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Rise and Fall of the Eastern Han Dynasty

For five years after Wang Mang's decapitation, anarchy and a civil war raged that killed so many that land became available to anyone who wanted it. And lenders and debt burdens diminished. The leader of the winning side united China again, a unity to last around 150 years, to 184 and the Yellow Turban Rebellion (a period of disintegration that would coincide with Rome's deterioration between emperors Caligula to Commodus).

In China it was Liu Xiu who became the unifying emperor. He had been one of several descendants of the Liu (Han) family claiming the imperial throne, but not the most ambitious. He had been somewhat satisfied with farming – the best sometimes not wanting power the most. But he had become involved and proved brilliant in military strategy, and he was also able in other ways. He surrounded himself with intelligent men. He would be described as having a combination of decisiveness and mercy. His army didn't loot. For what it's worth, Wikipedia writes:

He often sought out peaceful means rather than bellicose means of putting areas under his control. He was, in particular, one of the rare examples of a founding emperor of a dynasty who did not kill, out of jealousy or paranoia, any of the generals or officials who contributed to his victories after his rule was secure.

As with the first Han emperor, Liu Bang, the challenges of a great civil war produced a good man as emperor. The butchers, careless and vainglorious had not done as well as someone whose mind was broadened by considerations commonly referred to as hearts-and-minds.

The new Han emperor, Liu Xoi, reigned for 32 years to be known posthumously as Emperor Guangwu. His second son, Emperor Ming (r. 57-75) followed his values. Emperor Ming is described as a hard-working and able administrator, as a man of integrity who demanded integrity from his officials. During the reigns of the next two emperors, to the year 106, China had rising prosperity and a new high in trade. But their were faults: Not enough grain was being stored for emergencies. And, when it was possible for people under the emperor to choose the heir to the throne, a child was chosen, because a child was more easily dominated. An emperor who grew into adulthood might reject his mother's relatives as advisors and turn instead to the only other males with who he had contact: the court eunuchs. Emperor He (r. 88-106) began his reign at age nine. It is said that it was during his reign that the Han began again to decline.

The emperor from 125 to 144, Emperor Shun, has been described as mild mannered and having integrity but little ability. During his reign and the 150s and 160s corruption among eunuchs and officials continued without abatement. A clash erupted between the eunuchs and the 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. And in the provinces, men commanding troops were growing more independent. 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.

Meanwhile there was a Taoist who called himself the Good Doctor of Great Wisdom moving about the countryside offering magical healing. He transformed Taoism into something political and militant, for benefits that the emperor was not providing. He built a movement that within ten years existed across China, a movement divided into districts headed by a "deputy doctor." The idea was rife, again, that the Han emperors had lost the Mandate of Heaven. the Taoist leader Zhang Jue scheduled a coup against the emperor for the year 184. It was to be known as the Yellow Turbin Rebellion. Zhang Jue called on his followers to burn down official residences and to loot towns. People from various corners of the empire began robbing, killing and heading toward the capital. Believing that the spiritual world was on their side, some of them thought they were invulnerable, and many didn't think they needed weapons – a view not conducive to an efficient military operation.

The eunuchs and Condfucianist bureaucrats in the capital, 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. Town after town fell to the Yellow Turbans, with governors and local magistrates fleeing before them to avoid being sacrificed to the god or gods of the rebels.

With China weakened by chaos, Xiongnu tribesmen 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 the part of Korea ruled by China.

Han palace authorities drafted people into the military, establishing armies at great expense. Han armies were weakened by inefficiency and corruption. For more than a decade the war went on. Eight of China's provinces were devastated. Yellow Turban gangs were cut down one after the other. In the year 205 – 21 years after it had begun – the Yellow Turban Rebellion ended. The Han family was shattered. Fighting at the palace in Louyang left it a burned ruin. More than 2,000 eunuchs and supposed eunuchs were killed by a an army led by a general asserting his power in the capital. The general went off to do battle with rival generals. The child emperor, Xian, and his following, including those who belonged to what had been an ineffective palace militia, burned Luoyang and began a trek westward to Chang'an. They took with them – the story goes – more than a million civilians, most of whom are said to have died of exhaustion and starvation along the way. The emperor lived on, often isolated, and he was finally forced to abdicate by a military general in late 220. He died in 234 in his early fifties.

With generals vying for power, China's Three Kingdoms Period had begun. Governors with armies clung as best they could to the independence they had acquired during the rebellion. Peasant supporters of the Yellow Turbans had returned to the business of economic survival. Having lost hope in their uprising, they put their hope for a coming paradise in the world beyond.

The Taoist founder of the rebellion, Zhang Jue, is reported to have died in 184, the year that the rebellion began. A story has the grandson of the founder of the Taoist communities, "Good Doctor of Great Wisdom" as leader of a surviving Taoist community. This was Zhang Lu. His community had communal "friendship" meals. It had a welfare system and storage for grain and meat. Zhang Lu encouraged equality. His community offered the traveling homeless a place to stay and a meal. It was an alternative to the military rule in China the same way that Christian communities were alternative in the Roman Empire. It is said the Zhang Lu died in 216 or 217, a decade after the Yellow Turban Rebellion ended. It became legend that twenty-six years after his death he was seen by many witnesses ascending to heaven.

CONTINUE READING: During the Jin Dynasty, 265-420

Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.