Three Kingdoms History: Yellow Scarves

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Collapse of the Han Dynasty and the Yellow Scarves

Authored by Sean Williams

The rulers of states have a responsibility that few typical citizens can comprehend. One of those responsibilities is to ensure that power rests in the hands of the proper officials. When he or she fails in that responsibility, the state suffers, and inevitably, so does the head of that state. A prime example of this occurs in the first chapter of the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. The first chapter outlines the closing stages of the Han Dynasty in China, and how power had fallen into the hands of the corrupt and undeserving.

The Han Dynasty, which began in 206 B.C., was an age of wealth and advancement for Chinese society (Lee). However, after four hundred years of rule the Han had began to slip into decadence. Among other things, the third-to-last Han emperor, Emperor Huan, “paid no heed to the good people of his court, but gave his confidence to the Palace [sic] eunuchs” (Guanzhong, ch. 1). In an official aspect, eunuchs were chamberlains for the emperor or guards over women’s quarters, but in many cases, their position in such a close position to the imperial throne allowed them to gain influence that even those with appointed offices had difficulty earning (Theobald). After Huan’s death, his successor Emperor Ling allowed the eunuchs to exploit their power even further, according to Guanzhong.

Dou Wu and Chen Fan [two high-ranking officials in the imperial court], disgusted with the abuses of the eunuchs in the affairs of the state, plotted the destruction for the power-abusing eunuchs. However, Chief Eunuch Cao Jie was not to be disposed of easily. The plot leaked out, and the honest Dou Wu and Chen Fan were put to death, leaving the eunuchs stronger than before (ch 1).

These events occurred in A.D. 168, and for the next ten years, disasters began to occur across the countryside as a result of heavenly disapproval of the eunuchs’ imperial corruption. At a meeting of important officials in A.D. 178, the court counselor told the Emperor that the disasters were “brought about by the interference of […] eunuchs in state affairs” (Guanzhong, ch 1). However, the eunuchs created false charges against the counselor, and he retired to his home. Ten of the most powerful eunuchs of the court banded together and formed a faction known as the Ten Regular Attendants. One of the Attendants, Zhang Rang, gained so much trust from the Emperor that he even referred to Zhang as his “Foster Father” (Guanzhong, ch 1). Guanzhong says that, at this time, “[T]he corrupt state administration went quickly from bad to worse, till the country was ripe for rebellion and buzzed with brigandage” (ch 1).

The people began to rise up against the dishonest Han government. Zhang Jue, a self-styled magician and former imperial official, and his two brothers began a rebellion. He assumed the title of “Lord of Heaven” and created yellow banners and flags. “On every side people bound their heads with yellow scarves and joined the army of the rebel Zhang Jue, so that soon his strength was […] a half a million strong” (Guanzhong, ch 1). Zhang’s group of rebels became known as the Yellow Scarves, and although the government put down the rebellion, the first thing that the Han government did was execute approximately 500,000 of the former rebels (O’Brien, 49). Warlords that were responsible for the defeat of the Scarves gained popular support as saviors and, in fact, proved to be stronger than the imperial government itself. These same warlords and their descendants would fight over China for the next 96 years (Guanzhong).

The actions of Han Emperors Huan and Ling caused the greatest Chinese dynasty to collapse. They ignored the advice of their officials in favor of that of the eunuchs and, as a result, the Yellow Scarves Rebellion occurred. However, the weakness of the imperial government caused warlords who had crushed the rebellion to destroy the government as well. Because of his corruption, the Han Dynasty collapsed, and China would be immersed into a status of constant warfare for almost a century.

Copyright © 2002 - 2003 Sean Williams