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Romance of the Three Kingdoms:The Collapse of the Han and the Revolt of the Yellow Scarves (A summary)


The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.


Four centuries after the Supreme Ancestor founded the Han dynasty, in the reign of Emperor Xian, the kingdom began its collapse. The past two emperors, Huan and Ling, allowed flatters and eunuchs power, driving noble men from the court if not unto death itself. Omens and portents abounded, and Heaven's mandate seemed to have forsaken the Han. The treacherous eunuch Cao Jie and his Ten Regular Attendants dominated the will of the emperor, spreading corruption across the land. Throughout the land, rebellious groups began to rise up, snatching what power they might whilst the court was in shambles.

Amongst these groups, a religious cult known as the the Way of Peace, founded by the Zhang brothers of the Julu province, saw ample opportunity to seize power within the realm. Sending their followers to raise yellow banners, they set a date for the rebellion and sent word across the land. Nearly a half million devotees bound their heads in yellow scarves and rose up to attack their local districts.

In response, Regent-Marshal He Jin pleaded with the emperor to call the various districts to arms and issue a call for all courageous men to offer himself in distinguished defense of the realm. In Zhou county, 28 year-old Liu Bei, styled Xuande, lived a meager existence, weaving mats and selling sandals to support his widowed mother. Liu Bei, a great-great grandson of the fourth emperor of the Han, had chance to see the announcement.

While reading the call for volunteers in the town center, Liu Bei encoutered a gruff man nearly eight spans tall. The man, Zhang Fei, a pig butcher also from Zhou county chastised Liu Bei for his lack of willingness to serve the emperor. Zhang Fei's chiding encouraged Liu Bei to answer the emperor's call to arms, and they pledge to work together to recruit other able-bodied men to the cause. While enjoying wine and a few catties of meat at a nearby tavern, they came upon a man of most regal bearing, nearly nine spans tall and wearing a two-foot beard. Introducing themselves, the enthusiastic recruiters invited the stranger, Guan Yu, a noble expelled from Jieliang, to sit an share a few bowls with them.

After sharing tales of their ambition, the three men retreated to Zhang Fei's farm to further discuss their plans for recruitment. Hearing of Liu Bei's imperial lineage, the other men swore allegiance to him. And with that, in Zhang Fei's peach garden, the three new friends pledged:

We three, though of separate ancestry, join in brotherhood, combining strength and purpose, to relieve the present crisis. We will perform out duty to the Emperor and protect the common people of the land. We dare not hope to be together always, but hereby swear to die the selfsame day. Let shining Heaven above and the fruitful land below bear witness to our resolve. May Heaven and man scourge whosoever fails this vow.

Having made their solemn oath, the brothers set about their task, recruiting some 500 volunteers, a suitable number of mounts, as well as wrought iron for weapon forging. Additionally, each of the brothers had the finest smith in county craft them personal weapons. For Liu Bei, a pair of matching swords; Guan Yu, a Green Dragon cresent blade; and for Zhang Fei a serpent lance measuring 18 spans. Their men and armaments at the ready, the brothers bade farewell to their families and reported to governor Liu Yan.

At Daxing Mountain, the brothers found themselves opposed by the forces of Chen Yuanzhi, who were rapidly approaching Zhou county. At Liu Bei's command, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu each sped onto the field, slaying a rebel leader in but one turn and filling the rebel troops with fright. Their leaders dead, the remainder of the rebels made attempts to vain flee and were slaughtered to a man.

Meanwhile Yellow Turban rebels under Zhang Liang and Zhang Bao, having been turned away by Huangfu Song and were attempting to flee via Changshe. In the midst of their flight, the rebels were decimated by a calvalry force bearing red flags with a young officer at their helm. The young commander, Cao Cao, styled Meng De, was originally a Xiahou, but his father Cao Song was adopted by the court eunuch Cao Teng. Cao Cao's men proceeded to take some ten thousand heads and pursued the rebel leaders into the mountains.

The remaining Yellow Scarves headed for Wancheng, wrenching control of the town from the outnumbered forces of Zhu Jun. Fortunately, in their pursuit of the bandits, Liu Bei's forces came to Zhu Jun's aid. Yet, as the commanders made plans to storm the city, a large troop of soldiers emerged from the east. At their head, Sun Jian, the Tiger of Shangdong, rumored to be descended directly from the legendary strategist Sun Tzu. Sun Jian had gathered 1500 young men and trained soliders from riverlands near his home and moved to cheque the rebel uprising.

The three forces advanced on the embattled rebels, headed by Sun Jian to the south and met by Liu Bei to the north. Sun Jian, charged by the scarved commander, lept upon him and wrested away his lance. With the rebel spirit flagging, Wancheng was soon regained and the courageous acts of Sun Jian recorded and Liu Bei's valor was acknowledge with a small post in Anxi county.

Thus the seeds of three kingdoms were planted, waiting only to be watered by men's valor...


Comments

1. During the struggle for control of the court between senior officials and the growing number of influential eunuchs, there were a great number of purges. These purges were suspended only after the Yellow Scarves rebellion became a serious threat to the power of the Han.
2. According to Mao Zonggang, the eunuch influence implies that influence within the government was female turned into male. We might take this in line with many ancient Chinese views towards women.
3. Typically, a span is considered to be around 10 inches in length.
4. To say that Guan Yu and Zhang Fei "bid farewell" to their families is likely a euphemism. During the period, it was not uncommon for men who could not necessarily afford to support their wives and children to kill them upon entering the service of a new master. The Annals of the Three Kingdoms seems to record this detail more accurately.

Sources: Romance of the Three Kingdoms -- Luo Guanzhong, translated by Moss Roberts

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