An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The Red Eyebrows and Lulin Uprisings

Jan 21, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

The so-called Red Eyebrows (Chimei 赤眉) and the rebels of Lulin were a large group of peasant insurgents that disturbed the local governments of the Xin dynasty 新 (8-22 CE) and so contributed to the downfall of the usurper Wang Mang 王莽.

The emergence of a large group of rebels was caused by the increased aggretation of large tracts of land by local potentates. This was mainly possible because peasants were not able to pay back debts to their creditors. A lot of them had to become dependent client-farmers (diannong 佃農, dianke 佃客) on the land formerly owned by themselves, others were pushed into debt slavery, and others left their homes and became so-called "floating people" (liumin 流民), i.e. peasant refugees, wandering around without a fix household. The situation was so terrible that during the reign of Emperor Cheng 漢成帝 (r. 33-7 BCE) of the Former Han dynasty 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE), there were people starving on the road. Under his successor, Emperor Ai 漢哀帝 (r. 7-1 BCE), therefore, some high officials like Minister of War (da sima 大司馬) Shi Dan 師丹 suggested limiting the size of privately owned land and the number of private slaves. Counsellor-in-chief (chengxiang 丞相) Kong Guang 孔光 and Minister of Works (da sikong 大司空) He Wu 何武 urged the emperor to develop a concrete plan for such a law, but because of the resistance of the large landowners, the Emperor refreigned from such a legislation, inspite of continuous remonstratings like those by Bao Xuan 鮑宣. The consequences were that ever more peasants armed themselves and rebelled against the local governments. In the year 1 BCE rebels even burnt down the mausoleum of Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE).

When Wang Mang dethroned the child emperor Liu Ying 劉嬰 (r. 6-8 CE) and proclaimed himself emperor, he was well aware of these social problems and initiated a series of reforms to solve these problems. He intended to revive the classical example of the kings of the early Zhou Dynasty and to reintroduce the so-called "well field system" (jingtianzhi) that prohibited the purchase and vending of land and did not know debt slavery. He also abolished the state monopoly on the production and merchandise on salt, iron, ferments, coins and ores (wujun liuguan 五均六筦 "the five [markets] to be [controlled] justly and the six [goods] to be controlled"). Instead of vending the monopoly to private entrepreneurs that, as tax farmers, took over the collection for the taxes on these products, the state should better directly control the merchandise of such products. All these reforms would endanger the profits of the landowners, the local officials and of the nobility (that also owned large, profitable tracts of lands to live off), all these groups resisted Mang Wang's politics. Yet Wang Mang also intensified the use of the penal law against even minor offenses, and furthermore undertook several costly military campaigns in the borderlands. These measures brought up virtually all parts of society against his regime, so that in 15 CE, a large group of peasants rose in rebellion against him in the commanderies (jun 郡) of Wuyuan 五原 and Daijun 代郡 in the north. Two years later, Gua Tianyi 瓜田儀 rebelled in the commandery of Guiji 會稽, and Lü Mu 呂母 in Haiqu 海曲 (south of modern Shandong). These insurgencies initiated a large-scale uprising in three regions of the empire: Wang Kuang 王匡 and Wang Feng 王鳳 founded the Lulin Army 綠林軍 in the region of modern Hubei, Fan Chong 樊崇 lead the Red Eyebrows Army 赤眉軍 in the northern parts of modern Jiangsu, and the Tongma Army 銅馬軍 came into being in the region of modern Hubei.

Wang Feng and Wang Kuang had in 17 CE been selected leaders of a rebellious groups of hungry peasants in Xinshi 新市 (modern Jingshan 景山, Hubei). They started plundering the district towns of the region and withdrew to their hideouts in Mt. Lulin 綠林山, from which place their movement has been given its name. Only in 21 CE the regional governor (mu 牧) of Jingzhou 荊州 decided to send out an army to put down their army, yet the rebels defeated the government troops, conquered the cities of Jingling 竟陵 (modern Qianjiang 潛江), Yundu 雲都 (modern Jingshan) and Anlu 安陸 (modern Anlu) and so attracted ever more participants rebelling against the economic and social circumstances of their times. When an epidemy broke out in Mt. Lulin, the rebels divided into two groups, one of moved westwards to Nanjun 南郡 under the leadership of Wang Chang 王常 and Cheng Dan 成丹 (the Xiajiang 下江 group), the other group was lead northwards by Wang Kuang, Wang Feng and Ma Wu 馬武 northwards to Nanyang 南陽 (the Xinshi group). This group attacked the city of Suixian 隨縣 and incited the rebellion of the Pinglin 平林 rebels under Chen Mu 陳牧 and Liao Zhan 廖湛.

When the princes of the Former Han dynasty, all of them large landowners, saw that the time was ripe to bring down the usurper Wang Mang, some of them joined the rebel groups, like Liu Xuan 劉玄 (the eventual Gengshi Emperor 更始帝, r. 23-25 CE) who became a leader of the Pinglin rebels, or Liu Yin 劉縯 and Liu Xiu 劉秀 (the eventual Emperor Guangwu 漢光武帝, r. 25-57 CE) who sought the support of other landholders to raise an own army, the so-called Chongling Army 舂陵軍. This army joined with the Pinglin and the Xinshi rebel armies for an attack of the city of Wancheng 宛城 (modern Nanyang 南陽, Henan), but they were repelled by the imperial troops.

In 18 CE Fan Chong was made rebel leader of a group of landless peasants in Juxian (modern Shandong) and was immediately joined by other groups under Pang An 逄安, Xu Xuan 徐宣, Xie Lu 謝祿 and Yang Yin 楊音. In order to distinguish between friend and enemy, the rebels painted the lower part of their foreheads in red, which gave them the name of "Red Eyebrows". The Red Eyebrows army did not have a proper military tactics nor ranks and files or regular battle arrays or companies, but they followed a strict moral code that forbade killing without reasons, as well as the plundering of peasant villages and cities. Their main target were the properties of large landowners, which they saw as the main culprits responsible for their desperate situation. In 21 CE the Grand Preceptor (taishi 太師) Xi Zhongjing 羲仲景 was entrusted with the command of suppressing the rebels under Fan Chong, but the imperial army was utterly defeated. A year later the new Grand Preceptor Wang Kuang 王匡 (another person than the Lulin rebel leader) and General of the New Beginning (gengshi jiangjun 更始將軍) Lian Dan 廉丹 marched against the Red Eyebrows. He adopted the strategy of the scorched earth and devastated all the land his troops passed through. Among the whole population, there was the saying that it would be better to submit to the Red Eyebrows than to the General. In Chengchang 成昌 (modern Dongping 東平, Shandong) the Red Eyebrows again defeated the imperial army and pursued it to Wuyan 無鹽, where general Lian Dan was killed. The whole eastern part of China was now under control of the Red Eyebrow rebels.

The Lulin rebels meanwhile defeated the imperial commanders Yan You 嚴尤 and Chen Mao 陳茂 and besieged the city of Wancheng. At that time the gentry of the region deliberated making Liu Ying emperor, but this proposal met the resistance of some Lulin leaders. Instead, they decided to choose his brother Liu Xuan who was a weaker personality. An altar was erected on a sandbank in River Yu 淯水 near Wancheng, and Liu Xuan proclaimed himself emperor of the Han dynasty, choosing the reign motto Gengshi "New Beginning". Liu Xuan first sent out Wang Kuang and Wang Chang to conquer the cities of Kunyang 昆陽 (modern Yexian 葉縣, Henan), Dingling 定陵 (modern Wuyang 舞陽, Henan) and Yanxian 郾縣 (modern Yancheng 郾城, Henan) and his brother Liu Yin, to conquer Wancheng. Emperor Wang Mang had sent out a large army under Wang Yi 王邑 and Wang Xun 王尋 that were ordered to put down the whole rebellion. They besieged Wang Feng and Wang Chang in Kunyang. In an extremely demanding night march, Liu Xiu and Li Yi 李軼 arrived with a relief army and directly attacked the heart of the imperial camp, killing general Wang Xun. With the rest of the throughly disarranged imperial army, Wang Yi withdrew to the Luoyang 洛陽 (modern Luoyang, Henan). This defeat was practically the signal for people all over the empire to rebell against the imperial officials of the local government. The contribution of the hero Liu Xiu had been so impressive that the voices supporting the enthronement of Liu Xiu as emperor of the Han became more and more vivid. Liu Xuan was even suggested to cede the throne to Liu Xiu, but he declined.

The opportunity to make an end to the rule of Wang Mang called for a march of Wang Kuang towards the secondary capital Luoyang, while Shentu Jian 申屠建 and Li Song 李松 lead a rebel division towards Wuguan 武關, on the way to the capital Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi). In late 23 CE Chang'an fell into the hands of the Lulin rebels, and Wang Mang fled to Jiantai 漸臺, where he was killed by the entrepreneur Du Wu 杜吳. Liu Xuan first took residence in Luoyang, but soon moved to Chang'an. Liu Xuan bestowed his entourage with the highest offices. As a popular saying went, a cook was made leader of the court gentlemen, a shepherd commandant of cavalry, and even the most humble man could be given the title of a marquis. Liu Xuan's own personal conduct of life did not correspond to the duties of an emperor. Instead of appearing at the court, he enjoyed banquets and squandered the state finances. He had killed critics, like his old collegues Shentu Jian, Chen Mu 陳牧 and Cheng Dan. Other former leaders of the Lulin rebels like Wang Kuang and Zhang Ang 張卬 changed side and went over to the Red Eyebrows.

Fan Chong, leader of the Red Eyebrows, had offered Liu Xuan his cooperation when Luoyang was taken, but he had been appeased with a title of nobility and was not appointed a high position in the new government in Chang'an. Fan Chong therefore continued his military campaigns and together with Pang An attacked Changshe 長社 (modern Changge 長葛, Hunan) and Wancheng, while Xu Xuan and Xie Lu attacked Yangdi 陽翟 (modern Yuxian 禹縣, Henan) and Liangxian 梁縣 (modern Linru 臨汝, Henan). His strategic target was nothing else than to conquer Chang'an. In winter 24 CE he passed Wuguan from the south, while Xu Xuan and Yang Lu advanced via Luoyang and the Luhun Pass 陸渾關. In Huayin 華陰, they proclaimed the 15 sui old prince Liu Penzi 劉盆子 as emperor of the Han dynasty, and continued marching to the west. Liu Xuan surrendered to the Red Eyebrow rebels and was shortly after strangulated. Without an existing government, the local magnates of the capital decided to take their fate into their own hands. They hid the grain reserved and organised an armed resistance against the rebels, to that Fan Chong could not but withdraw to the northwest to Anding 安定 and Beidi 北地 (modern Shaanxi). Yet the Red Eyebrows army was soon forced to march back to the east, both because of the wheather conditions and because they were attacked by local armies lead by Wei Ao 隗囂.

Meanwhile Liu Xiu had already adopted the title of emperor of the Eastern Han and decided to extinguish the Red Eyebrows. He had been entrusted by Liu Xuan with the pacification of the region northeast of the Yellow River and had secured the cities of Xindu 信都, Shanggu 上谷 and Yuyang 漁陽, where he had won the support of the local magnates. He suppressed the rebellion of Wang Lang 王郎 who had adopted the title of emperor. Liu Xiu put down the Tongma rebels and used their armed forces for his own purposes, enjoying the title of the Tongma Emperor 銅馬帝. In 25 CE he adopted the title of Emperor of the Han dynasty in Hao 鄗 and soon conquered Luoyang. When his spied made out the return of the Red Eyebrow army, he prepared and ambush at Xin'an 新安 and Yiyang 宜陽 and cut off all ways to escape. In early 27 CE the rebel army was defeated by Feng Yi 馮異 and trapped to escape into the prepared area, where they were encircled and forced to submit. Yet still in the same year, Fan Chong and Jiang An rebelled again, but their insubordinance was soon quelled by the new emperor of the Han.

Zhu Dayun 朱大昀 (1992). "Chimei lulin qiyi 赤眉綠林起義", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 105-107.