The Red Turban Rebellion was an uprising in the middle of the fourteenth century by Chinese peasants against the ruling Mongolian Yuan Dynasty, which eventually resulted in the establishment of the Ming dynasty. By the mid-fourteenth century, dissension among the Mongolian leadership and corruption and greed of the government officials had greatly weakened the central government. At the same time, there was an upsurge of opposition to the Mongol leadership among the Han Chinese peasants, fueled by inflation and hardship caused by famine and flooding. The “Red Turbans,” or “Red Scarves,” was a secret society of peasants whose aim was to overthrow the Mongols and re-establish the Song Dynasty. Their ideology included elements from White Lotus (a Buddhist sect from the late Southern Song), Manichaeism, traditional Confucianism, and Daoism. The name "Red Turban" came from their tradition of using red banners and wearing red turbans to distinguish themselves.
One of the Red Turban leaders, Zhu Yuanzhang, established a military base at Nanjing in 1356, defeated his rivals in southern China, and began to occupy the north. In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang proclaimed the Ming dynasty, with himself as the emperor Taizu (T’ai-tsu, Grand Ancestor), posthumously known as the Hongwu Emperor. In August of that year, Ming troops entered Peking and the rule of the Yüan dynasty came to an end. The Mongols were pushed to the north of the Great Wall, and by 1382, China was unified again under the Ming.
During the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, Genghis Khan (1167–1227) unified the Mongol tribes into a massive conquering force which spread out across Central Asia, destroying any city that did not immediately surrender. In 1209, he began the conquest of Xi Xia on China’s northern border, and in 1215, Beijing fell to the Mongols. Yeluchucai, a member of the Khitan royal house, convinced the nomadic Mongols not to destroy the Chinese peasants and their agriculture, but instead to tax them and profit from the products of Chinese mines and industries.
In 1279, Kublai Khan completed the Mongol conquest of the Southern Song Dynasty and established the Yuan Dynasty. Kublai Khan gave the top administrative positions in the government to Mongols, allowing large numbers of Han Chinese to occupy the less important posts. Chinese were not allowed to possess arms, and the penal code was imposed more severely on them than on Mongols for the same offenses. Intermarriage among the three groups of Mongols, Chinese, and other ethnicities was forbidden. After Kublai Khan died in 1294, internal dissension under less capable leaders caused the efficiency of the government to deteriorate rapidly. Between 1320 and 1329, there were four emperors. Opposition to Mongol rule increased among the Chinese, especially among groups such as the salt workers, who were particularly oppressed. The Yuan Dynasty required considerable military expenditure to maintain its vast empire, and the burden of additional taxation fell mostly on the Han Chinese, who constituted the lower two of the four groups in the Yuan social structure. Inflation was rampant. At the same time, natural disasters such as famines and the constant flooding of the Yellow River caused extreme hardship for the peasants.
The “Red Turbans,” or “Red Scarves,” was a secret society of peasants whose aim was to overthrow the Mongols and re-establish the Song Dynasty. Their ideology included elements from White Lotus, a Buddhist sect from the late Southern Song which believed in the imminent advent of the Buddha Maitreya; Manichaeism, which originated in Babylon in the third century and adapted to Buddhism when it reached China; traditional Confucianism; and Daoism. The name "Red Turban" came from their tradition of using red banners and wearing red turbans to distinguish themselves.
The “Red Turban” rebellions began sporadically, first on the coast of Zhejiang, when a Han Chinese named Fang Guozhen and his men assaulted a group of Yuan officials. After that, the White Lotus society, led by Han Shantong, in the area north of the Yellow River became the center of anti-Mongol sentiment. In 1351, the society plotted an armed rebellion, but the plan was disclosed and Han Shantong was arrested and executed by the Yuan Government. After his death, Liu Futong, a prominent member of the White Lotus, assisted Han's son, Han Liner, the “Little Prince of Radiance,” who claimed to be an incarnation of Maitreya Buddha, to succeed his father and establish the Red Turban Army. After that, several other Han rebels in the south of the Yangtze River revolted under the name of the Southern Red Turbans. Among the key leaders of the Southern Red Turbans were Xu Shouhui and Chen Youliang.
In 1352, a Buddhist mendicant named Zhu Yuanzhang joined a rebel band led by Guo Zixing (Kuo Tzuhsing), one of Han Liner’s followers. Zhu married Kuo’s adopted daughter, the princess Ma. In 1353, Zhu captured Ch'u-chou (now Ch'u district in Anhwei Province, an area west of Nanking). He continued to receive important commissions and when Kuo Tzu-hsing died in 1355, Zhu became leader of the rebel army.
In 1356, Zhu took the city of Nanjing, and made it his military base. In 1361, he gave himself the title of Duke of Wu, demonstrating his intention to found his own dynasty. At first, he nominally supported Han Liner in order to stabilize his northern frontier. In 1363, he defeated his rival Chen Youliang (Ch’en Yuliang; 1320–1363) at the Battle of Lake Poyang, in Jianxi Province, in 1363, one of the largest naval battles in world history. Chen had been the leader of the southern Red Turban Army, controlling the middle Yangzi region. Zhu then conquered all of west Yangzi, and defeated his most powerful rivals, Zhang Shicheng, who had a base at Suzhou and committed suicide when captured and brought to Nanking; and Fang Guozhen, who submitted to his authority. In 1367, the Sung pretender Han Liner drowned under mysterious circumstances while being escorted to safety at Zhu’s headquarters in Nanking.
When he reached the Yangtze Delta, Zhu came into contact with well-educated Confucian scholars and gentry, from whom he received an education in the Chinese language, Chinese history and the Confucian Classics. Some of them became his advisers in state affairs. Zhu established an effective local administration, in conjunction with his military organization, which supported his expansion. Zhu abandoned his Buddhist upbringing and positioned himself as a defender of Confucian and neo-Confucian conventions, rather than simply as a popular rebel. Despite his humble origins, he emerged as a national leader against the collapsing Yuan Dynasty. Calling for a racial revolution to overthrow the Mongols and restore the Han Chinese, Zhu gained popular support.
Zhu’s charisma attracted talented supporters from all over China, such as Zhu Sheng, who is credited with the mantra, "Build high walls, stock up rations, and don't be too quick to call yourself a king." The rebel leader followed this advice and decided to subdue the smaller, weaker rebel groups in Southern China before turning against the Mongols.
On January 23, 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang proclaimed the Ming (“Bright” or “Radiance”) dynasty in Yintian, with himself as the emperor Taizu (T’ai-tsu, Grand Ancestor), posthumously known as the Hongwu Emperor (“Vast military achievement"). He used the motto, "Exiling the Mongols and Restoring Hua," as a call to rouse the Han Chinese into supporting him. The campaigns in the north succeeded, and Shantung and Honan provinces (south of Peking) submitted to Ming authority. In August, 1368, Ming troops entered Peking (Dadu). The Yuan emperor Shun Ti fled to Inner Mongolia, and the rule of the Yüan dynasty came to an end. The Mongols were pushed north of the Great Wall. By 1382, China was unified again under the Ming.
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