Yellow Turbans Rebellion

This short-lived, Daoist peasant rebellion signaled the demise of the Eastern Han Dynasty.

Summary of Event

After the death of the Han emperor Wu (Wu-ti; 156-87 b.c.e.), for about eighty years, a succession of weak emperors nominally ruled while the families of consorts controlled the empire. Toward the end of the Western Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-23 c.e.), a relative of the empress dowager, Wang Mang, usurped the throne and created the Xin Dynasty (Hsin; 9-23 c.e.). He adopted Confucianism to promote a social hierarchy of relationships that would regain dynastic glory and eventually lead to a reunification of the empire. Wang Mang attempted substantial reforms such as the nationalization of land, manumission of slaves, stabilizing market prices on commodities, placing taxes on mining and on slaveholders, and offering loans for a limited time at low percentage rates. Unfortunately for Wang, a major flood devastated the agricultural economy near the Yellow River, and in 17 c.e., rebellions had broken out in the countryside. Eight years later, forces led by Liu Xiu (Liu Hsiu), a member of the Han, defeated Wang’s army. Liu Xiu (Guang Wudi) re-established the Han Dynasty and made Luoyang (Lo-yang), in present-day Henan Province, its capital. Lingdi
Zhang Jue
Cao Cao

The Eastern, or Later, Han Dynasty (25-220 c.e.), lasted 195 years under twelve emperors. During the first half of the Eastern Han Dynasty, the empire flourished, largely because of five changes. First, paper began to be used in 105 c.e. for tax-keeping purposes. Second, alliances were made with Central Asian tribes to defend the northern borders against barbarian invaders. Third, military campaigns secured the Silk Road so that commercial trade in luxury goods with other parts of Asia and the Roman-controlled Mediterranean could be carried on safely. Fourth, the sociopolitical policy remained Confucianism, which emphasized a strict division between superiors and inferiors. Fifth, men training to be civil servants were required to study and pass an examination. They were placed in academies to learn not only Chinese law, history, and culture but also Confucian ideals. However, beginning in the first century c.e., the dynasty’s stability began to weaken.

Over time, political turmoil ensued among the ruling classes and landlords. Three powerful families of the imperial court eventually controlled the central government. Eunuchs began trading favors with emperors for court positions. Corruption was rampant, and when Emperor Huan died in 168 c.e., a twelve-year-old boy, Lingdi inherited the position. Lingdi proved to be a weak ruler who placed far too much trust in the eunuchs in the palace. Clashes continued to worsen among the ruling classes as eunuchs and bureaucrats vied for control of the government. Economic problems arose. Because of extended military campaigns, taxation increased for the lower classes. In addition, a series of natural disasters—floods, droughts, and famines—affected the agricultural regions, causing unrest among the peasantry. Often the peasantry interpreted such pestilence as a sign that the ruling dynasty had lost its mandate from heaven (divine approval of leadership), a main tenet of the Confucian system. Daoism, a counterpart to Confucianism, had also been gaining momentum during this time period.

Zhang Jue, a Daoist faith healer, became the leader of the Yellow Turbans (Huang-jin) along with his two brothers, Zhang Liang (Chang Liang) and Zhang Bao (Chang Pao). Jue proclaimed that the Great Peace (taiping) would occur, and China would become a utopian society based on universal equality. Using medical charms, chants, and religious rites, his Daoist message gained widespread appeal and spread throughout central China. The color of the headdress, yellow, was the color of the soil that blew into the Yangtze region from deserts to the north and northwest and represented a return to the earth and a symbolic rejection of Confucian notions of hierarchy. Each brother assumed the title of general to signify the relationship between heaven, man, and earth. Jue was the general of heaven; Liang became the general of earth; and Bao was the general of man.

The armed insurrection began in 184 c.e., a jizai year; the rebels believed that a new cycle of renewal began every sixty years and that this year was significant. They seized provincial offices, drove out or killed government officials, and appointed their followers to these positions. However, retribution was swift. Eastern Han armies rallied and suppressed the resistance. Lu Zhi (Lu Chih) attacked Jue at Guangzong; Jue died of natural causes during the siege of the city. His brother, Liang, assumed command but was killed shortly before the fall of Guangzong. The last of the brothers, Bao, was killed by Huangfu Song (Huang-fu Sung) a few months later.


The Yellow Turbans rebellion, although short-lived, had devastating effects on the Eastern Han Dynasty. Followers of the sect continued to be a military threat until 205 c.e. Lingdi died in 189, and because there was no direct heir in line for the throne, the empress dowager chose a successor, but the eunuchs did not support her choice. An army, commanded by General He, the brother of the empress, assembled outside the capital. The general decided to take matters into his own hands and walked into the palace alone to confront the eunuchs. The eunuchs lay in wait for the general and murdered him as he entered the courtyard. The general’s troops, on hearing of his death, stormed the palace and killed every eunuch in the building. This event caused civil war to break out between local landholders and the eunuchs for the next thirty years. The dynasty continued to disintegrate as military generals (condottieri) who once fought against the peasants shifted their allegiances away from the Han.

In 190, Dong Zhuo (Tung Cho) pillaged and destroyed Luoyang by setting fire to the palace, temples, ministries, libraries, and archives. Dong Zhuo also killed reigning emperor Shao and replaced him with a nine-year-old boy named Liu Xie (Xiandi as emperor). Dong Zhou’s puppet regime and ruthless tactics would last only two years; his officers eventually assassinated him.

In the meantime, another brilliant Han general, Cao Cao, unifed the area north of the Yangtze River. After Cao Cao’s death, his son Cao Pei (Ts’ao P’ei) deposed the last Eastern Han emperor, Xiandi (Hsien-ti) and founded the Wei Dynasty, ruling from 220-265. Two other dynasties came to power as well: Shu Han in the west and Wu in the south. This period is referred to by historians as the Three Kingdoms Period (220 to 280 c.e.). Three centuries would pass before a reunification in China occurred under the Sui Dynasty (581-618).

Further Reading

  • Barnhill, David L., and Rogert S. Gottlieb, eds. Deep Ecology and World Religions: New Essays on Sacred Grounds. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. Three essays, “Chinese Religion,” “Daoism,” and “Deep Ecology,” by Barnhill provide a good explanation of Daoism and its tenets. The work examines the relationship between spirituality, ethics, and the natural world.
  • Debaine-Francfort, Corinne. The Search for Ancient China. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999. This work is a general encyclopedia of archaeological discoveries in China. Includes sections on the Han Dynasty and 150 color illustrations.
  • Gernet, Jacques. Ancient China from the Beginnings to the Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. The author provides a general introduction to fifteen hundred years of Chinese civilization, from its beginnings to the establishment of an empire in 221 b.c.e. Includes chronological table and maps.
  • Loewe, Michael. Records of the Han Administration. 2 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1967. Primary source materials for researchers. Volume 1 is directed to students of Chinese history and focuses on the development of written communication and the growth of government institutions. Volume 2 is intended for scholars of the Han period. It includes notes on texts and inscriptions.
  • Murphey, Rhoads. East Asia: A New History. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 2001. This work is a comprehensive history of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Chapter 4 is entitled, “Qin and Han: The Making of an Empire.” Includes color illustrations and an excellent bibliography of sources.
  • Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens, Michele. The Han Dynasty. Translated by Janet Seligman. New York: Rizzoli, 1982. Provides an excellent political, economic, cultural, and military overview of the Han Dynasty period. Includes numerous illustrations and color photographs. The author asserts that the Han period reflected an age of consolidation, change, and experimentation in China.
  • Ssu-ma Ch’ien. Early Years of the Han Dynasty. Vol. 1 in Records of the Grand Historian of China: Translated from the Shih chi of Ssu-ma Ch’ien. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961. Primary source material for researchers. Sima Qian was the court historian of Wudi. The work includes 130 chapters and is divided into the following sections: Basic Annals, Chronological Tables, Treatises, Hereditary Houses, and Biographies.
  • Yü, Ying-Shih. Trade and Expansion in Han China: A Study in the Structure of Sino-Barbarian Economic Relations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. Focuses on the Han Dynasty’s ability to conduct foreign relations in developing and expanding trade networks. Economic and military issues are also addressed in this work.

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