When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History's Greatest Peasant Revolts

Yellow Turban Rebellion. YouTube

Yellow Turban Rebellion

In 161 AD, China was ravage by a plague that killed about a third of the population and severely sapped the Han Dynasty government’s ability to cope with mounting troubles. The central government was further weakened by the rise of powerful palace eunuchs, who gained considerable influence over the emperor and abused their proximity to the fount of power to enrich themselves, eroding imperial prestige in the process.

Beyond the palace, northern China endured a famine in the plague’s aftermath, which forced many peasants to migrate to the south, creating a labor surplus there that was ruthlessly exploited by large landowners. That led to an agrarian crisis, and the peasants’ plight was further worsened by crushing taxes imposed to pay for border garrisons, as well as fortifications along the Silk Road.

In response, a secret peasant society named the Yellow Turbans, after the color of the scarves its adherents wrapped around their heads, was formed. It was led by a  healer practicing medicine and magic named Chang Chio, who espoused a mystic philosophy encapsulated in a book titled The Way of Peace. Chio amassed a large following, and organized his adherents under 36 disciples, who preached the overthrow of the Han Dynasty in veiled language.

They girded for war, organized the peasants into military units, and in 184, the Yellow Turban Rebellion began. The armed peasants were so numerous that at their mere sight, the imperial armies broke and fled without a fight. In response, the imperial government issued a call to arms, and across China, freelance regional warlords raised private armies.

It took two decades, but the warlords’ private armies eventually suppressed the peasant revolt, defeating the Yellow Turbans in a series of battles, and killing their leader, Chang Chio, whose corpse was beheaded. Saved from the peasant revolt, the now severely weakened imperial government had to contend to with the warlords and their private armies.

Warlordism led to a breakdown of central government, and proved just as dangerous to the Han Dynasty as had the Yellow Turbans. Within a few years of the peasant revolt’s suppression, the Han Dynasty came to an end after over four centuries of near-continuous rule, and China was broken into smaller kingdoms ruled by competing dynasties.