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. Money-lenders and debt burdens diminished. The winner 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).
Liu Xiu was China's 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 of men sometimes not wanting power the most. But he had become involved in the civil war and proved brilliant in military strategy, and he was also able in other ways. He surrounded himself with intelligent men as had the first Han emperor, Liu Bang. Liu Xiu would be described as having a combination of decisiveness and mercy. His army didn't loot. 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 Liu Bang, the challenges of a great civil war produced a good emperor. Again 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.
Liu Xiu 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 not enough grain was being stored for emergencies. And, when it was time to choose an 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 began his reign at age nine in the year 88. It is said that it was during his reign that the Han began again to decline.
Emperor He ruled to the year 106. By the 150s and 160s corruption among eunuchs and officials was on-going. A clash erupted between the eunuchs and Confucianist gentry-bureaucrats. The Confucianists had a long-standing dislike for 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. 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, a Taoist who called himself the Good Doctor of Great Wisdom was moving about the countryside offering magical healing. He built a movement that in ten years spread across China, a movement divided into districts each headed by a "deputy doctor." The idea had arrived 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 didn't need weapons — a view not conducive to an efficient military operation.
The eunuchs and Confucianist 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 that 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. And 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 the war had begun) the fight against Yellow Turbans ended. The palace at Luoyang was a burned ruin. An army led by a general asserted his power in the capital, and more than 2,000 eunuchs and supposed eunuchs were killed. 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. Emperor Xian lived on, often isolated. In late 220 he was forced to abdicate by a military general. (He would die 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 Yellow Turban 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. His grandson, Zhang Lu, survived the war and led a community that had "friendship" meals, 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 is said the Zhang Lu died in 216 or 217, a decade or so after the rebellion ended. It became legend that twenty-six years after his death he was seen by many witnesses ascending to heaven.
A surviving Taoist cult remained as a theocratic state along the Yangzi River in China's southwest. It's leader, Zhang Lu, performed miracle healings and preached the message of physical and moral well-being. He stored grain as a defense against food deprivation. He claimed that diseases were punishments for evil deeds but could be cured by ceremonial confessions. Zhang Lu's community had communal meals and encouraged equality. His community offered the traveling homeless a place to stay and a meal. And it offered leniency to criminals.
Another Taoist, Zhang Xiu, set up an independent state nearby. Despite their mutual devotion to Taoism, the communities of Zhang Lu and Zhang Xiu warred against each other, and it appears that Heaven was on Zhang Lu's side. He won.
Soon thereafter, however, Zhang Lu had a more formidable opponent, the warlord Cao Cao, to be a central figure in the new Three Kingdoms Period. With his army, Cao Cao overran Zhang Lu's territory. Zhang Lu surrendered to Cao Cao and was rewarded with a fiefdom. It is said that Zhang Lu died shortly thereafter — in 217 CE. And it came to be legend that twenty-six years after his death he was seen by many witnesses ascending to heaven. The legend held that when his grave was opened, in the year 259, his body was found wholly intact, meaning that he had died only in the sense that he had detached from his corpse and had entered paradise.
CONTINUE READING: The Jin Dynasty escapes across the Yangzi
Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.