(DYNASTIC RULE and the CHINESE – continued)

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DYNASTIC RULE and the CHINESE (9 of 13)

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The Yellow Turban Rebellion

In the year 125, Emperor Shun succeeded his father, Emperor An. There was expectation that Shun-di would govern better than his father, but Shun-di turned out to be just as incompetent as his father. Corruption continued without abatement among eunuchs and officials, and word was spreading among China's peasants that Han emperors had again lost the Mandate of Heaven.

Shun-di died in 144, followed by Emperor Huan, age fourteen, 146, and political decline continued. In 159 the dowager empress died, and eunuchs around the emperor sensed opportunity and moved to eliminate rival influence by arranging the extermination of members of the empress' clan. Emperor Huan became dependent on the eunuchs. He delegated powers to them, and the eunuchs filled government positions with their kinsmen, receiving payoffs in gold.

Emperor Huan died in 168, and the next day his young wife, now the empress dowager, agreed to the selection of a twelve-year-old from out of town as Emperor Huan's successor. The boy was a great-great-grandchild of Emperor Zhang, and he became Emperor Ling. During his reign, centralized governance continued to deteriorate.

A clash erupted between the eunuchs and Confucianist gentry-bureaucrats. The Confucianists had a long-standing dislike of the eunuchs, seeing them as lacking in education and as interfering with good government. War erupted between the eunuchs and the Confucianists over the influence of a Taoist magician. The magician prophesied that a general clemency was forthcoming, and he had his son murder someone to demonstrate his confidence in the prophecy. The magician's son was a henchman of the eunuchs, and the eunuchs stayed the magician's execution. The governor of the province executed the son anyway. The eunuchs accused the governor of violating an imperial decree and of conspiring with students and scholars to form an illegal alliance against the government. The eunuchs obtained a decree from Emperor Ling ordering arrests of the students who had been demonstrating and who had been attempting to deliver petitions to the emperor. And soon, many students died in prison.

In the provinces, men commanding troops were growing more independent. And local magistrates and governors were losing their authority to local men of wealth who often had influence through bribery with eunuchs at the emperor's court.

Adding to the political chaos was a movement led by a Taoist named Zhang Jue, who called himself "The Good Doctor of Great Wisdom." He had been moving about in the countryside offering magical healing, treating ailments with water and words. He called his method of healing the "Way of the Highest Peace." The good doctor spoke of Han rulers as having lost the Mandate of Heaven, and he proclaimed their imminent fall. Within ten years, his movement had grown to hundreds of thousands and had divided into districts, each led by a "deputy doctor." Zhang Jue's power and his view of the Han rule as weak and Han emperors as having lost the mandate of heaven inspired him to overthrow the Han dynasty.

The year of decision for Zhang Jue was 184. The fifth day of the third moon was fixed as the time for a general uprising in Luoyang and surrounding regions. But word of the plan was heard at the imperial court, and the authorities picked up local leaders of the revolt and executed them. Zhang Jue changed his plans and called for an immediate uprising, calling on his followers to burn down official residences and to loot towns. This was to be known as the Yellow Turban Rebellion, named after the headdresses of Zhang Jue's movement (yellow signifying their association with the element earth as opposed to the element of fire, which they associated with Han rule). The Yellow Turban Rebellion spread, and people from all corners of the empire began robbing, killing and heading toward the capital.

The eunuchs and intellectual bureaucrats in Luoyang forgot their differences in their mutual fear and opposition to the Yellow Turbans. Government forces erected fortifications around Luoyang, and the government authorized governors to organize their own armies to combat the rebels. Wealthy landowners also organized armies to defend themselves. But town after town fell to the Yellow Turbans, with governors and local magistrates fleeing before them to avoid being sacrificed to the god of the rebels.

With China weakened by chaos, the Xiongnu began making raids against the Chinese again. And in Korea, tribal warriors on horseback from the hills pushed against the Chinese there. The government in Luoyang sent no help, and the Koreans overran that portion of Korea ruled by Chinese.

In attempting to defend themselves, Han palace authorities drafted people into the military, establishing armies at great expense. The Han armies were weakened by inefficiency and corruption, but the Yellow Turbans were disorganized and ineffective. They had been led to believe that their gods had elected them as a force for good and were, therefore, invulnerable. They matched their lack of weapons with their belief that they didn't need weapons – a view not conducive to an efficient military operation.

For more than a decade war against the Yellow Turbans continued. Eight of China's provinces were devastated. Yellow Turban gangs were cut down one after the other. By the year 205 (21 years after it had begun) the Yellow Turban Rebellion was over, and rule by the Han family was shattered and at its end.

Peasant supporters of the Yellow Turbans had been returning to the business of surviving through work. Having lost hope in their uprising, they put their hope for a coming paradise in the world beyond.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.