate any civil war. There was only one armed clash which occurred when the eunuchs seized power, and which involved at most a few hundred persons. It is very likely that this struggle carried many abuses in its wake, although it is impossible to determine what they were, and it is also very possible that such a struggle had an evil influence on the morale of Han officialdom. However, there is no evidence that it noticeably worsened the economic conditions of the empire.


The Latter Han, like most Chinese dynasties, suffered at times from economic dislocations caused by foreign wars and raids of border tribes. To what extent did such economic dislocations encourage the Yellow Turban Rebellion? At the time of our concern China was surrounded by a diversity of barbarian tribes. Along the northern border, toward the east, were the Wuhuan and the Xian Bei; toward the center and west the Xiongnu. On the western border were the Qiang. In the south there were several tribes usually known under the general appellation of Man. The relations of China with these barbarians were not always peaceful and her frontier provinces frequently witnessed the destructive impact of barbarian incursions. I shall sketch briefly the history of China's relations with her neighbors and then analyze its affect upon the economy of the empire.

During the Latter Han dynasty, the Man barbarians did not confront China with any massive rebellion, but only with numerous small-scale outbreaks, the brunt of which fell on the two southern provinces of Jing and Jiao. None of these outbreaks appear to have united more than a fraction of the Man barbarians. Only a few outbreaks occurred during the early years of the dynasty; the bulk of them took place between the years 76 and 181.

At the eastern end of the northern frontier, there are a few raids by the Wuhuan barbarians recorded in our sources. But the Xianbei, who were relatively unimportant during the early years of the dynasty, later assumed a position of great force, plagued the two northern provinces of You and Bing with repeated raids, and became especially hard to cope with when their tribes united under the able Tan Shihuai. In 177 a huge expedition was organized against them; but even this great force was overwhelmingly defeated and only a fragment of the original army was able to make its way back to China. After Tan Shihuai's death about 180 the power of the Xianbei declined for a while, but revived again and continued to grow until it reached its peak during the Jin dynasty.

Further to the west the border was relatively free from Xiongnu incursions during the Latter Han. This was undoubtedly due in great part to the transformation of the Xiongnu empire that took place during the early years of the dynasty. This transformation in fact started around the year 46 of our era, shortly after the death of the Supreme Chieftain Yv. At that time there was a princeling by the name of Bi whose ambition was to rule over the Xiongnu. His ambition was thwarted, however, when Pu Nu, the son of Yv, became shanyü. Filled with bitter resentment Bi thought of rebellion. The year 46 had been a disastrous year for the Xiongnu; a terrible drought and swarms of locusts had laid waste several thousand li of their land and people were dying from starvation. Bi, undoubtedly thinking that these evil times would favor his plans, went to the Chinese with maps of the Xiongnu empire. But his plans to rebel became known to the shanyü who, in his turn plotted Bi's destruction. Men were sent to kill the would-be rebel; but Bi had been forewarned and the plan failed. Then, in 47, the shan-yü dispatched troops to arrest and punish Bi; but Bi had power and influence in the southern parts of the Xiongnu empire and raised an army of between forty and fifty thousand men, a force that proved sufficient to inspire fear in the army sent by Pu Nu, which went back without accomplishing its objective. Then, in 48, eight chieftains of the southern sections recognized Bi as their ruler and he assumed the title of shan-yü. Bi then sought the recognition and approval of China and his request was granted. Shortly thereafter he requested his admission as China's vassal and ally and this request was also granted. This rebellion of Bi brought about the division of the Xiongnu into Northern and Southern Xiongnu, a division that was to prove permanent. The relations of China with the Southern Xiongnu appear to have been relatively good from their inception until 140, save perhaps for a short rebellion in 109-110 and a flare-up in 124. After 140 they worsened and the Southern Xiongnu took to raiding the northern frontiers. However, after 159 the Southern Xiongnu state disintegrated. The transformation of the Xiongnu empire had proved very advantageous to the Chinese. The division of the Xiongnu relieved China from the possible threat of a unified and powerful neighbor; besides, its new vassal provided a buffer against encroachment of the Chinese soil. As for the Northern Xiongnu, they staged very few raids on China. While they competed with the Chinese for spheres of influence in the western regions, leading the Chinese to stage some campaigns against them, these wars were not fought on Chinese territory.

The Qiang on the western frontier were probably China's most troublesome neighbors during the Latter Han dynasty. These barbarians lived for the most part in what is now Tibet. Some of their tribes also resided within the borders of the Chinese empire, in the province of Liang. This fact is evidenced as early as 33 of our era and remained true throughout the dynasty. During the early years of the Latter Han the relations of the Qiang with China were rather peaceful. Until the year 86 there were only two short-lived outbreaks: one in 57-58, and the other in 77-78. However, from 86 to 169 there was a state of recurrent warfare between the Qiang and the Chinese. This, to be sure, was not one continuous war; in fact, the period 86- 169 may be divided into four distinct phases. The first phase, which lasted from 86 until 102, may perhaps be properly named the rebellion of the Qiang Leader Mi Tang. This rebellion was apparently precipitated by an overzealous Chinese high official. However, it was not a united effort of all the Qiang tribes against China nor for that matter was it a continuous battle. It was a series of raids staged by Mi Tang and his allies of the province of Liang, and a series of punitive expeditions against the rebel leader. Neither side was uniformly victorious or uniformly defeated; however, it appears that the tide of victory rode with the Chinese forces. Mi Tang appears to have had a special hatred for the Chinese and neither gifts nor kindness could win him over to the Chinese side. His rebellion lasted until his death in 102; shortly thereafter his son and the remnants of his people came and surrendered to the Chinese.

The second phase of the Qiang-Chinese conflict covers the years 107-118, and was the most violent Qiang outbreak during the Latter Han dynasty. This rebellion was ignited by the Qiang living within the confines of China who objected to being conscripted for the wars against the western countries. It soon spread to all the Qiang who became united in a common cause. Their initial success emboldened their leader, a man by the name of Tian Ling, and in 108 he proclaimed himself the Emperor in the northern lands. Until his death in 112 Tien-ling maintained his successes and inflicted several crushing defeats on the Chinese armies sent against him. But after his death the tide turned. His son Ling Chang was young in years and in experience. A man by the name of Lang Me became his strategist and the Chinese renegade Du Jigong was made general. The war continued with alternative successes and defeats for both sides. Then, starting in 117 with the murder of Du Jigong, the Chinese hired murderers to do away with all the Qiang leaders. Ling Chang also was stabbed to death in 117 and in 118 it was the turn of Lang Me. The rebellion was then crushed; it had lasted more than ten years. It had cost more than 24,000,000 cash to the treasury and had caused incalculable loss in life and property in the two provinces of Bing and Liang.

During the next eight years, 119-126, there were a few short- lived outbreaks but no large scale rebellion. The province of Liang was again plundered several times. Still the Chinese general Ma Xian was able to crush these rebellions and to bring peace to the empire. The third phase of the Qiang-Chinese conflict began in 134 and lasted until 145. It can perhaps be best called the rebellion of the Western Qiang. This rebellion was by no means as violent an outbreak as the one of 107; but once again the province of Liang experienced the horrors of wars as the Qiang several times invaded and plundered the different commanderies. Curiously enough this rebellion's final defeat did not come during a great battle; the Chinese official Liang Bing by means of kindness and favors enticed the Qiang to surrender in 145. This outbreak had lasted some ten years and had necessitated expenses well over 8,000,000 cash.

The empire and the Qiang remained at peace until 159. Then the final phase of the Qiang-Chinese conflict began and lasted until 169. Perhaps one of the most striking features of this conflict was the alliance between the Xianbei and the Eastern Qiang, in 166, which presented a special danger to the three provinces of You, Bing and Liang. But in 167 a great victory by the general Dong Zhuo eliminated that threat. This last rebellion could have ended in 167. But the general Duan Gong who had taken an active part in the struggle convinced the emperor of the wisdom of a fight to the finish against the Eastern Qiang, the only Qiang that had not been brought to terms. His argument won the day; he was assigned to lead the forces against the Eastern Qiang and he carried his mission successfully. During that campaign Duan Gong fought altogether 180 battles, beheaded more than 38,000 Qiang, and captured in excess of 427,000 head of cattle, horses, sheep, asses, mules, and camels. His total expenditures had amounted to 4,400,000 cash and he had lost more than 400 officers and men. This was the end of the Qiang; they submitted to the Chinese and thereafter there was peace between them and China.

Our sources do little more than record the different wars between the Chinese and the barbarians. From them we learn that beginning with Emperor He there were numerous barbarian raids and that at least several of them must have been of some importance involving as they did many thousand warriors. We also learn that the most violent barbarian uprising took place in the early years of the second century. The most important information for our purpose is however lacking. We cannot assess at all satisfactorily the impact that these numerous raids had on the people living in the afflicted areas. We do not find any statistical evidence telling us just how much destruction these raids caused, how many Chinese they either killed or displaced. But while we do not know their effects in detail, there are still certain conclusions that seem obvious. One is that the drain on the national treasury was severe. Another is that the destruction brought about by these wars very likely upset the economies of the stricken provinces. We do not know whether the rest of the empire was in any way dependent on the frontier provinces. However, we read that for the census of 140 the four provinces of You, Bing, Jing and Liang had a combined population exceeding ten million, almost one fourth the total population of the empire. If the economic conditions of one fourth of the population were under stress, they could easily affect the whole empire in that tax collection in the affected areas possibly decreased and a greater part of the burden had to be carried by other parts of the empire. There is little doubt that the barbarian wars affected the economic picture of the empire. However, it is doubtful that they could have caused the rebellion of the Yellow Turbans. It must be pointed out that the worst barbarian raids took place during the reign of Emperor An, some sixty years before the rebellion. Furthermore, our sources imply that not only was there no sharp increase in barbarian raids in the years preceding the rebellion, but that the intensity of these raids in fact decreased during these same years.


Another factor in the economic picture of the empire during the Latter Han is the population of the empire and its relation to the problem of subsistence. It is unfortunate that our sources are inadequate in their treatment of natural catastrophes, recording only the date and the area affected. They do not tell how many people were affected nor how they were affected; whether they lost their crops or lost their lives. Besides, since the Chinese believed that natural catastrophes were due to the misbehavior of the emperor, it is possible that for political reasons many of them were not even recorded, while some that were recorded may have been insignificant or even invented. According to the statistics presented between 107 and 184, the year of the rebellion of the Yellow Turbans, only the years 126, 134, 136, 141-143, 150, 160, 163, 170 were entirely free of either drought, earthquake, excessive rain, flood, hail, locusts or pestilence.30 This, of course, does not mean that during all the other years the empire was visited by severe catastrophes, nor that each one was equally burdensome. The earthquakes for instance may very often have been mere tremors, since the sources record more than 600 earthquakes between the years 107-184. No doubt some of these events caused great misery; but there is nothing to show that misery was particularly widespread in the years immediately preceding the rebellion. Natural calamities appear to have been a fairly constant factor through the years. If they decreased the food productivity of the empire, they no doubt decreased the population also, and their apparent regularity suggests that they caused no radical change in food productivity. But what was the relation of this productivity to the size of the population? In the year 2 A. D. the recorded population of China was 59,594,978 individuals. This is the highest figure preserved for the two Han dynasties. Soon afterward Wang Mang usurped the throne and established his own dynasty, the Xin, which ended in 25 in a general revolt. The Red Eyebrows carried violence and destruction through the country. Guangwu, the first emperor of the Latter Han, spent the greatest part of his reign waging wars. In the year 57, two years before his death, the population is reported to have shrunk to 21,007,820 individuals. We cannot attach too much importance to this figure; it is in fact very possible that in an empire barely out of the throes of a long civil war many people would have successfully avoided a census taken for the purpose of tax collection. Nonetheless it is possible that the population did undergo a great decrease during the troubles that preceded the establishment of the Latter Han and that lasted almost throughout the entire reign of its first emperor. Guangwu, however, had unified and pacified the empire and during the next fifty odd years the population climbed steadily. In 105 it is reported to have stood at 53,256,229 individuals. Then followed several years of hardship during which the empire was visited by an unusual number of disasters, floods, droughts, plagues of locusts. There were also several barbarian uprisings. The population declined and in 140, which is also the year of the census recorded in our sources, the inhabitants of the empire numbered 49,150,220. The population went up again during the next few years and in 156 it reportedly reached 56,486,856, the highest known point of the Latter Han dynasty and also the last recorded figure for the dynasty. We do not know how the growth of population affected the economic conditions of the empire. It might have reduced somewhat the amount of land available to each farmer or again it could have created some shortage of foodstuffs or other necessities. A rather intensive migration southward during the Latter Han dynasty possibly suggests some population pressure. The Chinese population, which had centered in the northeast, and to some extent in the northwest, started to shift from these regions and to move southward. But of course, this migration might have been caused by other factors: the migration from the northwest by incursions of the barbarians, and from the northeast by the catastrophe of A. D. 11 when the dykes built under Emperor Wu (140-87 B. C.) broke down and the Yellow River changed its course, which must have caused terrible destruction and hardship. Another factor might have been the wars against the Red Eyebrows whose long rebellion must have caused untold destruction.

The numerous outlaw uprisings that occurred between 132 and 184 reflect unrest and insecurity. It is possible but improbable that great numbers of outlaws would arise in times of peace and prosperity. Up until 132 there had been relatively few such uprisings and they had all occurred during the reign of Emperor An. In 109-110 there had been the uprising of the bandits Zhang Bairu and others in the province of Qing. In 111-112 two men from the province of Liang, Wang Xin and Du Qi rebelled against the government and became outlaws. But after 132 bandit uprisings became increasingly numerous; we count more than 20 of them during the fifty odd years that preceded the rebellion of the Yellow Turbans. This figure, when compared with the small number of bandits active during the earlier part of the dynasty, suggests a worsening of conditions, but we do not know whether the conditions were prevalent throughout the empire. Such uprisings might have been due to the greed of officials in particular localities. They may indicate deterioration in officialdom, but not necessarily imply that the overall economic picture of the empire was much worse.


We do not know when the eunuchs began to act as a cohesive political group. There is no real evidence that they did so before the year 168. However, the question is perhaps academic; whether or not there was a definite eunuch clique we know for certain that there were many powerful and influential eunuchs. The eunuchs' rise to power began under the reign of Emperor
He (89-105), the first emperor of the Latter Han dynasty to trust the eunuchs and seek their advice. Their cause was undoubtedly helped when in 126 nineteen eunuchs led by a certain
Sun Cheng championed the cause of Prince Bao against the Yan family. When he was finally enthroned, Prince Bao, the future Emperor Shun (126-144), richly rewarded those to whom he owed his throne, and in 135 even allowed the eunuchs to adopt children to whom they could pass on their wealth and titles. During the reign of Emperor Huan (147-167) the eunuchs appear to have been a power to be reckoned with. Their great influence and the favor that they enjoyed is clearly shown by the emperor's indifference toward memorials attacking the eunuchs and urging the ruler to stop relying on their incompetent advice, and instead to trust well trained and competent officials.

One incident that indicates the eunuchs' ascendency over the emperor occurred in 153. During that year the Yellow River had flooded causing untold miseries to hundreds of thousands of families. These desperate people had taken to the roads and were filling the highways. Bandits arose in different parts of the province of Ji. At that time Zhu Mu was made Zishi and sent to the stricken province. Upon his arrival in Ji he brought to trial the men who were responsible for maladministration. Many of them committed suicide; many others died in jail. Now, that same year the eunuch Zhao Zhong, who was mourning his father, had gone to bury him in Anping, a commandery in the province of Ji. To give his father the burial that he deserved, Chao Chung had built a very expensive mausoleum. When Zhu Mu heard of this extravagance at a time when people were dying from starvation and deprivation of all kinds, he ordered the mausoleum opened and the coffin taken out. The emperor however was furious with Zhu Mu and had him dragged before the judges. At this point several thousand men led by Liu Tao signed a letter lauding Zhu Mu and sent it up to the emperor. The emperor read it and ordered Zhu Mu's release. There is no suggestion that Zhao Zhong was as much as blamed for his extravagance.

In 159 the eunuchs increased their power and influence still more when they helped the Emperor Huan destroy the very powerful Liang family. The five eunuchs that took part in the conspiracy received huge rewards. Their leader Shan Chao was made marquis and received the income of 20,000 families. Xu Huang and Zhu Yuan were also made marquis and given the income of 15,000 families; besides each was allotted 15,000,000 cash. Zuo Guan and Tang Heng were made marquis and given the income of 13,000 families. They were also granted 13,000,000 cash. A short time later eight more eunuchs, among whom we note Zhao Zhong, were in their turn made marquis.

In 167 the emperor Huan died without an heir. His empress, a lady from the Dou family, became the dowager and the regent. With the help of Dou Wu, her father, she chose a distant relative of the dead emperor, Jie, marquis of Duting as the next emperor. Dou Wu was appointed to the position of Da Jiangjun and his friend Chen Fan became the Taifu. These men were both Confucian scholars and were reputedly devoted to the ideal of a better government for the empire. One of their first actions was to appoint good men to key positions. These new appointees were from among the Confucian scholars who had been kept away from official positions by the powerful affines and by the eunuchs as well. Fully conscious that they would find the eunuchs in their way they plotted their destruction. Dou Wu felt that he had to obtain the permission of his daughter the empress before taking any definite action. She was hesitant; perhaps she had sympathies for the eunuchs. As a woman of the harem she must have had contacts with at least the most important among them. Or again it is possible that because she had always relied on the eunuchs for multiple services she could not have conceived of a harem without them. It is also possible that she did not believe all the accusations of her
father. Because of the empress' hesitations and because of Dou Wu's unwillingness to act without her consent, the efforts of Chen Fan and Dou Wu against the eunuchs failed miserably and the two men lost their lives. There was a short and bloody palace revolution during which the eunuchs led by Cao Jie and Wang Fu accused Dou Wu and Chen Fan of plotting the overthrow of the emperor. They convinced Zhang Huan that Dou Wu was really a conspirator and they enlisted his help against him. The eunuchs were completely victorious. Both Dou Wu and Chen Fan were killed; their families and friends were destroyed. The empress was relegated to a remote palace. The party of Dou Wu and Chen Fan, the Confucian party, became the Proscribed Party. Its members were relentlessly pursued throughout the empire by the eunuchs. Even when there was a general amnesty in the empire, it sometimes did not apply to the members of the Proscribed Party.

The eunuchs had gained complete power; they were to be supreme throughout the reign of the gullible Emperor Ling, who was in fact completely subject to them. Once, referring to the two eunuchs Zhang Rang and Zhao Zhong, he said: "The eunuch Zhang is my father; the eunuch Zhao is my mother. " Again, at one time the emperor wanted to ascend a tower near his palace. The eunuchs, fearing that while gazing around the emperor might see their palatial homes, delegated one of their group to go tell the ruler that the Son of Heaven should not climb high, for by doing so he would cause the people to go away and scatter. And the emperor dared not ascend the tower. During the thick of the battle against the Yellow Turbans, a devoted official named Zhang Jun sent a memorial to the throne putting the blame for the rebellion squarely on the shoulders of the ten most important eunuchs. He also urged the emperor to execute these ten eunuchs and to hang their heads in the southern suburbs as an apology to the people. The gullible emperor showed this memorial to the eunuchs. They read the letter and went into a shameful show of grief and sorrow. They took off their hats, prostrated themselves in front of the emperor and offered their wealth and the wealth of their families to help defray the expenses of the army. The emperor was deeply touched by this scene. He ordered the eunuchs to resume their positions, and was furious at Zhang Jun. "This man is wild", he said, "there certainly is at least one good man among ten eunuchs." This outburst proved enough ammunition for the eunuchs. They accused the unfortunate Zhang Jun of collaboration with the Yellow Turbans; he was thrown in jail where he died.

It seems that once they were in complete control the eunuchs endeavoured to make their clique a permanent institution. We read in the annals of the Emperor Ling that in the year 178 the institution of students at the door of the palace Hongdu was established. The idea of that school appears to have been to prepare eunuchs' friends and protégés for officialdom. Emperor Ling was very fond of the students of that school and he forced the high officials of the empire to hire them once they had graduated Needless to say such a school who had not yet been intimidated by the eunuchs. Yang Si violently attacked the school and its products. Yang Qiu wrote a memorial in which he urged that the school be closed. But their protestations appear to have been of little avail; the eunuchs remained in control.

How did the eunuchs' seizure of power affect the empire? There is little doubt that their exactions increased the economic difficulties. Their enormous wealth, for instance, came directly or indirectly from the people. It is very possible that the people could not carry this extra burden without suffering severe deprivation. We do not know just how rich the eunuchs were, but the sources imply that their wealth was immense. We read for instance that the cash reward granted to the five eunuchs that took part in the conspiracy against the Liang clan totaled 56,000,000 cash, a sum that more than equals the total expenditures of the wars against the Qiang barbarians. And this was probably only a fraction of the eunuchs' wealth. However, there is no certain evidence that the eunuchs' exactions brought about economic conditions so unbearable as to cause a rebellion. Their greatest responsibility appears to lie in the fact that they wrecked the administration of the empire.

The strength of this assumption lies, in part, in certain aspects of the eunuchs' position. Most important was their complete dependence on the goodwill of the emperor. There is no evidence that the eunuchs of the Latter Han dynasty had any independent power; they commanded no army, they ruled over no province. This meant that the security of their position was coterminous with the reign of the emperor who favored them unless they could sway the new ruler in their favor, a possibility that they could not predict with complete accuracy. The eunuchs were in a position of power but such a position, they were well aware, was temporary at best. For that reason they could not very well develop a farsighted view of politics, nor an interest in the empire as a permanent institution. The empire was something to be exploited today, for tomorrow there might not be another chance. One could scarcely expect them to be statesmen. They lacked not only the necessary impulses but training in the affairs of the state as well. The position of eunuch was not a high office; they were servants in the imperial palace.

They were the attendants waiting upon the emperor and upon other members of his family inside the palace. Their service was menial, but they could follow the emperor to places from which ordinary attendants were barred.

Such a position did not require intense training in the affairs of state, and while it is possible that some eunuchs were very learned, they must have been the minority. There is nothing to show that the eunuchs of the Latter Han dynasty were in any way ready to face the heavy responsibilities that the confidence and trust of the emperors brought upon them.

Thus, beginning in 168, there were in positions of supreme power men that lacked both the necessary impulses and the proper training to guide the destinies of the empire. Worse still the eunuchs proceeded to eliminate from official positions the men who were undoubtedly the most competent government servants: the Confucian scholars. The best qualified officials became hunted throughout the empire like common criminals. Then, in 178, the Hung-tu school was inaugurated, and regardless of its low standards its graduates received assignments to important positions. We have no evidence that these new officials were all evil; however, our sources imply that they did not have the competence to fill important positions. It seems reasonable to assume that their lack of qualifications could do the empire no good. Now, it is obvious that the government of a country as big as the China of the Latter Han dynasty was no easy task. Lacking the abilities of competent men the bureaucratic machine would soon decrease in efficiency and eventually come to a standstill - fertile ground for either ambitious opportunists or sincere reformers.

Our sources are meagre and do not permit a detailed analysis of the breakdown of Han officialdom. Instances of the frustrations of good administrators by eunuchs have been mentioned. Some evidence suggests a decline in relief activities. The government care of the people commonly assumed the form of distributions of food from the public granaries, grants of public lands to needy people, or remittances of taxes in difficult times. These activities, which had occurred quite frequently during the previous reigns, appear to have ceased during the reign of Emperor Ling. From 168 until 184, the year of the rebellion, we find only one instance of remission of field tax. While it is possible that the different kindnesses of the government have not been recorded for the reign of Emperor Ling, there is no obvious explanation for such an oversight on the part of the historian.

At the beginning of this chapter we asked the question: what caused the rebellion of the Yellow Turbans? Our study of the sources has produced no convincing evidence that the rebellion broke out because of unbearable economic conditions. The decline of the house of Liu, the barbarian raids, the growth of population and the natural catastrophes very likely affected the economy of the empire; however, these factors appear to have been constant and to have created no particularly acute economic problems in the years immediately preceding the rebellion. On the other hand our sources do suggest that the rebellion broke out because of unbearable political conditions. The lack of leadership after the eunuchs' seizure of power was to hinder the government seriously in its efforts to cope with the rebellion. It may also have carried in its wake significant decrease in the loyalty of the people toward the emperor, and a consequent increase in the loyalty of disciples to a leader like Zhang Jue.



We have seen that the records do not supply any adequate explanation of the Yellow Turban rebellion on secular grounds. What explanation can we find in the religion itself and its organization? The first problem is to establish the identity of the Yellow Turbans and their relationship to similar contemporary movements.

The followers of Zhang Jue revolted in the second month of 184. During the seventh month of the same year the members of another religious movement rebelled in western China. They were under the leadership of one Zhang Xiu and are known to us as the Five Bushels of Rice Rebels. We have very few authentic historical accounts of these events and later historians have, as a rule, assumed these two movements to be identical. The scarcity of materials plus the later assumptions have shrouded this period of history in the utmost confusion. In this chapter we shall attempt to determine whether or not these two movements were identical. Then we shall try to decide what the religion of the Yellow Turbans was.


First of all, let us turn to the sources themselves. We read in the Hou Han Shu that:

Zhang Jue of Julu started at that time to call himself the Greatly Virtuous and Excellent Master. He served the way of Huang-Lao. He taught his disciples to kneel down, make obeisance and confess their faults. He used charmed water and magical incantations to cure the sick. Many of those that were sick were cured. The people put their confidence in him and turned to him. Zhang Jue thereupon sent eight [of his] disciples to the four regions in order to instruct and convert all the empire by means of the good Tao. [The people] therefore went around lying to and misleading each other. In some ten years the followers [of Zhang Jue] numbered several hundreds of thousands throughout successive commanderies and fiefs. Of the men of the provinces of Qing, Xu, You, Ji, Jing, Yang, Yan, and Yu there was none that did not entirely respond. Then he [Zhang Jue] established thirty-six fang. Fang was a title similar to that of imperial general. A dafang (great fang) [had] more than ten thousand men; a xiaofang (small fang) [had] six or seven thousand. Each [fang in his turn] appointed a great leader. [He spread the] false rumor that the Blue Heaven was already dead and that the Yellow Heaven should be established. In the year Jiazi [the first year of the new cycle] there would be great prosperity in the empire. Using chalk [the disciples of Zhang Jue] wrote the characters Jiazi on the walls and office gates at the capital and [on the walls of the] official buildings in the provinces and the commanderies. In the first year of Zhongping (184) the Dafang Ma Yuanyi and others went ahead and enlisted several ten thousands [of men] from the province of Jing and Yang. They intended to Yuanyi made several trips to and from eunuchs Feng Xu and Xu Fang and others as a fifth column. An agreement [was made that] on the fifth day of the third month inside [the capital] and outside they would all arise. Before the rebellion broke out, [however,] a disciple
of Zhang Jue, Tang Zhou of Jinan wrote a letter to the emperor [in which he] revealed the plot. Thereupon Ma Yuanyi was torn to pieces by chariots in Luoyang. Emperor Ling sent down the letter of [Tang] Zhou to the three dukes. Gou Dun, the Sili Shi, ordered Zhou Bin with the help of the officers of the three departments to search for followers of [Zhang] Jue in the palace, among the guards and among the people, and execute any such. More than one thousand persons were killed. The investigation was extended to the province of Ji, in an effort to seize [Zhang] Jue and the others.

[Zhang] Jue and the others, [however,] knew that the affair had already leaked out. A rapid messenger [running] night and day was sent to all the fang [with order that they] all rise at once. They all wore yellow turbans as a distinguishing sign and the contemporary men called them Yellow Turbans. [They were] also [known by the] name [Numerous as] Ant Rebels. Having killed a man to propitiate Heaven [Zhang] Jue called himself the Lord of Heaven General. [Zhang] Jue's brother [Zhang] Bao was called the Lord of Earth General and [Zhang] Bao's brother [Zhang] Liang was called the Lord of Humanity General. Everywhere they burnt and plundered the official buildings. They plundered the villages and the towns. [The officials of the] provinces and [of the] commanderies lost their grasp. A large part of the upper officials fled. In a period of ten days this echoed throughout the land.

In the commentary of the Sanguo Zhi we are told that:

In the period Guanghe [178-183] in the east there was Zhang Jue and in Hanzhong there was Zhang Xiu. [Zhang] Jue's system [was called] the Way of the Great Peace; [that of Zhang] Xiu [was called] the Way of the Five Bushels of Rice. The masters of the Way of the Great Peace carried staves with nine knots, made charms and spells, and taught the sick men to bow their heads and reflect upon their faults. Thereafter they gave them charmed water to drink. When, after having drunk [the potion] the sick were cured in a short time, [they were said to be] believers in the Tao. If, [however,] they were not cured, then [they were said to be] unbelievers in the Tao. The system of Zhang Xiu was roughly like that of [Zhang] Jue. In addition [he built] peaceful cells in which those that were sick were left to ponder over their faults. He also used men as officers-against-evil, and wine-sacrificers. The wine-sacrificers saw that the five thousand characters of Lao Tzu were used and practiced everywhere. The officers-against-evil and the officers-against-spectres offered prayers for those who were sick. The method of offering prayers [was as follows]: the surname and the name of the sick man were written with a declaration of his faults. Three copies were made; one was sent up to Heaven from a hill; one was buried in the ground and the other was thrown in the water. These were called the letters to the Three Rulers. They regularly had the family of the sick man pay five bushels of rice and because of that they were called the Five Bushels of Rice masters...

Finally the Hou Han Shu tells us that:

In the seventh month [of 184] Zhang Xiu the Magician revolted in the commandery of Ba. He plundered the commanderies and the prefectures.

Apparently on the strength of the passage that says that “The system of [Zhang] Xiu was roughly like that of [Zhang] Jue” Maspero built up the theory that these movements were essentially the same - that the Yellow Turbans and Five Bushels of Rice were two different names for the same movement. This view is certainly mistaken. First we must say that the passage itself is somewhat ambiguous. The character lüeh may mean " stratagem ", " system ", or " in general ". We could conceivably take the two characters fa lüeh as a compound and translate the sentence as " The system of Zhang Xiu was similar to that of Zhang Jue". If, on the other hand, as is more probable, lüeh modifies t'ung ful the meaning will be that the two movements were roughly similar. Whichever way we choose to translate it, it would take a great stretch of imagination to translate it as " The movement of Zhang Xiu was identical to that of Zhang Jue ". Besides, the same document not only offers proof that the two movements were different but also hints strongly that they were independent one from the other. Reading further in the text to which Maspero refers one finds that the character Jia, "in addition", qualifies all that follows and clearly restricts to the movement of Zhang Xiu enough in matter of organization, doctrine and ritual to warrant the theory that there was at least some difference between the two movements. This text does imply that the two movements had certain beliefs and practices in common. We do not know how many they shared; but it is clear that officers-against-evil, wine-sacrificers, and officers-against-spectres belonged exclusively to the movement of Zhang Xiu. Also the practice of using the five thousand characters of Lao Tzu and of sending letters to the Three Rulers belonged to the movement of Zhang Xiu. All this certainly suggests that the two movements were different.

If, as Maspero believed, the Yellow Turbans had been divided into eastern and western communities, it would have been normal for both communities to have entered into the rebellious plans of Zhang Jue. We read, however, that the followers of Zhang Xiu rebelled five months after Zhang Jue. It is highly improbable that the plans of Zhang Jue called for the "western community" to revolt at a later date. Surprise, swiftness, and numbers are, as a rule, important elements in a rebellion, and our texts make clear that the Yellow Turbans were aware of that. Men were readied, a fifth column was organized within the palace, and an agreement was made that " on the fifth day of the third month they would all arise ". It is almost impossible to conceive of the western community being ordered to wait until the seventh month. The distance between the two communities hardly explains the timing either. Zhang Jue had made plans to rebel in the third month and he acted sooner because one of his disciples betrayed him to the emperor. Now if Zhang Jue’s messages had not reached the western community in time to inform them about the change they would have rebelled in the third month as planned. One can hardly argue that Zhang Xiu waited for the turn of events before taking any action. If this had been the case it is doubtful that he would have rebelled at a time when the Yellow Turbans were meeting defeat after defeat. Besides, the texts nowhere show any contacts between the two movements, but on the contrary, suggest that Zhang Jue had nothing to do with the Five Bushels of Rice. The commanderies of Ba and Hanzhong were in the province of Yi. Our text tells us that Zhang Jue sent missionaries everywhere and gives us the names of eight provinces in which the Yellow Turbans were numerous. The province of Yi is not on the list. With all the evidence at hand it seems that it is by accident and not plan that the Yellow Turbans and the Five Bushels of Rice rebelled in the same year.

The two movements of 184 then must be studied separately, and the method extensively used by Maspero, of complementing the texts of the one by the texts of the other has to be rejected. Paul Pelliot's theory also has to be rejected. He believed that there were two Taoist movements in China during the second century of our era, one in the east under Yu Ji and Zhang Jue, the other in the west under Zhang Daoling, and that the two fused at the time of the Yellow Turban rebellion. But there is no evidence in support of his theory of any fusion between the Yellow Turbans and the Five Bushels of Rice.


Perhaps the greatest stumbling block that we encounter in trying to determine what was the religion of the Yellow Turbans is the tradition that assimilates them to Xian Taoism. It must be pointed out that this is merely a tradition, not a theory based on solid evidence. And indeed the tradition is called in question by the fact that Zhang Jue is at no time claimed by the Xian Taoists as one of their great masters.

Three statements show some possible Taoist influence upon the Yellow Turbans. One in the biography of Huangfu Song in the Hou Han Shu, that Zhang Jue served the way of Huanglao. The expression "HuangLao" appears to have meant Taoism already in the Shi Ji and the Qian Han Shu, and there seems to be little doubt that the text actually calls Zhang Jue a servant of Taoism.

Another is in the biography of Xiang Kai also in the Hou Han Shu, that during the reign of Emperor Shun (126-144) a certain Kong Cheng of Langya went to the palace and offered to the emperor the 170 chapters of a sacred book which his master Yu Ji had received at Quyang. The name of this book was Taiping Qingling Shu, The Correct Guide to Great Peace. The emperor was advised that it was not a classic and consequently it was put aside. Later on, however, Chang Chüeh had this book, and several questions are raised. Who is this Yu Ji? What is this book? Is it still extant today?

Yu Ji is a Taoist sage who is supposed to have been put to death around 200 A.D. by the brother of the founder of the Wu dynasty of the Three Kingdoms.

I have been unable to determine what the Taiping Qingling Shu was and whether it is still extant. The title Taiping Qingling Shu occurs only in the Hou Han Shu. The work is given a different title in the Zhilin written by Yu Xi during the Chin dynasty (265-419 A.D.). We read there that during the reign of Emperor Shun of the Latter Han dynasty, Kong Cheng went to the palace and gave to the emperor a sacred book which he had received from his master Yu Ji, which had over one hundred chapters, and which was called the Taiping Qing Lvdao. This title I have found nowhere else. Still another title is given to the book by Li Xian, the Tang commentator of the Hou Han Shu who wrote around 676. He tells us that the Taiping Qingling Shu ". . . is the modern Taoist book Taiping Qing - This classic is divided according to the ten celestial stems into ten sections, each section being divided in its turn into seventeen chapters for a total of 170 chapters"

We do not know to what extent we can rely on the statement of Li Xian. Perhaps he had access to materials that have long since been lost, but we have no way of knowing since he does not tell us the source of his information. I have found three texts that mention a Taiping Qing; two of them are earlier than Li Xian while the third one was written probably around the same time as Li Xian wrote the commentary of the Hou Han Shu. However, it is impossible to determine whether these listed Taiping Qing were related to the Taiping Qingling Shu. It is also impossible to ascertain their relation to the Taiping Qingling mentioned by Li Xian.

One Taiping Qing in fifty chapters is listed alongside a Jia Yi Jing 170 chapters in the Baopuzi Neipian which was written in the early part of the fourth century. About this listing Paul Pelliot says: "It is impossible at present to explain this duplication; because it is indeed evident that this Jia Yi Jing in 170 chapters is the Taiping Qing whose 170 chapters are also divided into ten sections according to the ten celestial stems". But to say that two books have an identical number of chapters and possibly a similar division is slim proof that the books are identical. Pelliot offers no evidence that the Jia Yi Jing is divided into ten sections according to the ten celestial stems nor that the content of the Jia Yi Jing is identical to that of the Taiping Qing. Furthermore, even if we accepted the proposition that the Jia Yi Jing is the Taiping Qing we could not say that the Jia Yi Jing is also the Taiping Qingling Shu unless we assumed that the Tang commentator, Li Hsien, is not mistaken. And in any case, we do not know whether this Taiping Qing fifty chapters is the Taiping Qing of the Tang commentator.

A second Taiping Qing is listed in the BianZheng Lun, the Buddhist work written by the monk Fa Lin between 624 and 640. We read there that "during the reign of King Nan of the Zhou dynasty, 314-256 B.C.] Qian Shi received from Lao Tzu the 180 precepts altogether with the Taiping Qing in 170 chapters.

The third listing of a Taiping Qing is in the ZhenZheng Lun written in the second part of the seventh century by Xuan Ni. It is said there that " there was a book called the Taiping Qing in 180 chapters which had been compiled by Yu Ji of Shu.

This is all the evidence that I could find in my effort to relate the Taiping Qing of Li Xian to the Taiping Qingling Shu. It is altogether very poor. Only once is Yu Ji called the author of the Taiping Qing, and in this work of the seventh century in which the title of his book is given as Taiping Qing, the number of chapters as 180, and his birthplace given wrongly so that he will not be confused with Zhang Daoling, the traditional founder of Taoism. There seems to have been considerable confusion in the seventh century about the Taiping Qing. We cannot be certain that the Tang commentator was mistaken, but at the same time we have only his own statement to prove that he was not.

There is a Taiping Qing in the modern Taoist canon. The Tao Tsang Mu Lu Hsiang Chu, which was compiled by Bai Yunji and completed by 1626,86 lists this work. A note tells us that during the Eastern Han dynasty Yu Ji once met the Taishang Laojun who gave him the Taiping Qing. This classic was divided into ten sections according to the ten celestial stems, each section being divided in its turn into 17 chapters. The purpose of the book was to regulate the body so as to give long life and to regulate the State so as to bring about Great Peace. Fu Qinjia in his History of Chinese Taoism tells us that this modern book had originally 119 chapters but that 59 of them are lost. The same scholar also states that "There is no doubt that the Taiping Qing of the Tang is the same as Zhang Huai's Taiping Qingling Shu and is also the Taiping Qing found in the modern Taoist canon." But Fu is mistaken in saying that Zhang Huai said "this sacred book was the Taiping Qingling Shu". This title is in the text of the Hou Han Shu itself, not in the commentator's note. Li Xian calls the book the Taiping Qing. Furthermore, Fu has no more evidence than has been cited in this chapter to support his position. He is also quite uncritical of his sources. For instance, he accepts what Fa Lin says about the Taoists without considering that Fa Lin was a Buddhist monk intent on proving that the Taoists were mistaken.

The third statement which shows a possible influence of Taoism on the Yellow Turbans is in the Sanguo Zhi, Wu section:

At that time [200 A. D.] a certain Taoist Yu Ji of Langya [who] had previously resided in the eastern regions departed and came to Wu-hui. He established a place for pure meditation (jingshe) where incense was burnt and Taoist books studied. He prepared charm water [which he used] to cure the sick. Many men of Wu-hui served him.

The Yu Ji of this passage is, as Pelliot shows, the author of the sacred book which we have already discussed. It is likely that his use of charm water to cure the sick was a Hsien Taoist practice. He could indeed have borrowed the idea from Zhang Jue; however, it is more probable that he did not. When Zhang Jue started his movement around 170 A.D. Yu Ji had already been a master for many years; as a matter of fact, he is called the Master of Kong Cheng already in the time of Emperor Shun (126-144). In the year 200 Yu Ji must have been over 80 years old. It is unlikely that after all his years of experience as a Taoist master he would have been willing to borrow new ideas from a new and younger master.

These three statements are slim evidence in support of the theory that the Yellow Turbans were Taoists. Zhang Jue is called a Taoist in a work of the fifth century. But in the Wei Lve which was written much earlier the Yellow Turbans are mentioned with not so much as a hint that they were Taoists. Furthermore, if Zhang Jue had really been a Taoist master why did the Taoists not claim him as one? He gained some reputation as a religious leader; yet his name does not even appear in the Dao Cang. One may perhaps argue, as Maspero does, that later Taoists rejected the Yellow Turbans because of their rebellion. But Zhang Lu and his followers were rebels and Zhang Lu is called a great Taoist teacher, and according to Taoist tradition the rebel Five Bushels of Rice movement was the original Taoist Church. Perhaps Zhang Jue was disowned because he died a rebel while Zhang Lu came back into favor before his death. He submitted to Cao Cao who ennobled him and his family. Still, if the Taoists had felt very close bonds with Zhang Jue they could have made him a Taoist saint and martyr instead of an unsuccessful rebel. Perhaps Zhang Jue represented too great a challenge to the tradition that the supreme authority in Taoist matters had been kept in the family of Zhang Daoling. But enough in Tang time to compel Besides, Yu Ji who would to this same authority, is claimed by the Taoists. We must say that Zhang Xiu also does not appear in Taoist books. This cannot be too well explained; but it is possible that later Taoists identified him with Zhang Hong, the father of Zhang Lu. Perhaps there are other explanations for the absence of Zhang Jue; but the best one seems to me that the Taoists did not feel any common bond with him.

It is said that Zhang Jue made use of a Taoist book, but the statement "Hou Zhang Jue po you qi shu yan” in which the character "po" may mean at the same time either "much" or "little," is so ambiguous as to be of little value.

To say that Zhang Jue followed the Xian Taoist practice of using charm water to cure the sick is of equally little value. If he were a Taoist, what then were his relations to Yu Ji who was a practicing master in the same area, at the same time? Each could indeed have headed his own group but then why would Yu Ji be claimed by the Taoists as one of their masters while Zhang Jue was not?

Because of the weakness of the evidence we cannot properly call the Yellow Turbans Taoists. At most we can say that they had some Xian Taoist elements. But they also had some Buddhist elements such as confession of faults and belief that only those that were cured believed in the Tao.

Buddhism had been in China for some time before Zhang Jue founded his movement. Now in early Buddhism we know of a ceremony during which the Brothers and sisters confessed to the Assembly the faults that they had committed. At this ceremony the Pãtimokkha was read to the Bhikshus. This Pâtimokkha (sanskritized as Prãtimoksha) was a collection of 227 rules on food, dress, clothing, medicine, and etiquette, to be observed by the members of the Buddhist order. As the rules were read the mendicants would confess whenever they had broken one. This Buddhist ritual is very ancient. Rhys Davids says that even if the Pâtimokkha is not included in the Buddhist canon "This is not because it is later, but because it is older than the canon. And every word of it, though not as a continuous book, is contained in the canon in the book entitled Sutta Vibhanga." The Sutta Vibhanga is one of the seven treatises of the Abhidammapitaka which, Law tells us, were well known and very carefully read already in the first century of our era. It would then be safe to assume that the Buddhist ritual of confession based on the Pãtimmokkha was already practiced India before the first century A. D. Bose tells us that the Pãtimmokkha was translated into Chinese around 250 A. D. by Dharmakãla. Pelliot examined new evidence, pointed out by Levi and Chavannes, which claimed that it had been translated at an earlier date, but satisfactorily concluded that the first translation of the Pãtimokkha was that of Dharmakãla. This does not mean, however, that the ritual of confession for monks was not known in China before 250. There were Buddhist monks in China one hundred years earlier, and it is quite possible that their monastic rules were a little known. We do not say that Chang Chüeh made use of the Pãtimokkha; but he may have borrowed parts of the ritual from this set of rules.

About Zhang Jue's healing practices we are told that the sick were given charm water and those that were cured were called believers in the Tao while those that were not cured were called unbelievers. This reflects something of faith-healing; and though I do not know to what extent faith-healing came from Buddhism, there are some cases of it in early Buddhist scriptures. One day the Buddha had gone to see a sick man. In the course of a lengthy conversation he enlightened the sick person on his doctrine. "Thus spoke the Exalted One and the venerable Kassapa the Great was delighted . . . and he rose from that sickness. There and then the sickness of the venerable Kassapa the Great was abandoned."

It seems impossible to determine what the religion of the Yellow Turbans was. It is possible that Zhang Jue was an independent master who borrowed from both Taoists and Buddhists but had his own doctrine and was not attached to any definite sect. This theory is all the more possible since Zhang Jue is not claimed by the Taoists and since his movement apparently disappeared a few years after his death.

The movement of the Five Bushels of Rice appears to have been more Taoist. It made use of the Tao Te Ching and had special officers whose duty was to see that its five thousand characters were kept and respected everywhere, and it had the ritual involving the Three Rulers, a ceremony that was to become very popular during the third and fourth centuries. It is very doubtful, however, that the Five Bushels of Rice movement is the early Taoist Church as tradition maintains. In Taoist tradition the church was founded by a Zhang Daoling (Zhang Ling) whose family has held supreme authority ever since. It does seem possible that Zhang Daoling was a historical person who founded the movement of the Five Bushels of Rice. But his relationship to Zhang Lu is doubtful; and consequently, the continuity of the supreme authority in the Zhang family is doubtful; and besides, there is no evidence to show any definite link between the Five Bushels of Rice movement and the later Taoist church.

We meet with this Zhang Daoling in the biography of his presumed grandson Zhang Lu.

Zhang Lu was a man from Feng. His grandfather Ling had lived in the country of Shu and had studied Taoism in the Guming mountains. There he wrote books on Taoism which he used to mislead the people. Those who received his doctrine had to pay five bushels of rice and therefore the contemporary men called them the rice rebels. When [Zhang Dao]ling it died his son Zhang Hong practiced his way. When [Zhang] Hong and [Zhang] Lu again practiced it.

Zhang Xiu was the leader of the Five Bushels of Rice movement in 184 ; but we are not told at any time that he was its founder, and we have no information to disprove the statement of the passage above that the real founder was Zhang Daoling. It is, however, doubtful that Zhang Daoling - or whoever was the founder of the Five Bushels of Rice - was the grandfather of Zhang Lu. Consider the following:

In the period Guanghe [178-183] . . . there was Zhang Xiu in Hanzhong. . . Zhang Xiu's movement was called the Five Bushels of Rice.

Liu Yan, the governor of the province of Yi, made Zhang Lu a Duyi Sima and charged him to go with the Biebu Sima Zhang Xiu to attack the governor of the commandery of Hanzhong. . . Subsequently [Zhang] Lu surprised [Zhang] Xiu, killed him, and snatched his group.

Zhang Lu's mother first used demonistic practices and also owing to her charms [?] she enjoyed access to the house of Liu Yan. Because of this [Liu] Yan appointed [Zhang] Lu Duyi Sima stationed in Hanzhong. After [Chang] Lu had been in Hanzhong he barred the valleys and the passes [?] and killed the envoys of the Han dynasty. [Liu] Yan wrote to the emperor and told him that the Rice rebels had closed the passes and made it impossible for him to keep up intercourse.

[Zhang] Lu, in Hanzhong, seeing that the people [of that region] had put confidence in the work of [Zhang] Xiu and practiced it, himself developed and improved it.

These texts tell us that Zhang Lu killed Zhang Xiu, the leader of the Five Bushels of Rice, took over his movement, broke with the dynasty and established himself in Hanzhong. There seems to be no doubt that the Zhang Xiu whom Zhang Lu killed was the leader of the Five Bushels of Rice rebels. Liu Yan called Zhang Lu's forces also the Rice rebels. Since he, “seeing that the people had confidence in the work of Zhang Xiu, himself developed and improved it", perhaps Zhang Lu needed to justify his murder of Zhang Xiu, and invented his relationship to Zhang Daoling for that reason. He could then have claimed that Zhang Xiu was a usurper and that he, Zhang Lu, was the only legitimate leader of the movement. Of course, Zhang Xiu might indeed have been a usurper. We have no evidence one way or the other.


Our historical sources throw little light on the cult and the ritual of the Yellow Turbans. The group underwent a rapid growth probably due more to intense missionary activity than to collective ceremonies as Maspero believes. We are told that Zhang Jue sent disciples in all directions to go preach the good doctrine; we are not told about any collective feasts. We do not know what the missionaries did. Zhang Jue made use of confessions; whether these confessions were public or private we do not know. Charm water was given to the sick to drink but we do not know the procedure by which this was done. Zhang Jue is said to have killed a man to propitiate Heaven just before he rose in revolt. We do not know whether this passage is aimed at showing the inhuman barbarity of the Yellow Turbans or whether the sacrifice actually took place.

There are Buddhist sources that tell us about sexual practices which they believed originated at the time, and probably under the influence of the Three Zhang. The former Taoist Chen Luan has left us a description of such ritual:

When I was twenty years old I loved the Taoist practices and I used to go to the phalanstery to study them. First of all, I was taught the process of the mixture of the breaths and of the union of boys and girls [prescribed by] the Yellow Writing. One joins the four eyes, the four nostrils, the two mouths, the two tongues, and the four hands so as to confront exactly the Yin and the Yang. They take as an example the number of twenty-four breaths [of the year]. Those who devote themselves to this practice carry out the True Formula in the Cinnabar Field; however, they are careful of the secret taboo and do not emit in the process. They must not be jealous one of the other. All evils, and all dangers are eliminated for those who devote themselves to this practice; they are called Real Men; they are saved and they have their years much increased. Husbands are taught to exchange their wives; luxury is placed above anything else. These are the devilish methods of the Three Zhang.

These Buddhist assumptions do not prove much since "Buddhist polemists had a tendency to attribute to the Three Zhang all the ceremonies the origin of which they did not know". Perhaps in so doing they had a great share in creating the tradition that associates the Yellow Turbans with Hsien Taoism. It may have been a Buddhist way of deprecating Taoism.


Since no writings by the members of the sect are extant we have very little knowledge of the organization of the Yellow Turbans. We do not know the exact position of Zhang in the sect prior to 184. At the outbreak of the rebellion he assumed the title of Lord of Heaven General and made his two brothers Lord of Earth General and Lord of Humanity but we are not told what these titles entailed. Earlier Zhang Jue had established thirty six dafang and xiaofang. The term "fang" is difficult to translate. The Chinese sources say only that "it was the equivalent of a general in the imperial hierarchy” Maspero translates the word either by "magician" or by "regional leader". The only thing we know for certain is that the word fang was a title in the hierarchy of the Yellow Turbans. I base this on the fact that Ma Yuanyi is referred to as a dafang. My belief is that we should keep the Chinese term fang, since the lack of information concerning the duties and responsibilities of these leaders makes translation hazardous. Under the fang were the Zhushuai (great leaders) whose exact functions are similarly not known. There are different types of secret societies. One type is a society with secret rites but known membership. Another type is a society with both secret rites and secret membership. The existence of either may be of public knowledge, but while in the former case the members may be prominent and respected citizens who make no effort to hide their association with such a society but even take pride in it, the membership of the latter is a closely kept secret. We do not know whether the Yellow Turban movement can be properly called a secret society in either of these senses. Their rites may have been secret but we have no evidence that this was the case. The plan to rebel must have been a closely guarded secret but this fact would hardly enable us to call Zhang Jue's sect at any time secret. The existence of the sect and of its leader, and perhaps the identity of many adherents, was public knowledge before the rebellion, as is clearly shown from a passage in the biography of Yang Si:

[Zhang Jue] took the wrong way [which implies criminal conduct] and was called a great worthy, whereby he misleadingly dazzled the people. The whole empire gave allegiance to him, carrying [their children] on their backs. At that time [Yang] Si became Situ. He called the official Liu Tao and told [him]: "If [Zhang Jue] is met with an amnesty he will not repent, and [his movement] will keep on gradually increasing and spreading. Now, if [the officials of the] provinces and commanderies are ordered to have him arrested, I fear that this would cause further stir and quickly bring disaster. I wish to order urgently and the Erqianshi to classify and divide the wandering people and escort each to his native commandery in order to weaken the party and to isolate it. Afterward it will be easy to punish the leaders and [to establish] tranquility."

(It should be noted that while Liu Tao approved of this plan and Yang Si sent a memorial to the throne nothing came of his action.) Unfortunately, the passage does not explain in detail what Zhang Jue had done to deserve punishment before the revolt. It merely suggests that the growth of Zhang Jue's following through his success as a religious leader had become a problem of public order, and perhaps posed a threat of serious trouble because of the large displaced population that resulted. The absence of any reference to secrecy is rather striking.




Was the movement of the Yellow Turbans politically motivated long before the rebellion? In what way and to what extent did it represent a challenge to the imperial authority? Was the decision to rebel prompted by official persecution?

The original plans of Zhang Jue may not have included a rebellion, but it is certain that the plans for the revolt were prepared some time before the rebellion broke out. Apparently during the year 183 Liu Tao, Yue Song, and Yuan Kong sent a memorial under a joint signature in which they revealed to the emperor the dangers of the movement of Zhang Jue.

From the four regions reports come that Zhang Jue and his disciples enter furtively into the capital. They spy upon and observe the imperial government. . . . [The officials of the] provinces and commanderies avoid and shun this subject; they do not want to hear about it. They merely talk to each other about it but there is no one willing to write a report about it.

We have already seen that:

[Zhang Jue spread] the false rumor that the Blue Heaven was already dead and that the Yellow Heaven should be established. In the year Jiazi there would be great prosperity in the empire. Using chalk [the disciples of Zhang Jue] wrote the characters Jiazi on the walls and office gates at the capital and [on the walls of the] official buildings in the provinces and the commanderies. In the first year of Zhongping [184] the dafang Ma Yuanyi and others went ahead and enlisted several ten thousands [of men] from the provinces of Jing and Yang. They intended to assemble at Ye. [Ma] Yuanyi made several trips to and from the capital, [with the] eunuchs Peng Xu and Xu Bang and others as a fifth column. An agreement [was made that] on the fifth day of the third month inside [the capital] and outside they would all arise.

There is no sign of government persecution here. We know of no clashes between the civil officials and the Yellow Turbans before the rebellion of 184; the emperor paid no attention to the memorial of Liu Tao, nor to the advice of Yang Si; the officials of the commanderies and the prefectures did not care to hear about the movement, and were unwilling to write a memorial about it. Persecution, religious or otherwise, does not appear to have been prevalent. De Groot thinks otherwise:

It seems absurd to admit that those religious associates had organized themselves into communities and into a formal church with deliberate intent to reverse the legal authority. We cannot find in the annals of that period a single word to confirm such an idea. It seems more rational to look at it in another way. We can fully understand that the government considered the organization of these Taoists as a kind of state within the state and that the religious movement, having affected almost the whole empire, had raised its jealousy, suspicions, and fears to the highest pitch. . .. The year 184, opening as it did a new cycle, was to the credulous devotees peculiarly hopeful for their young and flourishing church. . . But the perfidious backslider did his fatal work. His letter to the emperor may have been mere falsehood and slander, yet for a suspicious government it was sufficient reason to pounce upon the adherents of the faith. By dint of torture the members of the religion were forced to betray each other. ... As the bloody terrorism swept over the provinces . . . the followers could not possibly refrain from seizing arms in self-defense, and this, of course, the government interpreted as rebellion.

This is highly imaginative. To begin with, de Groot assumes much more than the sources justify when he says that the Yellow Turbans had organized themselves into communities and into a formal church. Secondly, if by "annals" he means the complete history of the Latter Han, he is mistaken to say that they contain no mention of the Yellow Turbans' intent to revolt. If, as is more likely, he means the annals of Emperor Ling, his statement is right. But it is hardly significant since the annals usually report merely the facts as they occurred with no concern for the conditions that brought them about.

There is no evidence that the Yellow Turbans formed a state within a state nor that they rejected civil authority prior to 184. Individual officials were disquieted by the growth of Zhang Jue’s following, but their reluctance to do anything about it is hardly the attitude of a "suspicious" government ready to "pounce on the adherents of the faith."

To say that the Yellow Turbans had affected almost the whole empire creates a definitely wrong impression: the followers of Zhang Jue were not as numerous as is usually believed. "Perfidious backslider" is a strong expression for a man whose motive was perhaps simply loyalty to his dynasty. The "bloody terrorism" which followed the betrayal in the capital of course forced Zhang Jue to start his rebellion sooner than he had planned. In this sense, and in this sense only, was he forced to revolt.

We have found then no evidence that the intention to revolt lay at the core of the movement in its religious aspects. We have no evidence that the desire to revolt was provoked by the government. On the other hand, it appears very possible that the desire to rebel was aroused in Zhang Jue's mind by circumstances. We know that his movement included missionary activities, and such activities apparently came at an early date and met with success. We also know that the next step was the organization of the adherents. At that point, if any thought of rebelling crossed Zhang Jue's mind he had the numbers and the organization. His position of power may have aroused his ambition and he may have been stimulated by the opportunity offered by the demoralization of the officialdom. He may also have been stimulated by fear of an eventual government suppression. At whatever point in his career Zhang Jue conceived his plans, he seems to have made his preparations systematically, and so successfully that for a moment the dynasty was seriously shaken.


“Of the men of You, Ji, Yan, Xu, Jing, Qing, Yang, and Yu," says the text, "there were none that did not entirely respond " to Zhang Jue. Maspero believed this meant that two thirds of the empire responded to the appeal of Zhang and became Yellow Turbans. But let us get down to actual numbers.

Zhang Jue established thirty-six fang over his disciples. A xiaofang commanded up to six or seven thousand and a dafang headed ten thousand or more members of the sect. Now, assuming that "ten thousand or more" meant generally less than twenty thousand we may estimate that the average number of disciples under a fang was roughly ten thousand. This would give us an approximate 360,000, which could be either individuals or families.

Let us now look at the population of the empire. I will use the statistics found in the Hou Han Shu, which are believed to be reliable. The Hou Han Shu devotes five chapters, from Chapter 29 through Chapter 33, to the political divisions of the empire. The organization of these chapters is simple: under each province are listed the commanderies which belong to it and under each commandery the cities which belonged to it. The statistics are never given for the province as a whole but are given for each commandery. Adding these numbers up, we find:

a) Province of Yu 6,179,139 individuals or 1,142,783 households
b) Province of Ji 5,931,919 individuals or 988,005 households
c) Province of Yan 4,052,111 individuals or 727,302 households
d) Province of Xu 2,791,683 individuals or 476,054 households
e) Province of Qing 3,709,803 individuals or 635,885 households
f) Province of Jing 6,265,952 individuals or 1,449,394 households
g) Province of Yang 4,338,538 individuals or 1,021,096 households
h) Province of You 2,054,572 individuals or 396,263 households
i) Province of Sili 3,116,161 individuals or 616,355 households
j) Province of Yi 7,241,028 individuals or 1,525,256 households
k) Province of Bing 696,765 individuals or 115,001 households
1) Province of Jiao 1,114,444 individuals or 270,769 households
m) Province of Liang 419,267 individuals or 101,862 households

This gives us a total of about 47,903,088 individuals and of 9,466,035 households. These figures are from the census of 140 A. D., taken under the Emperor Shun. But the population continued to increase and by the year 156 it had reached roughly 57,000,000 individuals or 10,677,960 households. If we compare the first statistics from the Hou Han Shu, without the increase, with our estimate based on the number of fang units, we find that if the Yellow Turbans numbered 360,000 individuals, they made some 0.7 percent of the population of individuals. If they numbered 360,000 households they were a little more than three percent. If we use the other statistics which show an increase in population, we find that the Yellow Turbans formed only 0.6 percent of the individual population or 2.8 percent of the number of households. Either way we look at it the number of Yellow Turbans hardly represents what we would call a universal response to Zhang Jue.

Perhaps 360,000 is an overly modest estimate. But Fan Ye, the author of the Hou Han Shu, had no reason to belittle the movement, particularly after saying that the response to Chang Chüeh was overwhelming in eight provinces. Besides if we estimate the number of Yellow Turbans from the numbers reported killed, 360,000 again seems roughly right. It appears that the government forces took no prisoners. Zhu Jun when asked to make a compromise with the rebels whom he was besieging said to his officers, "formerly, at the time of the Qin, people had no established ruler and it was therefore proper to reward in order to exhort the people to come; however, to-day all within the four seas is within one rule and the Yellow Turbans are the only ones making a rebellion… Punishing them is quite sufficient to warn the evil-doers". It is not certain that Huangfu Song, Lu Zhi and other leaders adopted the same policy but considering the great numbers of the rebels killed it is safe to assume that they did. The following are numbers of rebels reported killed:

a) At the discovery of the plot about one thousand persons were killed at the capital.
b) After Huangfu Song joined with Zhu Jun and Cao Cao, the three officers fought a battle in which "several tens of thousands of rebels were killed." The exact number is not given, but it must have been large. Since there were rebels to be fought elsewhere it would be odd for these three officers to join forces to fight only a small group.
c) When Huangfu Song attacked and defeated Zhang Liang at Guangzong he killed 30,000 Yellow Turbans and 50,000 more were drowned or met death trying to escape.
d) When Huangfu Song conquered Zhang Bao he beheaded over 100,000 persons.
e) Zhu Jun in his final battle against Han Zhong and Sun Xia killed approximately 30,000 rebels.

Assuming that several ten thousand means at least 30,000, the minimum number of rebels killed is 241,000. We are by no means certain, of course, that all killed were reported. And on the other side of the ledger it is possible that the numbers were exaggerated for effect, or merely to indicate a large number. Also, we do not know that all the Yellow Turbans were killed; but considering Zhu Jun’s attitude it is probable that most of them were, and we know at any rate that the rebellion was thoroughly crushed.

This discussion is not intended to minimize the importance of the Yellow Turban rebellion, but to set the record straight about a little known movement whose proportions have often been exaggerated. It does not dismiss the force of the rebels as insignificant, nor overlook the enormous destruction for which they were responsible. One cannot deny that a force of 360,000 represents an enormous power. If the Yellow Turbans had not been held in check they might have destroyed the house of Han. However, their rebellion was crushed in a relatively short time, and their movement, was less extensive than it has been made to appear.


China at the time of the Latter Han dynasty was divided into twelve provinces; the area that included the capital formed a separate unit. The provinces were divided into commanderies of which there were 99, and the commanderies were subdivided into prefectures of which there were 1,181. It is reported that Zhang Jue recruited followers from the provinces of Yu, Ji, Xu, Jing, Qing, Yang, Yan, and You in other words the Yellow Turbans were active mainly in the northeastern part of the empire. The fighting however was in the four provinces of Ji, Yu, Jing, and Xu and centered in eleven commanderies.

Yingchuan 1,436,513 individuals 17 Prefectures
Runan 2,100,788 individuals 37 Prefectures
Chenguo 1,547,572 individuals 9 Prefectures

Weijun 695,606 individuals 15 Prefectures
Julu 602,096 individuals 15 Prefectures
Anping 655,118 individuals 13 Prefectures
Qinghe 760,418 individuals 7 Prefectures
Zhaoguo 188,381 individuals 5 Prefectures

Xiapi 611,083 individuals 17 Prefectures

Nanyang 2,439,618 individuals 37 Prefectures
Changsha 1,059,372 individuals 13 Prefectures

By computing and comparing the statistics in the Hou Han Shu, I have reached the conclusion that the Yellow Turbans had their main strength in areas where the population was very dense. It is probable that the greatest bulk of the Yellow Turbans would be found in the commanderies in which there was actual fighting. Now the eleven commanderies listed above formed 11.1% of the total number of commanderies and they have 25.2% of the total population. Their total number of prefectures is 195, or 16.5% of the total number of prefectures in the empire. Furthermore, their average population per prefecture is 62,085 as against an average of 36,305 for the rest of the empire. Finally the total population of these four provinces was 21,168,693 individuals or 44.3% of the total population of the empire. The fact that the Yellow Turbans were active in the most populous areas of the empire may perhaps explain why they left such a deep mark on the late history of the Latter Han dynasty. Destruction was probably greater because they fought where there was more to destroy. Because the population was dense more people were affected. These facts in turn may have helped surround the reputation of the Yellow Turbans with an exaggerated impression of strength and magnitude. These facts must also be considered in evaluating the effect of the rebellion on the ultimate fate of the dynasty.



The rebellion of the Yellow Turbans broke out in 184, and some thirty six years later, in 220, the Latter Han dynasty came to an end. The question that comes to mind is whether there was any arguable relation between these two events. What part, if any, did the rebellion of the Yellow Turbans play in the down fall of the dynasty? May we believe with C. P. Fitzgerald that it was "the direct cause of the fall of the dynasty"? Or was it only the beginning of a chain of events that eventually led to the downfall of the Latter Han? Or again was it an event which affected economic conditions of the empire but was rather a sign of Han decline than a cause of its ruin?

It is almost impossible, to give a definite answer. We know that the rebellion lasted only one year, so that the Yellow Turbans did not themselves destroy the Han. We may safely assume that the rebellion caused untold miseries. It was possibly a remote cause of the numerous bandit uprisings that took place in the years immediately following it, and the initial success of the Yellow Turbans may have encouraged the Five Bushel rebellion. Bandits do not necessarily destroy dynasties. The first emperor of the Latter Han, for instance, spent the greatest part of his reign waging wars against bandits and yet he established his dynasty. The contrast with the end of the second century suggests that the government of 184 and after was unable to cope with bandits and conditions that bred them. If this was the case, and our sources suggest that it was, then, although the bandits played a part in the eventual fall of the dynasty, they were more a sign of its decline than a cause of its ruin.

The final cause of the fall of the Han is the revolt of Dong Zhuo, and a study of the events that took place following the death of Emperor Ling in 189 will show that Dong Zhuo's success was made possible by the breakdown of Han officialdom.

The Emperor Ling died at thirty-four years of age, leaving two young sons: Prince Bia and Prince Xie. Bian, the son of Empress He, had been chosen as heir apparent, but the emperor, feeling that the young prince did not have the abilities to become a capable ruler, had come to regret his original choice. Fearful of the power of He Jin, the brother of Empress He, he had not dared take any action, but had taken the eunuch Jian Shuo into his confidence and had told him of his wishes. Xie, the son of the concubine Wang, was being reared by the dowager Dong, the mother of the emperor. After Emperor Ling's death Jian Shuo, carrying out his master's secret wish, made plans to enthrone Prince Xie. To that purpose he plotted the murder of He Jin. However, when this project fell through, Prince Bian was enthroned and the Empress He became the regent. This attempt on his life had embittered He Jin against the eunuchs and had made him willing to listen to their enemies who were very numerous by that time. With the scholar Yuan Shao he made plans to rid the empire of the eunuchs' rule. However, this project was strongly hampered by the hesitancy of the empress, without whose consent He Jin did not want to take any definite action. Finally Yuan Shao suggested that the gallant generals be called to the capital so as to inspire fear in the eunuchs. Permission was granted and couriers were dispatched to the generals. The eunuchs sensed that their positions were just about lost, and tried their best to regain some of the lost ground. Strong pressure was put upon He Jin to recede from his position and to cancel the orders. His own brother, He Miao, whose sympathies were with the eunuchs, reminded him that the eunuchs had made the fortune of the He family, had taken them, the descendants of a butcher, and made them the most powerful men in the empire. However, He Jin, with the strong moral support of Yuan Shao, remained firm in his position. The news that the generals and their soldiers were approaching the capital frightened the empress, who, in order to avoid bloodshed, dismissed the eunuchs and sent them back to their native villages. The eunuchs pretended to take the order in good grace, but in reality, intended to make a last effort. The eunuch Zhang Rang sent a message to the empress begging her to let his colleagues and herself see her august person one last time. Afterwards they could go perish in the ditches and they would die without regret. The empress, deeply touched by such devotion, agreed to the demand. The cunning Zhang Rang had his own plan; he took advantage of this permission to enter the palace to hide ten of his men with orders to murder He Jin when he came to visit his sister. The plan was successful; shortly thereafter He Jin came for a routine visit and was killed. The eunuchs' plan appears to have been a desperate effort to gain time to have the order to the generals rescinded. However, He Jin had come to the palace with a small body of troops headed by a certain Wu Kuang. This officer, upon hearing of the murder of his master, was not filled with fear as the eunuchs apparently expected. On the contrary he set fire to the doors of the palace, intent on revenging his master's death. Meanwhile the news of the murder of He Jin had spread outside the palace and both Yuan Shao and his brother Yuan Shu came with troops to the help of Wu Kuang. A bloody butchery ensued; in their blind fury the soldiers did not bother to make any close examination; they murdered everyone that happened to be beardless. That day more than two thousand eunuchs were killed.

During the massacre a few eunuchs had managed to seize the young emperor and his brother and to hide with them in an obscure corner of the palace. At nightfall they fled from their hideout, taking the two boys with them. A search for the emperor was organized soon after his disappearance was noticed, and a few hours later Lu Zhi found the fleeing party. The eunuchs committed suicide; the emperor and his brother were given horses and the party started back to the capital. On its way the small group was met by Dong Zhuo who had come too late to take part in the extermination of the eunuchs but who had taken an active part in the search for the emperor. The young emperor, very likely exhausted after his adventure and possibly frightened at the sight of Dong Zhuo and his soldiers, began to weep and could not answer the questions put to him by the general. Annoyed at this behavior Dong Zhuo turned to Prince Xie and repeated his questions. This time he was answered. It is said that from that time on Dong Zhuo preferred Prince Xie and decided that he should become the emperor. The history also implies that Tung's decision was influenced by the fact that he claimed to be related to the dowager Dong who had reared the prince.

This Dong Zhuo had been very prompt to answer the call of He Jin and Yuan Shao. He appears to have been a man of great ambitions and it is likely that he saw in this call to the capital an opportunity to further his own plans. He had brought three thousand troops to the capital. Probably thinking that this small number of soldiers was not sufficient to back up his ambitions, he decided on an ingenious stratagem to fool his opponents. One night he made his troops go out of the capital in great secrecy; later the same troops came back in broad daylight thus creating the impression that they were reinforcements. This scheme worked; the soldiers of He Jin, thinking Dong Zhuo to be the strongest man at the capital, joined the ranks of his troops. The soldiers of He Miao, who had killed their general because they held him responsible for the death of his brother, joined Dong Zhuo's forces for the same reason. Dong Zhuo also bribed Lu Bu the trusted lieutenant of Ding Yuan, to kill his master and to come over to his side with Ding's troops. Confident in his strength Dong Zhuo decided then to replace the emperor by his brother the Prince Xie. Only one man, Lu Zhi, dared oppose this plan; but his opposition was of little avail and the plan of Dong Zhuo was adopted. In order to gain support for his action Dong Zhuo replaced the eunuchs by civil service officials, and made sacrifices to Dou Wu, Chen Ban and the various members of the Proscribed Party who had lost their lives in the struggle against the eunuchs. Dong Zhuo was the actual ruler and the emperor a mere puppet. The new dictator's power is perhaps best shown in that he was able to move the capital from Luoyang to Changan because the latter was easier to defend. Dong Zhuo was finally murdered by Lu Bu, whom he had trusted enough to adopt him as a son. His murder occurred in 193, but by that time the House of Han was actually powerless. Until the official end of the dynasty five groups fought one against the other for supremacy, and the emperor had become a mere pawn.

An analysis of these events leads to the conclusion that, for all practical purposes, the Latter Han ended in 189, the year that saw the coming to power of Dong Zhuo. The success of the new dictator undoubtedly fired the hopes of other ambitious adventurers. What then permitted his success? His coming to the capital certainly helped but we cannot know for certain that lacking that occasion he would not have found other means to reach the same goal. It appears to me that the reason for his success lies in the lack of support for the constituted authority. It is doubtful that Dong Zhuo could have commanded the loyalty of responsible officials who were devoted to the emperor. But when he decided to replace the emperor there was little loyalty left among officials. If there had been more there would probably have been a punitive expedition against the dictator; but we have no evidence of any such expedition. Thus, deprived of devoted servants the dynasty collapsed.

The rebellion of the Yellow Turbans was then a danger signal which could have saved the dynasty, but as it was it became the first of a series of actions that brought the dynasty to its end.
Alone I lean under the wispy shade of an aged tree,
Scornfully I raise to parted lips a cup of warm wine,
Longingly I cast an empty vessel aside those exposed roots,
And leave behind forgotten memories and forsaken dreams.
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Re: The Academic Corner of Sanguo

Unread postby waywardauthor » Wed Dec 13, 2017 10:52 am

[The entirety of the article was previously published in Oriens]


by Howard S. Levy

Tokyo, Japan

In honor of Leonardo Olschki

During the waning years of the Later Han Dynasty, Heaven seemed to be withdrawing the mandate to rule which it had bestowed upon Emperor Ling (see Hou Han-shu, Po-na edition [hereafter abbreviated as HHS], 8 for biographical details). Hens developed male characteristics (see HHS zhi, 13. iob-iib; also 8. Ioa-b.), a reminder that the monarch was allowing eunuchs to meddle in the affairs of state. On July I, 178, a wreath of black vapor in the form of a dragon entered the imperial audience chamber (HHS, 8. iob; also consult ibid. zhi, 17. 4b, IIb-I2a). Away from the capital an earthquake occurred, creating a fissure in the earth (HHS zhi, 16. Ioa-b).

These supernatural omens, as well as others recorded in HHS zhi, 17. 5a-b, 7b-8a, 18.I7b, were accompanied by a recurrence of agrarian distress. Great epidemics occurred in 171, 173, 179, 182, 185 (HHS zhi, 17. IIa.), which gave rise to a vigorous religious movement. This movement eventually led to resistance against the throne. The waves of rebellion which finally engulfed the Han Empire, including rebellions initiated in the west by the Yuezhi, were directed primarily by Neo- Taoist adepts skilled in alchemy, herbalism, and faith-healing. These adepts promised their followers that the azure heaven of Han would perish, and be replaced by a yellow one, and the eastern Yellow Turban leader Zhang Jue even called himself Yellow Heaven in 184, as reported in HHS, 8. 14b, and ibid. zhi. 17. 7a: 8a-b. The Taoists declared that 184, the first year of a new cycle, would also usher in a new era. The characters chia-tzu, designating the first year of the new cycle, were written with white clay in anticipation of the coming overthrow of the dynasty. They were to be seen on official residences in the prefectures and on temple walls in the capital of Lo-yang (HHS, 61. Ia-4b).

The clamor for a new dynasty to accompany the change in cycle received its impetus in eastern China among neo-Daoists, who were led by the three Zhang brothers, Zhang Jue, Liang, and Bao. A chronological account of the activities of the three brothers before and during their rebellion, is given in Huangfu Song's biography in HHS, 61 1a-4b. They and their supporters became known in history as the Yellow Turbans, because they wore yellow turbans in battle as a means of identification. HHS, 61-2a-b also states that Yellow Turbans were known as "the ant bandits."

The Daoist church, as described by Henri Maspero in le Taoisme, pp.150-156, was well organized at the end of the Han. It was divided into two groups. The eastern communities obeyed leader Zhang Xiu, who may have coordinated his uprisings with those of the eastern Yellow Turbans. His doctrines were similar to those of Zhang Jue and Zhang Lu. The biography of Zhang Jue is in the Sanguo Zhi and the biography of Zhang Lu, enhanced by fragments of commentaries called Tianlue, and Weilue is in San Guozhi 8 22b-26a. Zhang Lu was the grandson of Zhang Ling, whose biographies are found in Shenxianquan and Shenxiandongqian. W. Eichhorn has discussed the question of Zhang Ling's origin in his "Description of the Rebellion of Sun En and earlier Taoist rebellions" in Mitteilungen de Instituts fur Orientforschung, Berlin, II, 327. Zhang Ling was the spiritual forefather of the Daoist religion. He also claimed descent from the early Han political adviser and Daoist Zhang Liang, whose biography is in the Shiqi, 55. The two communities, although geographically remote, were similar in organization.

Zhang Jue, the chief of the eastern Yellow Turbans, controlled the allegiance of the people of the eight provinces; according to one historian, "there were none who did not finally join from the eight provinces of Qing, Xu, Yu, Qi, Jing, Yang, Yan, and You." He divided the eight provinces into thirty-six districts and placed an adept in charge of each district. Grand adepts controlled over 10,000 adherents; lesser adepts commanded from six to eight thousand men. Zhang Jue assumed the tital of General and Lord of Heaven, his younger brother Zhang Liang was called General and Lord of Earth, while his youngest brother Zhang Bao was entitled General and Lord of Man. In this way the Zhang brothers presented themselves as symbolic embodiments of heaven, earth, and man, the all-embracing triad. Zhang Xiu the leader of the Yellow Turbans of the West, and Zhang Lu who succeeded him, had an organization similar to that of the East and adopted many of the hierarchical categories first established by Zhang Ling.

The eastern leader Zhang Jue trained his disciples and dispatched the services of an estimated 360,000 followers. The Xu Hanshu speaks of more than that number, but this figure remains unverifiable. Eichorn, "Description", p.327, does not cite a reference to support his statement that "in somewhat more than ten years, he [Jue] gathered round several tens of thousands adherents." HHS, 61 1b, however, speaks of several hundred thousand followers joining in a ten year period. One reason for the rapid growth of this movement may have been the series of economic misfortunes suffered by the peasantry. A Chinese historian implies that the uprisings were caused by the collaboration of the eunuchs with the Yellow Turbans, but economic factors may also explain why people blocked the roads in their rush to support Zhang Jue. The floods of 185 were followed by droughts in 176, 177, 182, 183, while epidemics occurred in 173, 179, and 182, the critical years before the Daoist uprising. For the reports of these, see HHS Zhi, 15. 7a-b; Zhi, 16. 6a-b; 12a; Zhu 17. 11a; 47. 5a. The alternation of flood, famine, and epidemic led to a displaced peasantry, ready to join anyone who offered alleviation of its misery. Ten thousand people failed to reach the Yellow Turbans because they died of illness along the way, asserts Zizhi Tongjian 58. 5a. The Zhang brothers, versed in faith-healing, may also have known of herbal and medical remedies to cure or mitigate the sufferings of their innumerable patients.

Two officials warned the emperor about the plot of Zhang Jue to usurp the throne in memorials which are preserved in HHS, 44. 26b-27a; 447. 11b-12a. But the emperor remained inattentive and took no overt action to apprehend the Daoist leader. Rumors concerning a coming uprising spread throughout the prefectures. The eastern Yellow Turbans set the fifth day of the third month (April 4, 184) as the date on which they would strike coordinately both from within and without the palace (61. 2a). However, plans for the revolt were prematurely disclosed that by spring by a former disciple of Zhang Jue called Tang Zhou.

After the confession of Tang Zhou, imperial forces led by Huangfu Song, Zhu Jun, and Lu Zhi, whose biographies are in HHS 61.1a-11a; 61.11a-21a, and 54.14b-22a, set out to quell the betrayed Daoist revolutionaries. Zhu Jun was defeated at Yingchuan by the Yellow Turban leader Bo Cai. Huangfu Song was later surrounded by Bo Cai while trying to defend Zhangshe, but then managed to escape. For an account of these battles see HHS, 61. 3a-b. Cao Cao, who first gained renown fighting the Yellow Turbans, and who later ruled Wei Kingdom, joined forces with Huangfu Song and defeated the Yellow Turbans in the summer of 184.

Huangfu Song destroyed the three Zhang brothers and brought temporary peace to the empire. The relieved peasants composed this ballad, preserved in HHS, 61 4b-5a:

Great chaos in the empire,
The markets were desolate.
Mothers could not protect children,
Wives lost their husbands,
Depending on Huangfu,
Again we live in peace.

The emperor also granted Huangfu Song's request that taxes for the distressed peasantry of Qi province get remitted.

After the death of Zhang Jue, effective Daoist leadership was represented by Zhang Lu, leader of the Yellow Turbans. Zhang Lu became active in the events which preceded the Three Kingdoms period. His teachings were in general accord with those of the eastern Yellow Turbans. Zhang Lu took the title of "Lord of the Teachers." He escaped annihilation, and administered a state within the Chinese state for about thirty years.

Zhang Lu maintained the popularity of his Daoist doctrine by having his Libation Offerers erect public houses comparable to the rest-houses which existed in the fourth century along the roads, stocked with provisions of rice and meat. Passers-by could freely enter and take enough food to satisfy their hunger, but it was proclaimed that anyone who took more food than he actually needed would be possessed by demons. This food distribution policy increased the number of converts, rice-Daoists though they might have been.

The objectives of Zhang Lu and his colleagues were twofold. On a political plane, they wished to replace imperial authorities with their disciples. Their religious aim was to initiate the Daoist novice into increasingly complex rites, for which see chapter 8 in the Hongmingqi. Titles and grades were based on relative advancement; they have been described by H. Maspero. Beginners were called Sons of the Dao, or daughters of the Dao. Higher grades were those of the Male Bonnet and Female Bonnet, and Father or Mother of the Dao. The attitude towards woman was in advance of the rest of second century Chinese society, for these titles were accessible to both men and women.

The Han dynasty, at this stage of its decline, could not oppose these innovations in the southwest. Since the court could not subjugate Zhang Lu, it resorted to the expedient of entitling him. Zhang Lu in return agreed to send yearly tribute to the court as a token of nominal submission. His position became so secure that he considered becoming an independent King of Hanning, but decided against it. The speech which dissuaded Zhang Lu from declaring himself an independent king is preserved in HHS, 65. 7a-b; SGZ Wei, 8. 24a. Cao Cao invaded the Hanzhong area in 215. Zhang Lu's younger brother Zhang Wei resisted the invasion, but was routed. Zhang Lu did not oppose Cao Cao. Pending his arrival, he refused to allow his subordinates to destroy, pillage, or plunder. Different versions of Cao Cao's invasion are cited in SGZ Wei 8. 24a, SGZ Wei 1. 40a-41a, and in Bianhuolun, as given in Cahpter 13 of the Fayuan Zhulin. In any case Cao Cao treated Zhang Lu more as a compatriot than as an enemy.

The Daoist uprisings in the east and west thus encountered varying fortunes. The eastern movement was annihilated. In the west, the Daoists enjoyed a relative independence and were able to institute religious and political innovations. Some of these initiated changes survived at least until the fifth century. Thus W. Eichhorn, "Description" gives a description of the rebellion of Sun En at the start of the fifth century, a rebellion which contained many features of the late Han Yellow Turban uprisings.
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Re: The Academic Corner of Sanguo

Unread postby waywardauthor » Fri Dec 15, 2017 4:56 am

[The following was published in Istituto Italiano per l'Africa e l'Oriente for the European Conference of Chinese Studies Proceedings. There weren't characters, and it has a unique formatting style, so this will look a little rough.]


Written by Chi-yun Chen


In A.D. 184, the Later Han empire (A.D. 25-220) was dealt a fatal blow in the insurrection of the Yellow Turbans (Huang-chin). Although the main forces of the insurrection were crushed in a few months, the Han dynasty never recovered from this setback. In the ensuing decades, widespread uprisings continued to creep up and the power of the Later Han court fell into the hands of those who styled themselves as the « Han loyalists » and helped the court subdue the rebels. The power struggle among these « loyalists » then plunged China into a long period of disunity some- times called China's medieval age. In a macroscopic view, the Yellow Turbans uprising is not only an even that triggered the fall of the Later Han but more importantly the marking of a great divide between ancient and medieval China with profound differences in their political, social, economic, ideological and spiritual underpinning. And the Yellow Turbans uprising must be studied in the web of many complex socio-political, intellectual, and spiritual developments which pushed China over the great divide.


A standard interpretation of the Yellow Turbans is that:
a) it came from a popular Taoist religious movement;
b) the movement developed in a time when the ruling class had been so much caught up in the power struggle between the Han autocrats (the imperial family and the eunuchs) and the Confucian gentry (bureaucrats, literati, and big landlords) that they lost much of their control over the vast countryside, into which the Taoist movement spread;
c) the movement culminated in a violent « peasant revolution » - « the peasants... made their way to the towns and flooded over the country like some natural catastrophe... extermination by fire and sword everything that might be even remotely connected with authority and powers that be. »

This standard interpretation is based on our modernistic assumptions of:
a) the existence of two sharply divided and fundamentally antagonistic classes, politically the ruling and the ruled, or economically the landlords and the peasants;
b) a parallel division and antagonism between Confucianism as the conservative, elitist ideology of the upper classes, and Taoism as the revolutionary, popular thinking of the lower classes;
c) the peasantry as a unitary « revolutionary » entity. These assumptions can no longer be sustained in the light of recent research on the social structure of Han dynasty China, on the decline and fall of the Later Han regime and the rise of the medieval Chinese aristocracy, and on the intertwined currents and subcurrents of Confucianism and Tao- ism and their mixed following.


My revisionist view of the Yellow Turbans differs from the standard interpretation in that:
a) instead of focusing on the Taoist connection, it calls attention to the overall trend of centrifugal developments in Later Han political, socioeconomic, and cultural life; the Taiping Tao and the Yellow Turbans uprising were part and parcel of these developments;
b) instead of interpreting the fall of the Later Han in terms of class struggles (either between the ruling and the ruled or between the landlords and the peasants), it sees a fundamental tension in Han dynasty China between a nebulous society and a structured imperium which imposed its proto-bureaucratic regime on that society, the velocity of one force (centrifugal or centripetal) equaling the other over time;
c) instead of postulating a complete political and social breakdown or a total loss of the ruling class in the fall of the Later Han as a result of the destruction wrought by the Yellow Turbans, it considers the fall of the Later Han as instrumental for the rise of the aristocratic gentry of medieval China, the result of accelerating centrifugal developments which strengthened local solidity and the regional bases of rising gentry power; from this perspective, the Taiping Tao movement (in spite of its Taoist label) and the Yellow Turbans (in spite of its popular following and its violent outbreak) turned out to be pawns in the power play of the Later Han gentry.


From this perspective, the major historical development in Later Han may be reconstructed as follows:
a) The Later Han imperium was rising and expanding when it succeeded in drawing the elite (scholar-officials and gentry) centripetally from the society and the culture in support of the central state power. The imperium floundered when it failed to do so and when the social and cultural elite succumbed to the centrifugal pull of the nebulous society and culture.
b) This was what happened when power struggles at the Later Han court aroused the vigorous protest known as ch'ing-i (purist criticism) from the cultural elite against the Han emperor and the eunuchs and when the court inflicted the persecution known as tang-ku (persecution of the partisans) on the protesting elite and drove them back to the provinces.
c) Driven back to their native provinces, the former high officials and literati merged with the local gentry and lesser elite (formerly known as the local magnates), generating considerable popular support and strong local power bases (including a great many peasants under the control of the big clans and the large estates). This became the prototype of the great gentry of medieval China that dominated the socio-economic, the cultural, and to a lesser extend the political scene for the next five hundred years.
d) Under the tang-ku persecution for some eighteen years, from A.D. 166 to 184, the persecuted partisans fostered an anti-eunuch, anti-Han ideological scheme, mingling Confucianism and Taoism; they also developed an « underground » network, the Later Han prototype of a « united front », bringing together not only the scholar-officials (nominally the Confucians) and the local magnates but also reaching out to the local multitude (the latter two were often considered to be Taoist supporters). When their time came, leaders of this partisan « united front » styled themselves as the Han « loyalists », who pacified the Yellow Turbans, trampled the Han ruling house, and triumphed over the frontier soldiers, to become the rulers of the post-Han China. The inner circle of the successor regimes of Cao-Wei and the Western Jin, including their founders Cao Cao and Sima Yi, came directly or indirectly from this leadership.


I have long suspected that the ching-i (pure criticism) protest movement (nominally Confucian) and the Taiping Tao movement that gave rise to the Yellow Turbans insurrection (nominally Taoist) were closely connected - they were two sides of the same movement. Over the years, I have found nothing to contradict this view. Both the ch'ing-i and the Taiping Tao/Yellow Turbans movements were symptomatic of the centrifugal development that became momentous in late Han time - the fall of the Former Han and the failure of Wang Mang's reform, the discredit of Han Confucian orthodoxy (the Modern Text School reformist) and the rise of conservatism at the Later Han court, the increasing popularity of the unofficial Ancient Text School of Confucianism and the resurgency of non-Confucian (Taoist, Legalist) inclinations among the active cultural elite, and the revival of regionalism and local traditions supported by the rising gentry. Both the ch'ing-i and the Taiping Tao movements became « popular » or « populistic » in roughly the same time (A.D. 164-184) and in roughly the same core geographical areas (the Runan Yingchuan, the Shandong, and the Hanzhong regions, judging from the major « Han loyalist » campaigns against the Yellow Turbans and the sole surviving base of the Taoist theocracy). Both movements became secretive or went « underground » under persecution or the threat of persecution by the court.

The exact connection between the ch'ing-i leaders and the Taiping Tao/Yellow Turbans leadership is difficult to ascertain. It requires the meticulous reexamination of various kinds of records, including many bits and pieces of circumstantial evidence. Some selected examples are given as follows:

1. The Distinction between «Agrarian Revolt» and Peasant Uprising

It may be a safe conclusion that any popular movement in traditional (and even modern) China must involve the agrarian masses. And it is a reasonable conjecture that the main body of the Yellow Turbans consisted of many poverty-stricken and desperate peasants. But, concerning the socio- political milieu out of which the masses became motivated as well as the leadership hierarchy that provided the movement with sophisticated organization and ideological strength, much remains to be studied.

Questions about the Yellow Turban leadership raised considerable controversy in the 1950' s among the Marxist Chinese historians in their effort to study the history of peasant uprisings as prevalent mode of class struggle in China's agrarian « feudal society ». Although these historians were eager to affirm the heroic role of the peasant rebels and the progressive « historical function » of peasant wars in early China, they had a rather dim view of the peasant's organizational and ideological efficiency prior to the coming of the modern proletariat. These historians were ready to affirm simple peasant initiative in the uprisings of limited time and geographical scope, but they also acknowledged the complex leadership in the more important insurrections such as the Yellow Turbans. Some of these historians postulated an ephemeral and transitory peasant initiative in such major uprising which was soon usurped by the landowning elite who rein- forced the movements with their organizational and ideological expertise and turned these into epoch-making events. These major uprisings can be seen as peasant movements only by radical redefinition of the term to include a gentry leadership « that performed a progressive historical function » and catered for the needs of the suffering masses in their struggles against the dynastic rulers. According to this redefinition, not only the Yellow Turbans but even their pacifiers, such as the « Han loyalist » Cao Cao (155-220), founder of the defacto Kingdom of Wei (220-265), could be included in the peasant camp. The Chinese Marxist theory of peasant uprising thus implies that these were but « agrarian revolts » in which the masses were led by a rebellious elite. This point has not been pressed to its damaging implications for the Marxian concept of historical class struggles. For here would be an elite whose value criteria outweighed class-structured economic and political interests and whose transcendent sense of justice was capable of reconciling class conflicts.

2. Gentry « Bandits » and Wealthy « Desperados »

Elsewhere, I have argued that one should not take the derogatory terms, « bandits », « robbers », « fugitives », or « desperados », in Chinese Standard Histories, as referring to the lowly and the poor. Such labels were regularly applied to the losers in the contention for the throne, as the Nationalists called the Communists and the Communists called the Nationalists in the 1940's and 1950's. The labels only represented the courts attitude toward those who were in defiance or engaging in armed resistance against the state, be they gentry, landlords, or peasants

About the Yellow Turbans, it was recorded that: « [their leader Zhang Jue] had so misleadingly dazzled the people that [the people of] the whole empire gave allegiance to him, carrying {Qiangfu, their money? children?) on their backs. »

Michaud translated Qiangfu as « carrying [their children] on their backs. » Thus the followers of Zhang Jue would be predominantly poor peasants. However, qiang also has the meaning of « money » (or lit. the string which fastens together the coins).15 Based on the above and other sources, the Tzu-chih t'ung-chien presents the following statement on the Yellow Turbans:

« [Zhang] Jue sent his disciples to travel all the four directions... for ten and more years. [He] gathered several hundred thousand disciples and followers. Peoples from the eight provinces of Qing, Xu, You, Jing, Yang, Yan, and Yu all responded to him. Some even deserted or sold their treasures and properties, fleeing, moving and running to him. ...Officials of the commanderies and districts did not understand their intention and, on the contrary, said that [Zhang] Jue taught [the people] and converted them to a good Way, therefore the people went to him. »

Thus at least some comparatively well-to-do people were also attracted to the movement. According to the Taoist Ko Hung (284-363),

« Zhang Jue... recruited and gathered the seductive partisans... and through them acquired wealth and profit, accumulating coins and fine cloths piling up like mountains and becoming wealthier than the kings and marquises... with assassins and desperados in his employment, his power overwhelmed the state rulers and his influence overawe the government officials. Fugitives, desperados, and outlaws thus took shelter under him. »

The description fits a defiant local magnate leading and controlling the restless masses.

Furthermore, the Hou Han-chi states that, when Zhang Jue raised the standard of revolt,

« tens and hundred groups of people [were responding to him] and were gathering in their strongholds (t'un-chu). The major groups each had more than 10,000 men; the minor ones each had six to seven thousand men. »

The term « stronghold », t'un-chu, which means the concentration of man- power and supplies in a local base, is noteworthy. Tun was a technical term for the garrison stations set up by the imperial government in China and early Han times. With the decline of the imperial authority in middle and later Han times, we find the term t'un-chu came to be used more often in the historical records with reference to the armed self-defense based of the local leaders either in defiance of government authorities or in time of civil turmoils. The use of the term t'un-chu in the above-quoted passage in the Hou Han-chi indicates that the support for Zhang Jue' s uprising in A.D. 184 might be far more complex than that which has been generally recognized. It makes little historical sense in the postulation of a peasant multitude totally separated from its agrarian milieu - the kinship and com- munity networks controlled by the rising gentry of Later Han times.

3. The Tacit Support of Provincial Officials and Gentry

It makes even less sense to postulate that a popular movement like Zhang Jue's Taiping Tao could have gotten under way for more than ten years in the greater part of the Han Empire without the knowledge and the acquiescence of the local officials and gentry in control of the provincial areas. The fact is that the Yellow Turban insurrection did not come as a surprise to the local elite and the government officials. The movement leading to such an outbreak had been quite well-known to them.

Sometime before A.D. 166 (about eighteen years before the insurrection and at a time when the Zhang Jue was about to start the Taiping Tao movement), Xiang Kai, a sympathizer of the ch'ing-i movement and a severe critic of the Han palace and eunuch establishment, had possessed a copy of the Taoist tract T'ai-p'ing ching and submitted it to Emperor Huan (reigned: A.D. 147-167).20 In about A.D. 176, Yang Tz'u, the Lord Chancellor {Ssu-t'u) at the Later Han court, had discussed with his staff the dangerous movement led by Zhang Jue and others. Liu Tao, who had formerly served in Yang Tz'u's staff, again warned the imperial court of the danger of this popular movement in 183 (only a year before the actual outbreak of the insurrection). In both cases, it is mentioned that:

«Zhang Jue and others took the wrong way but were called a great worthy. » And that: « [Though the movement was quite well-known to the local officials, these officials of] the provinces and commanderies avoided and shunned this subject; they did not want to hear about it. They merely talked to each other about it but did not make any official report on it. »

It seems quite evident that many local officials had sympathized with leaders of this movement. Even after the outbreak of the insurrection in A.D. 184, some members of the officialdom and the gentry were openly sympathetic to the Yellow Turbans at the same time as they were supportive of the ch'ing-i protest in opposition to the eunuch establishment. In his memorial to the throne, a Gentleman-in-attendance (Lang-chung) Zhang Jun wrote:

« I humbly considered: the reason that Zhang Jue could stage an armed rebellion and that tens of thousands of people were inclined to follow him lies in the fact that the Ten Attendants (the ten eunuchs most hated by the ch'ing-i protesters) had appointed many of their own parents, brothers, nephews, marital relatives, and guest clients in charge of the provincial and commandery governments, where they illegally monopolized the revenues and other profits and aggressively exploited the people. The people had no place to present their complaints. They therefore plotted revolt and gathered themselves to become bandits. « [The Emperor] now should execute these Ten Attendants and hang their heads at the southern gate to console the people. And send out messengers to proclaim this to the whole realm. Then no military expedition is needed and the formidable rebellion will disappear by itself. »

According to Tzu-chih t'ung-chien's reconstructed version, Chang Chun's memorial was preceded by that of Xiang Xu. Xiang Xu was a Court Attendant (Shih-chung) and an elite eccentric, who « often read the Lao-tzu and behaved like a Taoist. » In his memorial, he also criticized the eunuch attendants and sympathized with the Yellow Turbans. All these appear to be typical of the memorials submitted to the throne by the gentry scholar-officials. Their argument often went: in order to rid the outside evil of the rebellion, the court must get rid of the inside evil of the eunuchs; and to prevent the ch'ing-i partisans from cooperating with the rebels, the court must lift its persecution of ch'ing-i partisans. The danger of the « Confucian » ch'ing-i leaders consorting with the « Taoist » leaders of the Yellow Turbans was well known at the time. In fact, both Chang Chün and Hsiang Hsü were accused by the eunuch for being sup- porters of the Yellow Turbans, and subsequently executed.

4. Hyperbole about Yellow Turbans Destructiveness and their Ruthless Sup- pression by the Han « Loyalists »

Given the possible gentry/scholar-official « connection » in the Taiping Tao/Yellow Turbans movement, it is hard to imagine the Yellow Turbans as « peasants flooding over the country like some natural catastrophe, exterminating by fire and sword everything remotely connected with authority and powers that might be. » Since most of the reports on the Yellow Turbans were sent to the court by the provincial officials and the local gen- try, exaggeration of the strength and the destructive nature of the insurrection may be expected. It served as the scare tactics by the ch'ing-i partisans to exert pressure on the Han emperor and the eunuchs. One must be cautious with statements such as:

« [The Yellow Turbans] burned down the government mansions and plundered the villages and towns in various localities; the provincial and commandery officials lost their control and many chief officials took flight; within a few days, the whole empire responded [to the rebels], and the imperial capital was shaken. »

Probably, more reliable information is to be found not in such generalizations but in those fragmentary accounts in the Hou-Han shu. From these fragments, it seems that the Yellow Turbans were more hostile to those branches of the Han ruling house established in the provincial principalities. At least five such principalities were destroyed by the insurrectionists: Liu Yun, Prince of Chi-an (in present Shantung Province), was killed; Liu Hsu, Prince of An-p'ing (in present Hopei province), and Liu Chung, Prince of Kan-ling (also in Shantung), were captured, and Liu Chung's heir-designated was killed; Liu I, Prince of Hsia-p'i (in present Kiangsu province), and Liu Hao, Prince of Ch'ang-shan (in Hopei) fled from their territories.26 On the other hand, it is recorded that some members of the gentry were well-treated by the Yellow Turbans, though this may also come from the gentry scholar-official's self-propagandism and should be taken with caution.

One must also be cautious with statements about the ruthless manner in which the Yellow Turbans were suppressed by the « Han loyalists » (many of these came from the ch'ing-i partisans after their amnesty by the court). One statement mentioned that the « Han loyalists » accepted no surrender and took no prisoner from the rebels. This is contradicted by the more specific record which reads:

« Wang Yun... in 184 when the Yellow Turbans revolted, was specially selected to be Imperial Commissioner of the Yu province (Yü-chou tzu-shih). He recruited Xun Shuang (a prominent ch'ing-i leader)... to his staff and petitioned [the throne] to with- draw the tang-ku persecution. He attacked a branch of the Yellow Turbans and greatly defeated them. Together with the Commandant of the Left Guards, Huangfu Song and the Command of the Right Guards, Chu Chün and others, he received the surrender of hundreds of thousands [of rebels]. »

This explains how and why the formidable Yellow Turbans came to be pacified in a few months, as Zhang Jun and Xiang Xu had predicted.


All these point to the possibility that the Later Han gentry and their ch'ing-i partisans had been the instigator, supported, or co-conspirator of the Yellow Turban insurrection. Once they changed their mind and withdrew their support, the insurrection came to an end.

Scholars studying Han Taoism have long been troubled by questions about the connection between classical Taoism and Han religious Taoism, as well as the connection between Han religious Taoism and the Taiping ching (Scriptures of Ultimate Equilibrium) in the present Taoist Repository (Tao-tsang). The questions are:

a) How could the teaching of nonaction in classical Taoism lead the populist activism of the Taiping Tao and the violence outbreak of the Yellow Turbans insurrection?
b) How can one explain the conservative ideology in the Taiping ching, if it was indeed the product of the revolutionary Taiping Tao/Yellow Turbans movement?

An answer to these questions may lie in uncovering the non-Taoist or extra-Taoist connections and the non-revolutionary or less violent aspects of the Taiping Tao/Yellow Turbans movement in Han times
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