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The Red Turbans: Religious Syncretists and Sectarian Rebels

Discussion in 'World History' started by Knight-Dragon, May 26, 2004.

  1. Knight-Dragon

    Knight-Dragon Unhidden Dragon Retired Moderator

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    By the middle of the 14th century, the Yuan central government's control over its holdings across China was visibly weakened. Provinces and smaller territorial units had been lost to rebels who fought each other as well as the Mongols. Chaos seeped across the land as China, used to control from the center for centuries, found herself without one. In desperation, the people turned to successful local leaders for protection, as well as to the 'teachings'; sectarian religious movements who promised messianic salvation and succour in these troubled times.

    In particular, two religious doctrines, imported from the West and long present in China, were notable. One was a popularized, Sinicized form of Manichism; the central tenet of which was the struggle between the dual forces of light and darkness, good and evil over the world. Mani's followers had brought his teachings into China in Tang times, via the Silk Road, where over time, they had merged with local elements of Chinese popular religion.

    The other was the belief in the Buddhist Maitreya as the bearer of messianic salvation, as again Sinicized over time. By the 13th century, Maitreya had been defined as the Buddha who could descend from the Tu****a Heaven at any time, and bring salvation to mankind. It was obvious why such a doctrine proved to be popular with the people in the troubled times of the late Yuan.

    Hence by the middle of the 14th century, in addition to various other factions struggling for power, there was also a profusion of popular sectarian movements, led by men and women who taught an amalgam of traditional Buddhist and Daoist beliefs, with additions from the Manichaen and Maitreyan Buddhist doctrines. Large gatherings of men, women and children would often meet at night to conduct their rituals, venerate Maitreya, light fires to signify the Manichaen triumph of light over darkness, perform penances and invite Daoist adepts to cast spells and read the future. That future mostly involved the demise of the Yuan and the coming of kings with transforming powers.

    The largest of these movements was the White Lotus Society - the bailianjiao. It dated from a 12th century founder, who instituted certain practises such as vegetarianism and penance sessions, drawn from both Manichaen and Maitreya doctrines, and taught that the current disorder was proof that Maitreya's coming would occur anytime now. Several leading teachers of the sect appeared across a large region, from south of the Yangzi all the way to Manchuria.

    The White Lotus doctrines, merged with yet the doctrines of other Maitreyan sectarians, provided a coherent ideology amongst rebel groups and enabled them to build up their movement, raise armies and establish civil authorities. Eventually, their color symbol was changed from white to the more auspicious Manichaen red. Their soldiers began wearing red headbands (hongjin), and they came to be known as the Red Turbans, Red Scarves, Red Eyebrows etc.

    The Red Turbans first appeared in the records in Jiangxi, in the late 1330s, under Peng Yingyu, also known as 'Monk Peng'. He promoted Maitreyan doctrines and later led an unsuccessful uprising. When the authorities wanted to arrest him, he fled and hid amongst stmpathetic supporters north of the Yangzi, particularly in central Anhui. He resurfaced later, back amongst the southern Red Turbans, leading field armies, and appeared to have been captured and killed in Jiangxi in 1353.

    Peng Yingyu's followers in the Huai River region, left behind after Peng returned south, joined forces with Han Shantong of the White Lotus Society. The united group took on the Red Turban identity, and formed the northern arm of the Red Turbans. They were spread widely across the North China Plain, as compared with the southern Red Turbans who were firmly based in the central Yangzi. The northern and southern Red Turbans, apart from sharing the same sectarian identity, were never united in any sense and were actually rival factions.

    Han had long plotted to start a rebellion; his family being leaders of the White Lotus Society for several generations. His opportunity came, when in 1351, there was a badly organized major engineering project to rechannel 100 miles of the Yellow River, involving perhaps as many as 200,000 disgruntled labourers drawn fr local families. However his plot was discovered by the local magistrate, and Han was captured and executed. His chief of staff, Liu Futong, managed to escape, as well as Han's wife and infant son. Liu went further south to foment more revolts, while Han's wife hid out in the mountains.

    Liu seized control of several counties in the Huai River region of Anhui, and retrieved Han's wife and son who were to serve as symbols of the movement. There, in 1355, he declared the restoration of the Song dynasty. He also proclaimed Han's heir as the 'Young Prince of Radiance' (Xiao Ming Wang)- implying he was the Manichaen King of Light, who under guidance from the Maitreya, was preparing for the descent of the Maitreya to rule over a Tu****e heaven on earth. These were due to the fact that the elder Han had earlier claimed descent from the Song emperors, as well as being the Prince of Radiance (Ming Wang). Thus, Liu acquired dual legitimacy for the movement; a Song heir and an anointed religious figure.

    The northern Red Turbans were widely spread out across North China; with ambitious leaders leading the different branches and fighting amongst themselves and pursuing opportunities as and when they arose. The movement was strongest in the Ying and Huai drainages extending eastwards from Henan to Anhui, with further subordinate armies active in Shandong and Hebei.

    Liu Futong was ambitious and a decisive field commander, but a bad organizer. Although a governing structure was organized at the new Red Turban capital at Anfeng, in Anhui, where Liu served as 'chief minister' to the 'Young Prince of Radiance', he couldn't rein in all the Red Turban commanders. These armies roamed throughout North China and even into Manchuria, where one branch sacked the Yuan summer capital at Shangdu and sought alliances in Korea. The Red Turban armies survived on pillaging and looting, and added to the chaos with their rapid successes.

    In 1357, Liu Futong laid seige to Kaifeng, the old capital of the Song dynasty, and captured it by the next year. He moved his 'Song Emperor' there. The symbolism of a rebel emperor sitting on a throne in the old Song capital was too ominious for the Mongols. In 1359, the local Mongol lord raised a large army and attacked Kaifeng. However, Liu and the boy emperor managed to escape and return to Anfeng.

    Liu Futong made little progress for the next few years. In 1363, Zhang Shicheng, another rebel leader who controlled the Yangzi delta region, in temporary alliance with the Yuan, attacked Anfeng and the Song infant state. Liu was killed and the boy emperor was captured and escorted to Luzhou, a city 100 miles to the south. By this time, the northern Red Turbans had another capable leader, Zhu Yuanzhang, based at Nanjing, who had risen quickly thru the ranks and now commanded a formidable Red Turban force.

    Zhu led a rescue force personally; he captured Luzhou and took the boy emperor to Chuzhou, a city near the Yangzi and near his own base at Nanjing. With Liu gone, Zhu now became the most significant figure the northern Red Turban movement and protector of its symbolic head, the 'Young Prince of Radiance' and Song emperor. Apart from Zhu Yuanzhang and his forces, little had survived of the northern Red Turbans by the mid-1360s.

    In the meanwhile, the southern Red Turbans, based at Hubei in the central Yangzi region, had risen up by the end of 1351, upon hearing news of the uprising of Han Shantong and Liu Futong further north, in Anhui. Peng Yingyu and his followers installed as emperor, an impressive-looking (but had no other significant abilities) fellow, Xu Shouhui, who was to be the symbolic head of the southern Red Turbans. His dynasty was called Tianwan, with the first capital at Qishui, near the Yangzi.

    The rebellion spread rapidly. By spring of the following year, the southern Red Turban armies were attacking Hanyang and Wuchang (Wuhan today) on opposite banks of the Yangzi, and controlled much of Central China. The armies extended throughout Hunan and Jiangxi, and eastwards onto the coastal provinces. For a few months, they even controlled Hangzhou although they were soon driven out by the local Yuan forces.

    In the beginning, the southern Red Turbans appeared more devoted to their religious doctrines, and more tightly organized, compared with the northern Red Turbans, but still dissidence appeared. Esp after 1353, when Peng Yingyu had been killed in Jiangxi. In 1357, one leader of the movement attempted to murder Xu Shouhui, but who was in turn murdered by another general, Chen Youliang.

    Chen quickly made himself the leader of the southern Red Turbans. In 1359, he moved the Tianwan capital to Jiangzhou (Jiujiang today) on the Yangzi; the better to position for the coming conflict with the other rebel factions further downriver. In the next year, he murdered the useless Xu Shouhui, and made himself emperor of a new Han dynasty. The new Han state, with large naval forces on the Yangzi and its tributaries and strong armies on both banks of the Yangzi, was a very powerful force. Chen Youliang was an able administrator and a formidable strategist but also hasty and impatient.

    Directly downriver from Chen Youliang's forces was, guess what, Zhu Yuanzhang at Nanjing. Zhu's territories were not as large or as rich, and furthermore he was squeezed between Chen and Zhang Shicheng, another powerful rebel leader who controlled the Yangzi delta (who had done away with Liu Futong earlier). Although Chen and Zhu represented the two arms of the Red Turban movement, by now, religious affinities meant little to both men. Zhu had shaken off his earlier religious devotions; while the earlier religious zeal of the southern Red Turbans had dissipated with Chen's coming to power.

    For some years, a balance of power was maintained as the three watched each other. Then in 1363, came the great turning point in Zhu Yuanzhang's fortunes. In a great naval battle on Boyang Lake in Jiangxi, near the Han capital at Jiangzhou, Zhu managed to overcome and capture or annihilated most of Chen's forces. The southern Red Turban movement was terminated.

    There was still a third Red Turban bastion of note, in addition to the two mentioned above. The leader of a local self-defense force, Ming Yuzhen, was forced to place himself under Chen Youliang's leadership. He was assigned to extend the Red Turban movement into Sichuan province further upriver. Ming broke off with Chen in 1357, and marched into Sichuan, occupying Chongqing. On learning that Chen had murdered Xu Shouhui in 1360, he made himself king, then emperor (in 1361); calling his dynasty the Xia.

    Ming Yuzhen soon controlled the entire province of Sichuan, as well as parts of Shaanxi in the north and Yunnan in the south. He refused to deal with Chen, whom he viewed as betraying the Red Turban movement, and maintained contacts with Zhu Yuanzhang. In truth, he was rather peripheral to the ensuing struggle for mastery over China. He died in 1366 and was succeeded by a son, but his movement fell prey to leadership struggles as well. In 1371, after a valiant defense, the Xia surrendered to invading Ming forces.

    Returning to Zhu Yuanzhang; Zhu's Confucian scholar-advisors had for some time, being advising him to detach himself from the Red Turban movement and assumed a profile more in line for an aspiring dynasty founder. He certainly was not adverse to the idea; however the struggle with Chen Youliang complicated issues and he couldn't make a clean break without alienating a large segment of his Red Turban supporters and risk having them joining his opponents. His soldiers and many of his officers were loyal to Zhu only because he was seen as the agent of the 'Young Prince of Radiance'.

    After Chen was defeated and eliminated in 1363, Zhu had less worries about losing sectarian supporters to rivals, since he's now the sole remaining Red Turban leader. Finally in 1366, the 'Young Prince of Radiance' died in 1366, having drowned in an 'accident' while crossing the Yangzi to join Zhu in Nanjing. With the last figure of great symbolic value for the Red Turban movement gone, Zhu now could openly make his break with the Red Turbans, denouncing their violent actions in public proclamations.

    Nevertheless, there was still latent sympathies amongst the people for the religious doctrines espoused by the Red Turbans. Zhu Yuanzhang went on to capture Beijing in 1368, with the Mongol Yuan emperor fleeing into the steppes. He specifically chose the term Ming for his new dynasty, which meant radiance, to appeal to the people, in this form of the religious Manichaen conception of the Radiant King of Light.

    The Red Turban movement didn't die out just yet. As the new Ming government came to suppress it, the movement went underground and lost much of its organizational base. Still it persisted and reappeared from time to time through the course of the dynasty, if only in the form of minor uprisings.
     
  2. Dann

    Dann Green bug

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    Excellent post. :thumbsup: Throughout history, China has had countless rebellions or revolutions which started out as religious movements (Yellow Turbans, Boxers, etc.). Thus, it becomes understandable why the "falungong" was mercilessly cracked down upon when it grew too successful for its own good. The Chinese government has learned from history to nip problems in the bud.
     
  3. Knight-Dragon

    Knight-Dragon Unhidden Dragon Retired Moderator

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    More of a knee-jack reflex reaction IMO. After all, it's not like China is undergoing very bad times at the moment, when salvation-type religious movements will appeal to people.

    On another forum, my suggested titled for the articles was 'Why the Chinese govt cracked down on the Falungong.' :lol:
     
  4. allhailIndia

    allhailIndia Chieftain

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    Hmm..looks like religious movements turning into violent rebellions is not an INdian speciality;):D

    We've had countless such movements..the Sikhs, Nagas, Pindaris, Wahabbis, Thugs..

    Yet, we have had countless more peaceful religious movements, the Bhakti movement led by several leaders across the country, the Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Ramakrishna mission, Aurobindo society, Mahatma Gandhi himself was a movement, Satya Sai Seva Organization...so I guess it ultimately cancels out;)
     
  5. Knight-Dragon

    Knight-Dragon Unhidden Dragon Retired Moderator

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    Certainly isn't. Think of the Taipings, the Boxers etc. ;)

    What's peculiar about the Red Turbans was that one branch eventually produced a legitimate native Chinese dynasty - the Ming, which meant radiance, brilliance etc, and which has a significant meaning in the Red Turban doctrinal ideology. ;) Though in the end, the Ming absolved themselves of all their former links; the better to rule as a 'traditional' Chinese dynastic administration.
     
  6. allhailIndia

    allhailIndia Chieftain

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    Speaking of national leaders from religious movements, our current PM, Dr.Manmohan Singh, is India's first non-Hindu, Sikh PM;)
     

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