Yellow Turban Rebellion

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The Yellow Turban Rebellion was an attempt to overthrow the Han Dynasty. Although the rebellion failed, it weakened the dynasty by giving a large amount of power to the regional lords.



The rebellion was started by Zhang Jiao, a member of a Turkic tribe (probably Xiongnu) who gathered support among the peasants and non-Chinese in Chang'an and the surrounding area. By 180, he had gathered almost 200,000 followers, known as the Yellow Turbans (sometimes Yellow Scarves) for the headgear they wore.

At the time, the Imperial court was dealing with internal problems. As a result, they were unable to make any serious efforts to stop the rebel faction. In 181, Minister of Order Yu Fei hired a group of mercenaries to kill Zhang Jiao and break up the Yellow Turbans. Zhang Jiao learned of the attack in advance and fled north. In spring of the following year, the Yellow Turbans attacked several cities in Northern China.

In 182, most of the Han soldiers were in the South-West, dealing with unrest among the Nanman tribes. As a result, newly crowned Emperor Xian was forced to reach out to the local lords to organize an anti-rebel force. The court also formed volunteer peasant militias to defend cities near the Yellow Turban controlled areas.


The rebellion was short-lived, lasting only a few months. While Zhang Jiao had a very large force, most of his followers were not trained in combat. Zhang Jiao's body was found by Yuan Shao's soldiers in the summer, dead from uncertain causes. Afterwards, the remaining Yellow Turbans split up into smaller groups which continued to cause unrest in the north until 187, when the last rebel leader, Zhang Sui, was captured.

Several lords rose to great power after the rebellion. Dong Zhuo, who was charged with protecting Chang'an, briefly seized power after he abducted the emperor. Yuan Shao and Cao Cao gained positions in the court, which began a years-long power struggle between the two that lasted until Yuan Shao's defeat at Guandu.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

The Yellow Turban Rebellion appears in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, however the cause is greatly changed. In the novel, Zhang Jiao was the leader of a Daoist healing cult along with his brothers. After gaining wide support among the peasants, he moved to overthrow the emperor and establish a communal Daoist empire. Zhang Jiao is depicted as a sorcerer who conjures illusions and changes the weather. Liu Bei finds the source of the magic and dispels it, allowing the Allied forces to attack Zhang Jiao directly.