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The Red Eyebrows (赤眉): This first peasant rebellion was a series of spontaneous rebellions against Wang Mang’s short-lived Xin dynasty.
Around 17 A.D. due to the mistakes in governing made by Wang Mang, the usurper of the Han dynasty, especially the introduction of new land reform, conscription, and the simultaneous flooding of the Yellow River which particularly affected the region of today’s Shandong and the northern Jiangsu, the people, could no longer support themselves and rose against the power.
The case of Mother
Lu Mu (呂母; ? – 18 CE) was a native of Langya Haiqu (the current area of Rizhao, Shandong). In a situation of a substantial decline in Chinese society, Lu Mu, literally Lu’s mother, was a wealthy widow who conducted the family business, also known for her generosity towards the less well-off members of the community. The woman supplied rice to hungry peasants and once even paid for a funeral for a local man since the family was unable to purchase a coffin. The woman’s son, Lu Yu was a county constable. On the 14th, Lu Yu refused to punish citizens who had not paid their taxes and the county supervisor had him killed for insubordination. Lu Mu, furious, began to organize a plan to take revenge. She sold all of her possessions and opened a tavern as a haven to recruit followers, while at the same time she accumulated weapons in the house and bought horses. The potential followers were the young men who had no money to pay for the wine. The woman thus supplied the wine on credit. She also gave food and clothing to those who needed it. At the same time, she went from house to house to explain how the government was exploiting the people with its excessive taxation. Once she managed to gather a sufficient number of followers, Lu Mu revolted at the head of about two hundred peasants, thus becoming the first leader to rise against Wang Mang. Her forces thus engaged in a guerrilla war against the government troops both on land and on water. Although the taxes were too high as more and more farmers were unable to pay them, the government keep on increasing them. These unhappy choices of authority exponentially increased the followers of Mother Lu. Soon her army went from a couple of hundred peasants to a few thousand. Lu Mu was also able to progressively organize her troops, dividing them into groups of a hundred and imposing strict rules on her followers on how not to take possession of the peasant houses.
The rebels raised a large banner with the word Lu and marched on Haiqu. The county fell into the hands of rebel forces after a bloody battle. The local supervisor was captured. At their plea for mercy, Lu recalled how her son was treated. The supervisor was beheaded and his head was offered on the altar of Lu Yu. Once the news reached Wang Mang, the governor sent an army to Haiqu. But Lu Mu in the meantime had already retired as her name began to be legendary after Haiqu’s victory. Her troops engaged in a long guerrilla war against the government army. Since Lu Mu could not be defeated by force, Wang Mang sent envoys to encourage the rebels to surrender, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Mother Lu’s example galvanized peasants from other regions who saw how it was possible to wage a fight against the government. From this time on, anti-government riots broke out across China. Lu Mu died in 18 of an illness while her followers merged into other rebel armies.
In 18, Fanchong, another rebel leader, led the people to an uprising in the Rizhao region. His base was Mount Tai and he was able in a short time to gather over 10,000 men. He soon allied himself with Pang An, Xu Xuan, Xie Lu, and Yang Yin to form an unstoppable force. Wang Mang’s response to these rebellions, which were now beginning to arise in various areas of the country, was disordered and irrational: Wang Mang decided to raise taxes at the suggestion of the official Tian Kuang. This resolution exasperated the peasantry. In 21, to put an end to the continuing rebellions once and for all, Wang decided to send his generals Jing Shang and Wang Dang. But their militias lacked discipline, and their actions pushed the population to unite or help the rebels. Tian managed to obtain some first successes against the rebels and issued a new edict for the villagers to be evacuated to the cities, trying to get the rebels to attack fortified places, thus obtaining a strategic advantage. Wang, wary of Tian’s military successes, called him back to the capital Chang’an. At this point, the various rebel groups had merged into a single unstoppable wave led by Fan Chong who had been able to assimilate the forces of Lu Mu but who still lacked political ambition. The only law in force among the rebels was the one against murder which involved the immediate death penalty and the new company that was forming had only three titles (county educator, county clerk, and sheriff).
The Red Eyebrows
In 22 Fan Chong managed to defeat and kill General Jing Shang. Wang Mang sent two senior generals, Wang Kuang and Lian Dan to head a massive army of more than 100,000 men. Fan and the other rebel leaders, to recognize their troops on the battlefield, ordered their men to color their eyebrows red. Wang and Lian, despite being two skilled generals on the battlefield, were unable to maintain discipline among the troops, which soon led the people to sympathize with the rebel forces. During the winter of 22, Wang and Lian achieved some successes against the Chimei forces led by Suolu Hui by conquering the city of Wuyan (modern Tai’an in Shandong). Wang, however, decided not to give his troops rest and immediately rushed against the Chimei stronghold of Liang (modern Shangqiu, Henan) and the reluctant Lian followed him. During the battle of Chengchang (near Tai’an), Wang Mang’s troops were wiped out. Lian died in battle and Wang fled with the remaining soldiers.
This represents the latest attempt to suppress Fan Chong’s peasant uprisings as Wang Mang was soon to face a new threat.
The Lülin revolt
In the 17th century, the province of Jing which roughly corresponds to present-day Hubei and the south of Henan was suffering a great famine whose disastrous consequences were even worsened by the blindness of the officers of the Xin dynasty due to ramping corruption, incompetence, and overtaxing. The peasants were reduced to eating wild plants and tubers, also pushing them to attack to survive. Wang Kuan and Wang Feng from Xinshi (today’s Jingmen in Hubei) became arbitrators in some disputes, soon becoming recognized as leaders of the starving people. They were soon joined by other key figures, such as Ma Xu, Wang Chang, and Cheng Dan. Within a few months, an army of around 8,000 men based at Lülin Mountain had gathered around them. This first phase, which lasted a few years, was characterized by a rather simple strategy: attack and plunder isolated villages in search of food. Meanwhile, their followers grew to several tens of thousands.
Wang Mang, sent emissaries with the aim of dispersing the rebels, avoiding confrontation. The reports he received from his ambassadors were the opposite: some claimed that the peasant masses had gathered due to unjust taxation, and others said instead that these rebels were nothing more than groups of bandits. Wang listened to the hawks and decided to suppress the riot. On the 21st, the governor of the Jing province the head of 20,000 soldiers attacked the rebels in Yundu. The rebels defeated the government forces and took possession of their weapons and supplies. When the governor tried to retreat, he found his escape route blocked by Ma Xu, who however allowed him to escape, not wanting to worsen the situation of the rebel forces. Meanwhile, the Lülin rebels sacked the area and kidnapped numerous women, then returned to their base. At this point, Lülin’s army numbered 50,000 soldiers. In 22, a plague of an unspecified nature struck the rebels. More than 25,000 men died. This catastrophe resulted in a temporary division of forces into three groups. That of Wang Chang and Cheng Dan who moved west (Xiajiang’s strength). That of Wang Feng, Wang Kuang, and Ma Wu and two other leaders, Zhu We and Zhang Ang who headed north (Xinshi Force); and finally the group led by Chen Mu and Liao Zhen, known as the Pinglin force. None of these generals carried political ambitions.
Liu Yan was a distant descendant of the imperial Han clan who lived near Chongling (modern Xiangfan in Hubei) and wished to overthrow the reign of usurper Wang Mang. His brother, Liu Xiu (劉秀), on the other hand, was described as a reasonable and cautious man. Prophecies had been circulating for some time revealing that the Liu would soon return to power. Numerous men gathered under the banner of Liu Yan. They joined the forces of Pinglin and Xinsh, capturing and plundering many villages. In the winter of 22, Liu Yan attacked Wancheng, the capital of Nanyang. Governor Zhen Fu, however, managed to get the better of the rebel forces. Encouraged by this success, Zhen Fu tried to chase the rebels and exterminate them once and for all. The groups of Xinshi and Pinglin, discouraged by the defeat, considered dissolving the army and returning to the camps. But the unexpected arrival of Xiajiang‘s men, who joined the coalition, changed the outcome of the war. Under Liu’s command, the rebels attacked Zhen’s rearguard and raided supplies of food and weapons. On the 23rd of New Year’s Eve Liu defeated Zhen and killed him in battle.
Encouraged by the victory, the leaders of the Lülin movement declared themselves generals and began looting cities, setting up government organizations, and sending propaganda messages against Wang Mang. While all men were essentially on Liu Yan’s side, jealousies and envy crept between his generals, especially those of Xinshi and Pinglin who supported Liu Yan’s distant cousin Liu Xuan as emperor of the restored Han dynasty. Liu Yan, after initial opposition, decided to accept, to avoid internal conflicts. In the spring of 23, Liu Xuan has crowned emperor. Wang Kuan, Wang Feng, Zhu, Liu Yan, and Chen were his highest-ranking officials.
The Battle of Kuyang
At this point, Wang Mang decided to put an end to this second revolt once and for all. He, therefore, sent his cousin Wang Yi and his prime minister Wang Xun to win over the rebels, leading a gigantic army of 430,000 men. The Han forces were divided into two groups, those led by Wang Feng, Wang Chang, and Liu Xiu who had withdrawn to the town of Kuyang (today’s Pingdingshan in Henan), and the one led by Liu Yan engaged in the siege of Wancheng. The rebels in Kuyang were once again tempted to disband the militias and go into hiding, but Liu Xiu resisted. Liu Xiu instead proposed to split up: a group would remain in defense of Kunyang, while he would gather all the forces available to face the Xin army. Wang Yi and Wang Xun sent 10,000 men to confront Liu Xiu, while the rest were engaged in sieges. During the battle, however, due to strategic errors in supporting the Xin forces, Liu Xiu managed to kill Wang Xun. Once this rumor spread, the besieged Han forces in Kuyang swept out of Kunyang and attacked the Xin men by surprise. The government army was wiped out suffering numerous desertions and unable to react. Wang Yi retired with a few thousand men to Luoyang. Once news spread that the army had been defeated by the Han, countless peasant revolts erupted throughout the empire. Numerous local officials were murdered and replaced by makeshift Han officials.
Meanwhile, Liu Yan had won over Wancheng and Emperor Gengshi entered the city and made it his temporary capital. The first internal confrontation between the Han forces dates back to this period. Gengshi, along with some generals Xinshi and Pinglin, who were hostile to Liu Yan, worried that many of his supporters were dissatisfied with Gengshi’s choice as emperor, arrested Liu Ji, who was particularly critical of Gengshi. They tried to kill him, but Liu Yan tried to intercede. Gengshi took advantage of the situation to eliminate Liu Yan, saving however the life of Liu Xiu, Liu Yan’s brother, making him Marquis of Wuxin.
Gengshi at this point created two armies, one led by Wang Kuang with Luoyang as the target and the other led by Shentu Jian and Li Song to Chang’an. During their advance, thousands of people were recruited into the Han ranks. Shentu and Li soon reached the gates of the capital. Upon their arrival, the youth of the city rose and raided the Weiyang Imperial Palace. Wang Mang died during this battle. After the usurper’s death, Gengshi moved the capital from Wancheng to Luoyang. After that, he issued a series of edicts intended to spare the officials of the late Xin dynasty who surrendered.
In this first phase, the Red Eyelashes of Fan Chong recognized the authority of the new emperor, under the promise of titles and honors. But these gifts were mildly dispensed and the authority gained over local officials soon ceased. Fan Chong left the capital and returned to the Chimei. On the 24 Gengshi moved the capital to Chang’an, whose population was disappointed by the emperor’s lack of appreciation for their uprising. Despite these internal diatribes, Gengshi managed to temporarily calm things down. But Gengshi soon antagonized the officials, the people, and the army. On the 24, while he was sending Liu Xiu north of the Yellow River, the troops of the Chimei were approaching the capital, ready to attack it.
In 25 Liu Xiu finally broke with Gengshi and declared himself emperor with the name of Guangwu, after taking control of Henei and Luoyang. His general Den Yu conquered today’s Shanxi. Feeling that the encirclement was inevitable, many of Gengshi’s generals conspired against the emperor. The conspiracy was soon discovered and they were executed. The only survivor, Zhang Ang, however, managed to control a large part of Chang’an, forcing Gengshi to flee while the troops of the Chimei arrived. The emperor also, without any proof, accused Wang Kuan, Chen Mu, and Cheng Dan of conspiring with Zhang Ang. Chen and Cheng were killed, but Wang managed to join Zhang. Men still loyal to the emperor managed to free the capital but for a short time since it fell into the hands of the Chimei. At this point, the forces of the Chimei numbered more than 300,000 men.
In 25, Emperor Gengshi surrendered to the Chimei forces and was initially pardoned and appointed Prince of Changsha. Encouraged by the priests of Liu Zhang, the Chimei leaders sought out among their men descendants of Liu Zhang, or the Jing prince of Chengyang, regarded as a deity after his death in 177 BC. They found three descendants of Liu Zhang among their soldiers and chose the young Liu Penzi, fifteen at the time, as the new, symbolic, emperor. Penzi became the Han emperor in Chang’an. Initially, the people of Guanzhong submitted but were soon disappointed by the constant raids of the Chimei soldiers. They gradually lost the support of the local populations who began to look in favor of Liu Xiu who in the meantime had also proclaimed himself emperor. The inhabitants of Chang’an began to mourn Emperor Gengshi. In response, General Chimei Xie Lu strangled him.
After a few months, due to the shortage of food and supplies, the Chimei began to plunder the palaces of Chang’an and then marched towards Gansu. In the fall of 26, the Chimei attacked the territories of warlord Wei Xiao, but were defeated. Tested by the bitter cold, they tried to return east and engaged in a series of battles against Deng. The war brought further famine to the region which affected not only the population but also the forces of Deng and Chimei. Liu Xiu created two large armies to counter the Red Eyebrows, under the control of Deng and Feng Yi. In the spring of 27, the Chimei once again defeated Deng and Feng at Hu, modern Sanmenxia, in Henan, showing some ingenuity. The Chimei troops pretended to have withdrawn in bulk, leaving supplies behind them. Deng’s men, also starved, recovered the crates, only to discover that they contained earth under a layer of beans. Thus the soldiers, stressed by the situation and weakened by hunger, were soon defeated by the Chimei.
This was the last Chimei victory. Only a month later, they were eradicated by Geng. Some fled east to Yiyang. Once in Yiyang they were surprised by Liu Xiu and surrendered. Liu Xiu spared Penzi and the Chimei generals. They then settled in Luoyang: they were given a salary and land, but they received no official assignments. Anyway Fan and Pang tried to revolt once again, but they were caught and executed. Yang and Xu returned to their lands and died of old age. Xie was assassinated by Liu Gong to avenge the death of his brother Gengshi. The young emperor Penzi was appointed assistant to Liu Xiu’s uncle Liu Liang and became Prince of Zhao. Penzi later went blind, and Liu Xiu granted him lands so that he could survive. Thus ended the story of the first great secret society, the Red Eyebrows.