Yellow Turban Religion and Rebellion
at the End of Han
H. S. Levy
Rebellion first arose in the east. The leader of the Yellow Turban Taoists there was Chang Chüeh. Over a ten-year period, he enjoyed a phenomenal success in enlisting the services of an estimated 360,000 followers from eight provinces.1 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 eunuch clique at court,2 but economic factors might also explain why people blocked the roads in their rush to support Chang Chüeh. The floods of 175 were followed by drought in 176, 177, 182 and 183, while epidemics caused further suffering in 173, 179 and 182, the critical years before the Taoist uprising.3 The alternation of flood, famine and epidemic led to a dispossessed peasantry, ready to flock to the standards of anyone who offered to alleviate its misery.4 The Chang brothers, while versed in faith-healing, may also have known of efficacious herbalistic and medical remedies which would either cure or lessen the sufferings of their innumerable patients.
A minister named Yang Tz'u warned the emperor in a memorial that more and more people were giving their allegiance to Chang Chüeh. Because of the mass support which Chang Chüeh enjoyed, Yang Tz'u feared that an outright attack on the eastern Taoists might prove disastrous to the empire. He advised instead that Emperor Ling-ti prevent the incipient rebellion by forcing all vagrants to return to their original homes.5 The vagrancy alluded to by Yang Tz'u may have resulted from the occurrence of the devastating floods and famine. These economic misfortunes created a vast reservoir of displaced persons, from whom Chang Chüeh might amply replenish his ranks.
Another official warned Ling-ti that Chang Chüeh was plotting to usurp the throne, but the emperor remained unconcerned and undertook no overt action.6 Rumors of a coming uprising spread throughout the provinces. The eastern Yellow Turbans agreed to stage a coordinated revolt and to strike both from within and without the imperial palace on the fifth day of the third month (April 4, 184).7 Grand Adept Ma Yüan-i8 was employed by the Yellow Turbans as an espionage agent in the capital of Lo-yang. He compiled confidential reports and entered into secret compliance with eunuch officials.9 However, the court rebels were betrayed in the winter of 184 by a former disciple of Chang Chüeh____________________