Esoteric Daoism and the Rise of the Three Kingdoms in China

Featured image by will zhang from Pixabay

First, a disclaimer, this is an armchair history piece. I’m going to cite Wikipedia a lot. What I’m citing agrees with what I previously learned in college and the multiple sources I’ve read about the subject if that’s any consolation.

The collapse of the Eastern Han into the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history wasn’t as much an “if” as much as a “when”. The period started between roughly 220–280 CE, though it hit the point of no return around 184 CE. The Han had already fallen into decline, all it needed was the wrong shake at the right time to fall entirely. Natural disaster and social problems had weakened the empire substantially. People were scared and people were desperate, and the scientific consensus of the time was that disaster correlated with the emperor losing the Mandate of Heaven.

Zhang Jue (张角) started the events which snowballed into that fatal shock to the dynasty and created the opportunity for other actors to come into play through his Way of the Taiping (太平道) Daoist movement turning into the Yellow Turban Rebellion. Zhang Jue had claimed he had received a divine book from a lake and could cure the sick. He grew in influence and power to the point of starting the Way of the Taiping or the Way of the Great Peace. This was an esoteric Daoist organization which eventually became a militia and catalyzed a rebellion which brought the whole thing down.

Zhang Jue and the Way of the Great Peace

Unknown author / Public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Zhang Jue started as a faith healer who would try to cure the sick by dissolving magic Fu sigils (符箓) into water which would be consumed by the sick. All of this was combined with a metaphysical philosophy that sickness was the manifestation of sin. His medicine could only do so much, and he had to rely on the person showing great faith to repent their sins and heal. This gave him a way to take a gamble on a healing and have a way out if things didn’t work out if we look at it from the most cynical viewpoint.

But, what did Zhang Jue actually believe? Did he have faith in his teachings or was it just a way to power? I would argue it would be either a mixture of the two or an actual belief in the system gone crazy. Snake oil salesmen typically knew they were selling snake oil, at one point though, this sort of sorcery was basically science. Daoism had played a roll in an earlier rebellion, but also played a part in Cao Cao’s campaign. Esoteric Daoism was a science as far as the people of the time would be concerned. The question then is did he believe in his divine providence or was he exploiting his beliefs for power?

Either way, his efforts resulted in him gathering followers. As his followers piled up, he started to get ambitious to change the world. He gave himself the title of General of Heaven (天公将军), and his brothers joined in as well with Zhang Liang (张梁) as the General of the People (人公将军) and Zhang Bao (张宝) as General of Earth (地公将军) and they began to plan for a rebellion. They ran on a campaign of stopping corruption, reduce taxes, and due to the belief that the emperor had failed from the natural disasters plaguing the land. All it would take is an overthrow of the government due to the perceived loss of the Mandate of Heaven. This was the Way of the Great Peace in a nutshell.

The Way of the Taiping and the Mandate of Heaven

Image by naturepost from Pixabay

The Mandate of Heaven (天命) is the underpinning which kept the imperial monarchy running smoothly. Things went well when the emperor was acting in conjunction with the unwritten divine mandate. Because of the emperor’s good job, the country continued to enjoy peace and safety. Once the emperor failed though, the natural disasters and bad luck kicked in.

Previous historical usurpers tended to rely on a loss of the Mandate of Heaven to justify their rise. A loss of the Mandate of Heaven also provided the right to usurp the throne. History books from the period of the new ruler were used to solidify this belief.

Each emperor usurped the previous due to a loss of divine accordance, otherwise, the rebellion would never succeed. This kept the divinity of the emperor’s rule intact while providing an explanation of the rise of a new ruling dynasty. History tended to be rewritten afterwards to highlight the failings of the end of a dynasty, while exaggerating the successes of the start. It all boils down to: “They did great, but lost their way, and that’s why we slaughtered the imperial family and took over to restore order to act in accordance with the Mandate of Heaven.”

The emperor wasn’t just the head of the empire and a monarch, he was the divine incarnation of the gods to rule over the “civilized” peoples in the world by the point of the Han. This philosophy led to poor management of the empire and infighting. For instance, the Xiongnu (匈奴) were pushed out of the empire, but they had acted as a buffer between the Han dynasty and the steppe peoples. They also may have come back as a little known group known as “The Huns” (but the evidence is a bit shaky).

These sorts of missteps caused the instability by increasing taxes (to fund the wars) and decreasing stability (invading tribes, rebellions, etc.). People were fed up, and the famines in the north combined with corruption in the south with landowners and overtaxation led to a volatile situation. Zhang Jue had started planning to rebel and had pushed multiple sects out in the 36 directions. He had planted a militia, and the Han caught on.

The Yellow Turban Rebellion

The Han dynasty was weakened from internal strife in the imperial palace. The Ten Attendants (composed of 12 eunuchs) had effectively taken over the government. This instability was sparked by the death of Emperor He (汉和帝) in 104 CE which led to a series of basically child emperors which were taken advantage of due to a series of heirship issues. The court became a game of alliances and shadowy plots between different members of the imperial family and the court eunuchs.

The infighting had blinded the court to the outside world to some degree. Zhang Jue had begun prepping for a revolution and got caught with it already mostly in place, which turned into the Yellow Turban Rebellion. All of the sudden, most of the empire ended up being in some way affected by the Yellow Turbans. Make no mistake, both parties were taken by surprise, but the Han felt it the most up front.

The Han court had been wrapped up in their infighting and though they caught the rebellion, it wasn’t early on. They up to around 360,000 in their ranks versus about 40,000 from the three generals pressed into service by Emperor Ling. The imperial forces ended the rebellion in 185, but the damage was done. Zhangjue died from sickness which depleted morale, and his brothers were felled in battle. Remaining forces which weren’t caught turned into bandits or forged alliances which created chaos all over the place.

The bandits drifted throughout the countryside, with some eventually joining Cao Cao (曹操). It took decades to put out the bandits with them playing roles in different fields. The whole affair had also destroyed the country, leaving a ruin of wake behind any battle. People were homeless, government infrastructure was destroyed, and the fabric of society was ripped. There had been a heavy cost for this victory.

The Collapse of the Han

Image by Marei Sellin from Pixabay

Liu Yan (刘焉) pushed for the government to grant various powers to the provinces in 188 to deal with the rebellions. As soon as these powers were granted, he cut off contact from the Han government, as did several others, resulting in a reign of warlords in many areas of the country. Emperor Ling died in 189 which (after the previous complications of the Ten Attendants and some fall out with the eunuchs) led to enough instability for Dong Zhuo (董卓) to act. He seized the capital and was able to take control (for a time).

There had been a plot to overthrow the eunuchs which led to the death of the emperor and a massacre or eunuchs in the court. Dong Zhuo was able to seize on this opportunity in order to occupy the government in Luoyang and take over the throne by instilling a puppet emperor. Emperor Ling had sown the seeds of destruction with the sales of official seats in the government and the rampant corruption at all levels which was being enabled by the capital. Each of these events just added some gasoline on top of the open flame.

The loss of heirship contributed to events which were viewed as a loss of the Mandate of Heaven which meant that there would need to be a new government. People had lost faith in the current regime and its own instability sealed its fate. Once the central government collapsed, everything collapsed into the war which turned into the period of the Three Kingdoms. The esoteric Daoist organization founded by Zhang Jue ended up pushing down the dominoes which knocked down the entirety of the late Han empire.

Chaos as Catalyst

Zhang Jue didn’t end the Han Dynasty directly, he just pushed the agenda forward. He brought the answer to the peoples’ perceived loss of the Mandate of Heaven with his esoteric Daoism school the Way of the Great Peace. His death caused a collapse of the movement which caused everything to blow up for better and for worse.

Had Zhang Jue not died, could the movement have sustained itself and gone on to win? Morale died when Zhang Jue did, so how much did that swing the balance? We may never know, but we can at least assume that things would have been different had he not died. How different is another question altogether though, and one which history can’t answer, or not directly at least.

All the chaos from the Yellow Turban Rebellion was exacerbated by official corruption at every level of the empire, and the long downfall of the Han into almost rival clans caused the perfect storm. Bad decisions to push tribal groups and alliances out of their territories to preach Han supremacy led to a weakening of security for the empire which was further compounded by the politics of taxation in the empire and natural disasters. People were at a low and the Yellow Turbans gave them hope and faith.

The perfect combination of folk religion and politics led to the rise and fall of a rebellion which closed the book for ancient imperial China leading to a new era in Chinese history. Daoism was young at the time, and esoteric Daoism (proper) was even younger. The later schools and divisions had not appeared yet, and Zhang Jue offered the perfect cure for the pains of the present. This was never a question of “if”, but “when”, but the Way of the Great Peace pushed the fall of the Han into overdrive and brought on the Three Kingdom period.

Originally published at on August 3, 2020.

I write about technology, linguistics (mainly Chinese), and anything else that interests me. Check out for more from me!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store