Gongjin's Campaign Memorials
Gongjin's Campaign Memorials

The azure sky is dead, and a Yellow Heaven will take its place.
—Zhang Jue

Zhang Jue 張角 (sometimes referred to as Zhang Jiao), was an adept of the popular Way of Huang-Lao cult concerning the Yellow Emperor and Laozi. In the 170’s he acquired wide popularity through his teachings known as the Way of Great Peace (Taiping Dao 太平道). In 184 A.D. he rebelled against the Han. Wearing yellow pieces of cloth, his movement became known as the movement of the Yellow Turbans (Huangjin 黃巾).


Zhang Jue was a man from Julu commandery in Ji province. He was the eldest of three brothers; with his younger brothers being Zhang Bao 張寶 and Zhang Liang 張梁.[1]

Foundation of the Way of Great Peace[]

Main article: Way of Great Peace

At a time of natural distasters and barbarian invasions there was a man named Zhang Jue, who, in his early youth became a follower, and later a master of the Way of Huang-Lao (Huáng-Lǎo Dào 黃老道).[3]

In the 170’s Zhang Jue founded a religious movement and named it the 'Way of Great Peace' (Tàipíng Dào 太平道). He named himself its 'Great Virtuous Teacher' (dà xiánliáng shī 大賢良師).[2] His teachings were based upon faith-healing.[1] Patients were ordered to kowtow before Zhang Jue (or probably Zhang Bao and Zhang Liang too) and reflect on his sins. Zhang Jue would give them enchanted water and if the patient had enough faith in the Dao (the "Way") he would be cured.[4]

Zhang Jue, Zhang Bao and Zhang Liang, and possibly later recruited masters, were equipped with staves with nine knots.[5]

The Book of Great Peace[]

Main article: Book of Great Peace, with Green Headings

It should also be noted that Zhang Jue acquired the Book of Great Peace, with Green Headings (Tàipíng qīnglǐng shū 太平清領書).[6] This book contained information about yin and yang, the Five Powers and calamities with various wizardry and shamanism references.[7] It also contained the Ways of Heaven, Earth and Man.[8] It was once presented to the throne by Gan Ji and Gong Chong, and later Xiang Kai, but was rejected each time. Some time later Zhang Jue somehow had this book. It remains unclear how much use he made of this book, though historian Barbara Hendriscke believes he used it as some sort of talisman and a token of divine authority.[9] Some sources also translate it as "Way of Great Peace [with Green Headings]", the same name as Zhang Jue's movement.[7]

Causes and Reasons to Rebel[]

Before Zhang Jue founded his Way of Great Peace, the people of China experienced economical and political conditions which were said to be unbearable, natural catastrophes, barbarian raids, population growth and a decline of the house of Liu. It is often said, particularly by Koei, that these experiences and Emperor Ling's willing ignorence of them were a direct cause of the rebellion of the Zhang brothers and their Yellow Turbans. This, however, seems improbable, or is at least hard to prove because the Yellow Turbans themselves have left nothing of their story.[10]

If we look more closely at the economical conditions and the catastrophes mentioned we find that all of them have been going on for decades or even centuries and it seems unlikely that these directly caused the Yellow Turbans to rebel. The decline of the house of Liu, barbarian raids, growth of population and the frequent natural catastrophes very likely affected the economy of the empire; however, as mentioned before these factors seem to have been constant and to have created no particularly acute economic problems in the years preceding the rebellion.[11]

On the other hand, it does appear very likely that the rebellion broke out because of unbearable political conditions. Around the year 168 A.D. the eunuchs seized power and it may very well have carried in its wake significant decrease in the loyalty of the people toward the emperor, and a consequent increase in the loyalty of disciples to a leader such as Zhang Jue.[11] On a sidenote about the natural catastrophes; the Chinese believed these were caused due to the misbehaviour of the emperor.[12] Looking at it that way it could have caused a further decrease of faith in the rule of the house of Liu.


There is nothing that indicates that Zhang Jue, Zhang Bao and Zhang Liang had evil ambitions at this time. Some sources suggest that Zhang Jue had everything planned right from the start with the goal of gaining political power for himself or even overthrowing the Han dynasty, but these are only assumptions. It seems more probable to believe that the intentions of the Zhang brothers were purely religious at this moment in time.

After establishing his movement, the teachings of Zhang Jue and his brothers were a success; people who were indeed cured spread the word and this caused a rapid growth in followers. This might have changed the ambitions of Zhang Jue and his brothers. To gain even more followers, Zhang Jue sent disciples to travel to the eight provinces of Qing, Xu, You, Ji, Jing, Yang, Yan and Yu to gather more followers for his doctrines.[13]

We are told that some people sold all their properties and left their homes to follow Zhang Jue. The pilgrims blocked the roads. Tens of thousands of them became ill and died before they even reached Zhang Jue.[13] In total Zhang Jue amassed 360.000 followers.[14] Perhaps even more.[15]

To gain and keep his followers, Zhang Jue introduced a series of omens and presented them as concrete evidence that the rule of Han was fading and Heaven had withdrawn its mandate to rule from Emperor Ling.[16] For example, it was said that hen’s developed male characteristics, which was a symbol to the monarch that Emperor Ling was permitting eunuchs to meddle in state affairs. Other omens were horses giving birth to humans, humans giving birth to freaks and black vapor in the form of magpies obscuring the sun for months.[16] On 1 July 178 a wreath of black vapor in the form of a black dragon entered the imperial audience chamber.[17] Furthermore Zhang Jue claimed that:

The azure sky is dead and a Yellow Heaven will take its place. When the year is jiazi great fortune will come to the world.[13]

It's also likely they spread the rumour that a new disease, perhaps a version of smallpox or measles, began affecting humans.[1]

The Chinese characters for jiazi 甲子 were written on the walls and gates of the capital city Luoyang and of the offices and yamen of the provincial and commandery administrations by followers of Zhang Jue.[2]

Ignorance of the Government[]

Zhang Jue's sect was by no means secret, but while the numbers of his followers kept growing he probably started creating a secret agenda.[18] Around 177 A.D. the Minister over the Masses Yang Ci was one of, if not the first official to express his concern about Zhang Jue’s sect.[19] He called Liu Tao, Senior Clerk under the Minister over the Masses, and told him:

If Zhang Jue is met with an amnesty he will not repent and his movement will keep on gradually increasing and spreading. Now, if the officials of the provinces and commanderies are ordered to have them arrested, I fear that this would cause further stir and quickly bring disaster. I wish to order urgently the Inspectors and heads of the commanderies and kingdoms to classify and divide the wandering people and escort each to his native commandery in order to weaken the party and to isolate it. Afterwards it will be easy to punish the leaders and to establish tranquility.[18]

Liu Tao approved of the plan and Yang Ci sent a memorial to the imperial throne. However, around this time (178 A.D.) Yang Ci was dismissed and the matter was pigeon-holed.[20]

In 183 A.D. Liu Tao sent in another memorial. He repeated Yang Ci's suggestions and further added the following:

Zhang Jue's secret plans become increasingly dangerous. The empire is full of whispers and rumours, and it is claimed that Zhang Jue and his followers have gained entry into the capital and have spies within the court. They twitter like birds, they have the hearts of wild beasts, and they make plots together. The provinces and commanderies have put the whole question under a taboo: they compare notes with one another privately, but they are reluctant to say anything in the open. Your majesty should issue a clear edict, calling for the arrest of Zhang Jue and his supporters, and promising rewards of land from the state for those who capture them. If any should dare to evade your call, they can share the same punishment.[20]

Emperor Ling didn't take the matter seriously.


In preparation for his rising, Zhang Jue divided his 360.000+ followers in 36 Divisions (Fāng, 方). Each of these 36 Divisions had a leader. Some Divisions were small and consisted of 6.000-7.000 men, while others were large and consisted of at least 10.000 men.[13] The leaders of a smaller force were called Division leaders, or Small Division leaders and leaders of a larger force were called Large Division leaders. Furthermore there were also Local Leaders, who acted under the Large and/or Small Division leaders.[18]

The Yellow Turbans were concentrated in three areas. The group led by Zhang Jue, Zhang Bao and Zhang Liang gained their support from the region just north of the Yellow River, near their home territory of Julu commandery and their base in Wei commandery. A second major rising took place in You province; the Guangyang and Zhuo commanderies. The third centre of rebellion was in the three commanderies of Yingchuan, Runan and Nanyang. This third force was planned to co-operate with Yellow Turban sympathizers in Luoyang, who were persuaded by Large Division Leader Ma Yuanyi.[21]

Betrayal; The Rebellion Begins[]

Main article: Yellow Turban Rebellion

Zhang Jue planned that his followers should rise together throughout the empire, but in the spring of 184 A.D., one of his disciples, Tang Zhou, betrayed him by sending a message to court informing them about his master’s plot to overthrow the Han.[13] Ma Yuanyi and the rebel sympathizers in Luoyang were arrested or executed and orders were sent to Ji province that Zhang Jue and all his followers should be arrested.[22] However, Zhang Jue and his men had already found out that their plans had been discovered and a messenger was sent, riding all day and night, to all 36 Divisions and tell all Yellow Turban Leaders to rise together.[13]

All followers wore a piece of yellow cloth as a badge, usually in the form of a turban, scarf or kerchief as means of identification[23] and as a sign of the yellow heaven to come.[1]

During the second month, the Zhang brothers gave themselves titles. Zhang Jue named himself Lord of Heaven General (tiāngōng jiāngjūn 天公將軍). His younger brother Zhang Bao named himself Lord of Earth General (dígōng jiāngjūn 地公將軍) and their youngest brother Zhang Liang named himself Lord of Man General (réngōng jiāngjūn 人公將軍).[13][24] Some sources give slightly different translations for these titles. Howard Levy translates them into separate titles, example: "Lord of Heaven" and "General".[4] Zhang Liang’s title has also been called "Lord of Humanity General" by Paul Michaud.[25]

It is also said they held human sacrifice to bless their cause.[1] It should be noted that historical texts at that time didn’t necessarily had to be 100% factual and this may very well be not factual, but was simply added to give the Zhang brothers a more evil and barbarian character.


Around 22 March the Yellow Turbans launched their attack.[26] Initially the Han was taken by surprise and the Yellow Turbans gained various successes. Towns and villages were looted, government offices were destroyed and officials driven from their posts.

Despite initial confusion and disruption, the response of Han was remarkably prompt and energetic. As eight passes guarding Luoyang were fortified and garrisoned, Lu Zhi, the General of the Gentlemen of the Household of the North, was sent directly against Zhang Jue.[1] Two further armies, under Huangfu Song and Zhu Jun were sent to attack the rebels in Yingchuan commandery.

When Lu Zhi met Zhang Jue in the 6th lunar month,[27] Zhang Jue appeared to be no match for Lu Zhi, who beat him in one battle after the other and forced him back to refuge in Guangzong city in Julu commandery. In the process, over 10.000 of Zhang Jue’s men were killed.

During the siege, a eunuch named Zuo Feng was sent to inspect Lu Zhi’s progress. Lu Zhi was told to have gifts ready for Zuo Feng, but he didn’t listen and when Zuo Feng returned to the capital he said:

It would be easy to destroy the rebels in Guangzong, but General Lu allows his army to rest behind strong defences. He does no more than hope that some punishment from Heaven will befall the rebels.

The Emperor became very angry and had Lu Zhi recalled and sentenced to death commuted by one degree. He was replaced by Dong Zhuo.


Around this time it appears Zhang Jue was taken ill. We do not know exactly when and can’t say if he fought Dong Zhuo or had already fallen ill before that. We do know that it was Zhang Liang who managed to hold out against Dong Zhuo and have him ordered back for failing to gain success against an almost beaten enemy.

In the tenth month Zhang Liang was defeated and beheaded by Huangfu Song. Sometime before this, Zhang Jue had passed away, he had ironically died of an illness. His coffin was broken open, his corpse defiled and his head cut off and sent to the capital. In the eleventh month Huangfu Song attacked and killed the last remaining Zhang brother; Zhang Bao.[28]


Some of Zhang Jue's methods, rituals and characteristics survived after his death and influenced Daoism, such as the 36 Divisions, the staves with nine knots (jiǔjiézhàng 九節杖), and the use of incantations to get cure the diseased. During the Tang 唐 (618-907) and the Song 宋 (960-1279) Dynasties some "enlightened" Daoist schools (míngjiào 明教) revered Zhang Jue as an ancient teacher.

During the White Lotus Rebellion (Báilián jiào qǐyì 白莲教起义) in 1794–1804 (Qing dynasty 清) the rebel leaders proclaimed the end of Yellow Epoch and the rise of the Blue Epoch, the exact opposite of Zhang Jue's proclamation.


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  • '角' can be translated as both 'Jue' and 'Jiao'. Historians seem to use 'Jue', whereas Tecmo-Koei prefers 'Jiao'.
  • Zhang Jue's title 'Great Virtuous Teacher' has also been translated as 'Greatly Virtuous and Excellent Master' by some historians.
  • In Sanguo zhi pinghua, the predecessor to Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Zhang Jue is written as 張斍, instead of 張角. This is an error.
  • Perhaps interesting to note is that the character 斍 can only be pronounced as 'Jue', unlike 角, which can be pronounced as both 'Jue' and 'Jiao'. The fact that his name was written like that at that time may indicate that his name was indeed pronounced as 'Jue' at that time.
  • Zhang Jue was not a relative of Zhang (Dao)Ling and was not associated with the Five Pecks of Rice Rebels.
  • Huangjin 黃巾 is commonly rendered as Yellow Turban, but Zhang Jue's follower headgear was much more often than not something else than a turban, probably a band of coloured cloth worn as a bandana.
  • Though Zhang Jue and his brothers are often called Daoists, they were never accepted as Daoists by the Daoists themselves. They did make use of Daoist techniques though, as well as Buddhism.

Fact vs. Fiction[]


  • ...Zhang Jue died in 184 A.D. and not in 188 A.D. as some fictitious sources suggest.
  • ...Zhang Jue was not a former Han official and didn't flee into the mountains to study herbs.
  • ...Zhang Jue obviously was no sorcerer and could not control lightning.
  • ...Zhang Jue did not rebel because of harsh tax increases and natural disasters.
  • ...Zhang Jue did not receive a Book of Heaven from a Saint Hermit or schoolteacher Sun.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 de Crespigny, Rafe. "Biography of Zhang Jue" in A Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "dC300" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "dC300" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "dC300" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "dC300" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "dC300" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "dC300" defined multiple times with different content
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Michaud, The Yellow Turbans, page 76
  3. Michaud, The Yellow Turbans, pages 81-2
  4. 4.0 4.1 Levy, Yellow Turban Religion and Rebellion, page 217
  5. Michaud, The Yellow Turbans, page 78
  6. Michaud, The Yellow Turbans, pages 82-3
  7. 7.0 7.1 Beck, Date of the Taiping Jing, pages 158-9
  8. Beck, Date of the Taiping Jing, pages 160
  9. Kandel, Taiping Jing, page 52
  10. Michaud, The Yellow Turbans, pages 52-3
  11. 11.0 11.1 Michaud, The Yellow Turbans, pages 74-5
  12. Michaud, The Yellow Turbans, pages 64
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 de Crespigny, Rafe. "Zhongping 1" in Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling.
  14. Michaud, The Yellow Turbans, pages 100-104
  15. Michaud, The Yellow Turbans, pages 102
  16. 16.0 16.1 Levy, Yellow Turban Religion and Rebellion, page 214
  17. Levy, Bifurcation of the Yellow Turbans, page 251
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Michaud, The Yellow Turbans, page 96
  19. de Crespigny, Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling, Zhongping 1 (footnotes)
  20. 20.0 20.1 de Crespigny, Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling, Guanghe 6
  21. de Crespigny, Generals of the South, page 88
  22. de Crespigny, Generals of the South, page 87
  23. Levy, Yellow Turban Religion and Rebellion, page 215
  24. Michaud, The Yellow Turbans, page 77
  25. Michaud, The Yellow Turbans, page 111
  26. Leban, Ts'ao Ts'ao and the Rise of Wei, page 83
  27. Michaud, The Yellow Turbans, page 51
  28. The date of this battle is given by the annals in HHS 8, 350. Xiaquyang appears to have been the headquarters of the Zhang brothers.
    de Crespigny, Rafe. "Zhongping 1" in Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling.