Gongjin's Campaign Memorials
Gongjin's Campaign Memorials

The Yellow Turbans (huángjīn 黃巾) were initially followers of a religious movement called the Way of Great Peace (Tàipíng Dào 太平道), once founded by the brothers Zhang Jue 張角, Zhang Bao 張寶 and Zhang Liang 張梁. In 184 they rebelled against the Han dynasty and to distinguish themselves they were a piece of yellow cloth. From that moment on, people started to call them 'Yellow Turban rebels'.

Brief history[]

The start of the history of the Yellow Turbans lies with three brothers from Julu commandery in Ji province. Their surname was 'Zhang' and their given names were Jue, Bao and Liang, with Jue being the eldest of the three.

Zhang Jue was a follower of the way of Huang-Lao (Huáng-Lǎo Dào 黃老道), a popular cult concerning the Yellow Emperor and the sage Laozi 老子.[3][4]

Later, during the early 170’s, Zhang Jue founded his own religious movement together with his two brothers and named it the Way of Great Peace.[5] By means of incantations, charmed water and confessions of sins patients were treated. When patients got better they started to believe that the Zhang brothers possessed some divine powers. They spread the word and the Way of Great Peace grew in popularity.

It is also possible that the frequency of epidemics in the 170’s[6] was an encouragement to teachings such as those of Zhang Jue, Zhang Bao and Zhang Liang and their disciples and assisted to their growth. It also appears likely that a new and thus virulent disease began affecting humans.[7] Whatever the case, among many others it was the Zhang brothers’ teachings that rose in popularity the most.

Zhang Jue then sent disciples to travel and convert the people of the eight provinces of Qing, Xu, You, Ji, Jing, Yang, Yan and Yu and he introduced a host of omens and presented them as concrete evidence that Heaven had withdrawn its mandate to rule from Emperor Ling.[8] Before 184 A.D. the Zhang brothers had a total of 360.000 followers.[9] Because they were so numerous people called them "Ant Rebels" (yǐzéi 蟻賊).[10]

Zhang Jue spread his followers over 36 Divisions (fang 方) and a Division Leader was appointed to each of them. As the Zhang brothers were preparing a millennial rebellion (the year 184 A.D., “jiazi” was the first year of a new cycle) one of their followers, a man named Tang Zhou 唐周 betrayed their plans to the Han in the spring of 184 A.D.[11] In Luoyang a thousand people, who were supposedly Yellow Turban sympathizers or followers, were executed and orders were sent to Ji province to arrest Zhang Jue and his followers. Zhang Jue, though, had already found out that his plans had been discovered. He sent messengers riding day and night to all Divisions and order them to rise together.

Zhang Jue, Zhang Bao, Zhang Liang and all their followers wore a piece of cloth in the colour yellow. This was done as means of identification, as a sign of the Yellow Heaven to come.[10][7] Because of this, the Zhang brothers and their followers became known as the Yellow Turbans.

See also[]


  • The Chinese character 巾 in 黃巾 acutally means 'cloth', not 'turban'.
  • The Yellow Turbans are also called Yellow Turban Bandits (huángjīn zéi 黃巾戝), Ant Rebels (yǐfǎn 蟻反),[12] Moth Bandits (ézéi 蛾賊)[13] and Yellow Scarves.

Fact vs. Fiction[]

  • The Yellow Turbans were quelled in the eleventh month of the year jiazi (which is about February 185). They did not re-arise in 188.
  • The Yellow Turbans were inspired by Daoïsm and Buddhism, but they did not claim to have elemental powers.


  1. de Crespigny. Notes to Zhongping 1 in Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling.
  2. Michaud. "The Yellow Turbans" in Monumenta Serica XVII, page 50.
  3. Michaud, The Yellow Turbans, pages 81-2
  4. de Crespigny, Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling, footnotes to Guanghe 6
  5. Chen Qiyun, "Confucian, Legalist, and Taoist thought in Later Han", in Cambridge History of China, vol.1
  6. de Crespigny, Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling, footnotes to Guanghe 5
  7. 7.0 7.1 de Crespigny, A Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms, biography of Zhang Jue, pages 1058-9 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "dC300" defined multiple times with different content
  8. Levy, Yellow Turban Religion and Rebellion, page 214
  9. Michaud, The Yellow Turbans, pages 100-4
  10. 10.0 10.1 Levy, Bifurcation of the Yellow Turbans, page 252
  11. de Crespigny, Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling, Zhongping 1
  12. Michaud, The Yellow Turbans, page 77
  13. Lagerwey, Early Chinese Religion, page 1065