The Chinese religious and revolutionary leader Chang Chüeh (died 184) founded a Taoist religious movement which, as a political force known as the Yellow Turbans, shook the Later Han dynasty, 25-220, to its foundations and contributed to its final collapse.
The conditions of the time facilitated the rise of the religious rebel movements of Chang Chüeh and others. A large number of eunuchs at the court controlled the Emperor and many of the local officials. More and more officials held office not through merit but because they had bribed the powerful eunuchs. Government taxes were increasing at the same time that local officials were levying exorbitant exactions. Northeastern China, where Chang developed his following, suffered from other problems as well. During the 170s and early 180s the area was hit by a series of droughts, famines, and widespread epidemics. Furthermore, at the Han court, a three-way struggle for power involved the Confucian officials, the consort family members, and the eunuchs.
Chang Chüeh, whose name is sometimes romanized Chang Chiao, first appeared in history in the 170s, when he began to attract a religious following. Known as the T'ai P'ing Tao (the Way of Great Peace), the movement was based upon the healing of the sick. Illnesses were considered to be the results of wrongdoings; the afflicted repented of his sins and was thereby cured. Those not cured were held not sincere believers in the Way. By about 175 Chang Chüeh was sending disciples throughout three-fourths of the provinces of China. The sick and the homeless (who were fleeing from rapacious landlords and officials) flocked to his movement. Converts were organized into units under a carefully regimented hierarchy.
By 184 Chang Chüeh had announced the political objective of overthrowing the Han dynasty. The original plan was to coordinate uprisings in the provinces with a palace coup led by some of the eunuchs. When news of this plan leaked out, the rebellion was prematurely launched: within less than 10 days several hundred thousand converts rose in rebellion. They identified themselves in battle by wearing yellow turbans—hence the alternate name of the movement. Local government offices were attacked; villages and towns were sacked and burned. The government responded by creating large armies and placing them under the control of leading political figures. Within the year Chang Chüeh had died of illness, and most of the Yellow Turban leaders were slain in battle. Without its leaders the movement as a largescale force ceased to be a threat to the government. Local elements, however, continued sporadic uprisings.
The long-term consequences of Chang-Chüeh and his religiopolitical movement may be considered twofold. First, the generals who led the imperial armies developed local power bases that the central government was not able to control. Ultimately, these generals, dividing China among themselves, brought about the downfall of the Han dynasty in 220. Second, from Chang Chüeh's Taoist movement (and from another, contemporary one in western China) was to come the popular Taoist religion, which continued to attract a mass following throughout subsequent Chinese history.
There is no book-length study of Chang or the Yellow Turbans. However, for a very good discussion of both in the larger context of the history of Taoism see Holmes Welch, Taoism: The Parting of the Way (1957; rev. ed. 1966).