People tend to think of Daoists as gentle hermits, but millenarian Daoist rebels played a significant role in toppling the Han dynasty. From the Encyclopædia Britannica entry on the Yellow Turbans:
The Yellow Turban Rebellion (184–c. 204 ce), contributed to the fall of the Han dynasty (206 bce–220 ce). Led by Zhang Jue, a Daoist faith healer who had gained numerous adherents during a widespread pestilence, the rebellion was directed against the tyrannical eunuchs who dominated the emperor. The rebels wore yellow headdresses to signify their association with the “earth” element, which they believed would succeed the red “fire” element that represented Han rule. To suppress the uprising, which erupted in eastern and central China, the Han conscripted huge armies at great cost, but their efforts were hampered by inefficiency and corruption in the imperial government. Zhang Jue became ill and died in 184 ce, but the rebellion was a continuing menace to the government for two more decades.
There are seeming discrepancies in this entry, including the oddity that, according the Encyclopædia Britannica‘s entry on Daoism, the slogan of the rebels is to replace the “blue” heaven: “Zhang Jue […] declared that the ‘blue heaven’ was to be replaced by a ‘yellow heaven.'” The University of Cambria’s “Overview of World Religions” page on the Yellow Turbans specifies “green” in one section and “blue” in another. Green and blue, however, are actually both contained within the Chinese word qing (青). The corresponding element to the color qing is usually wood, but it is indeed fire which naturally gives way to earth (whereas wood has the power to destroy earth).
According to a comment on this post (below) by Joost, however, this seeming discrepancy can be explained:
The Han Dynasty ruled through various Powers over time, such as Water (Blue), Earth (Yellow), but ultimately Fire (Red). According to the cycles of the Five Powers, Earth comes after Fire. So when Han would be conquered, it’s conquerer would reign Yellow through the Power of Earth. Also, Zhang Jue claimed to have witnessed omens such as large caterpillars and fissures in the earth. These were signs sent by Heaven that a new ruler was in the making and he would be associated with the Power of Earth.
Zhang Jue talked about a Yellow Heaven and wore yellow cloths. Wei and Wu also conquerers or succeeders of Han, reigned Yellow too. The “blue” in Zhang Jue’s famous quote is a reference to the blue sky, no special meaning behind it.
Joost also says that the Yellow Turban Revolt was not actually directed at the eunuchs, but against the Emperor himself.
The “Overview of World Religions” does not provide a bibliography, but it was edited by University of Cambria lecturer Dr. Elliot Shaw, so it should be mostly accurate, right? The primary contributer to the page on the Yellow Turbans was one Annie McCarron of the University of Wales, Lampeter.
McCarron describes some of the rebels’ spiritual beliefs, and advances the interesting thesis that many of their teachings were actually compatible with official policy, in theory if not in practice:
[Zhang Jue] taught that evil was the cause of sickness and that evil was a deviation from the ‘Way’. Healing was central to the practice of the [Tai Ping Dao] and they built ‘pure chambers’ […] where they carried out healing ceremonies and collective worship. They believed in a close relationship between the health of the individual and the health of society, and sickness was understood in both a moral and physical sense. The principle of suggesting a link between the health of individuals and the health of the larger society was in itself compatible with the tenets of the Han rulers.
Similarly, the organizational structure wasn’t wholly alien to Confucian values:
The sect was organised along semi-military lines with the three [Z]hang brothers assuming the position of generals. [Zhang Jue] was the ‘General of Heaven’. [Zhang Liang] ‘the General of Earth’ and [Zhang Bao] the ‘General of Man’. The tripart[ite] leadership of the movement indicates that in some respects [Zhang Jue] was using established tenets of Confucianism. The three generals that headed the movement mirrored the Confucian triad of relationships between heaven, man and earth. The notion of Great Peace was also the state doctrine, though in a hierarchical form, and Confucianism ultimately rested on a Utopian ideal. There must have been enough outward resemblance to the official doctrine of the state for the leaders to have been able to recruit so many followers in such a short time and to organise them in such a military fashion.
McCarron elaborates further on how the movement spread:
In 175 C.E. [Zhang Jue] sent eight of his followers around the central and eastern provinces to recruit members to the sect. The head of each local community was called its ‘General’ and from the beginning there was an organisation of the members along military lines. Between 175 and 184 C.E. the movement expanded to the extent that by 184 C.E. it had centres in eight provinces.
A number of factors explain the rapid growth and popularity of the movement. This was the first time that the ‘people’ were offered an alternative to the status quo. The [Tai Ping Dao] generals were not hermit recluses living apart from society; they were married men who fulfilled their family and social responsibilities. In this respect they followed the familiar behaviour of the leaders of Han society and did not greatly change the existing social structures. The strong sense of purpose and a firm belief that the Great Peace would be established gave impetus to the struggle with the corrupt rulers.
The Encyclopædia Britannica entry on Daoism introduces the rebels’ primary deity: “Worshipping a ‘Huanglao jun,’ the movement gained a vast number of adherents throughout eastern China.” According to the Encyclopedia Mythica, Huang Lao Jun, the “Yellow Old Master,” is a god who “is said to have appeared, again and again, in the shape of Taoist masters to spread the teachings about the Tao. One of his incarnations was Lao-zi.”
The Encyclopædia Britannica also describes “the the learned tradition of the Huang-Lao masters, devotees of the legendary “Yellow Emperor” (Huangdi) and Laozi,” and their influence upon government:
The information on the life of Laozi transmitted by Sima Qian probably derives directly from their teaching. They venerated Laozi as a sage whose instructions, contained in his cryptic book, describe the perfect art of government. […] the Yellow Emperor is […] an unremitting seeker of knowledge, and the Huang-Lao masters’ ideal of the perfect ruler.
From the court of the King of Qi (in present-day Shandong province) where they were already expounding the Laozi in the 3rd century bce, the teachings of the Huang-Lao masters soon spread throughout learned and official circles in the capital. Many early Han statesmen became their disciples and attempted to practice government by inaction (wuwei); among them were also scholars who cultivated esoteric arts. […] their ensemble of teachings concerning both ideal government and practices for prolonging life […] is perhaps the earliest truly Daoist movement of which there is clear historical evidence.
The Yellow Turban Rebellion had other ideological ancestors as well, including those with millenarian visions…
Among the less welcome visitors at the Han court had been a certain Gan Zhongke. At the end of the 1st century bce, he presented to the emperor a “Classic of the Great Peace” (Taipingjing) that he claimed had been revealed to him by a spirit, who had come to him with the order to renew the Han dynasty. His temerity cost him his life, but the prophetic note of dynastic renewal became stronger during the interregnum of Wang Mang (9–23 ce); and other works—bearing the same title—continued to appear. At this time, promoters of a primitivistic and utopian Taiping (“Great Peace”) ideology continued to support the imperial Liu (Han) family, claiming that they would be restored to power through the aid of the Li clan. A century and a half later, however, as the power of the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 ce) declined, the populace no longer hoped for a renewal of Han rule. (Encyclopædia Britannica, “Daoism”)
Joost points out that “Zhang Jue never made use of the Taiping jing. Instead he used the Taiping qingling shu (“Book of Great Peace, with Green Headings”), a book on which the Taiping jing may have been based.”
The Yellow Turban Rebellion also had many descendents, including those who turned Daoist-led rebellion into something of a tradition:
[T]he tendency toward messianic revolt continued to manifest itself at frequent intervals. A great many charismatic leaders came from the Li family, and certain of them claimed to be the god Laozi returned to earth; a sage of western China, Li Hong, who had actually lived during the 1st century bce, became the favourite recurrent figure of later would-be messiahs. Such revolutionary religious movements, which included Daoist ideological elements, remained a persistent feature of medieval Chinese history. The last recorded Li Hong was executed in 1112. (Encyclopædia Britannica, “Daoism”)
Annie McCarron asserts that Zhang Jue was directly inspired by the Taipingjing. Another interesting piece of information is that she states that authorship of the Taipingjing is “attributed to Yu Chi, a magician and healer who lived in Shan[dong],” which is the same province that the Yellow Turban Rebellion later arose in. Whether Gan Zhongke and Yu Chi are the same person is unclear, though other sources such as Chinese Mythology, A to Z point towards Gan Zhongke being the author (124).
Joost disagrees, writing that “Yu Chi (Yu Ji, or Gan Ji) did not write Taiping jing. He presented the Taiping qingling shu to the throne of Han, but the book was rejected and later fell in Zhang Jue’s hands. Zhang Jue (and his brothers too of course) may have used it as a talisman.”
Regardless of the authorship of Taipingjing/Taiping qingling shu, Shandong is also the province where the Huang Lao tradition originated, where the Boxer Rebellion started, and also where Confucius was born: quite a history! And that’s without even getting into the sacred mountain Tai Shan…
McCarron also states, “The movement has no contemporary adherents.” That may be true, for now, but perhaps the color of the sky is once again changing? What with climate change and all…
Though the Yellow Turban Rebellion was suppressed, and no harmonious Daoist utopia was created, they were certainly correct in prophesying the fall of the Han dynasty. After all, when you live in a dying Empire, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
Image Credits: The first two images come via Gongjin’s Campaign Memorials. The first one is, rather embarrassingly, from a video game called “Romance of Three Kingdoms VI,” but it looks cool, so what the hell?
Unfortunately, I can find no artist to whom to credit the second picture.
The Japanese woodblock prints are from An Illustrated Popular History of the Three Kingdoms by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-92), the last master of the Ukiyo-e style, via Ukiyo-e Prints.