A major cause of the Yellow Turban Rebellion was an agrarian crisis, in which famine forced many farmers and former military settlers in the north to seek employment in the south, where large landowners took advantage of the labor surplus and amassed large fortunes. The situation was further aggravated by smaller floods along the lower course of the Yellow River. Further pressure was added on the peasants by high taxes imposed on them in order to build fortifications along the Silk Road and garrisons against foreign infiltrations and invasions. In this situation, landowners and landless peasants formed armed bands , setting the stage for an armed conflict.
At the same time, the Han was weakening internally. The power of the landowners had been a problem for a long time already , but in the run-up to the Yellow Turban Rebellion, the court eunuchs in particular gained considerably in influence on the emperor, which they abused to enrich themselves. Ten of the most powerful eunuchs formed a group known as '''' and the emperor referred to one of them as his "foster father". Consequently, the government was widely regarded as corrupt and incapable and against this backdrop, the famines and floods were seen as an indication that a decadent emperor had lost his mandate of heaven.
Because of its plan for a new beginning, the Yellow Turban sect of Zhang Jiao was to prove the most dangerous enemy of Han. In preparation for his revolt, Zhang sent disciples out to gain support and organize followers throughout North China. They were encouraged in their recruitment by local political discontent, and by droughts and plague among the people. The rebels even had allies in the imperial court, and they were able to
make their preparations while government officials were either ignorant of their intentions or intimidated by their power. Nearly all of the religious practices of the sect were communal activities .
The Yellow Turban forces were concentrated in three areas. The group led by Zhang Jiao and his two brothers gained their support from the region just north of the Yellow River, near Zhang Jiao's home territory of Julu and his base in Wei commandery. A second major rising took place in Guangyang and Zhuo commanderies in You province, in the neighborhood of present-day Beijing. The third center of rebellion was in the three commanderies of Yingchuan, Runan and Nanyang. This force had evidently been intended to co-operate with the traitors inside Luoyang in the attempt to seize the capital, but even without that support, the rebels in this region were a major threat.
In the first weeks of the uprising, the government of Emperor Ling was chiefly concerned with finding and executing the traitors at the capital and with the immediate defense of the city. In the third month, when these preparations had been made, three armies were sent out to deal with the rebellion. One was sent east against Zhang Jiao. The other two, commanded by Huangfu Song and by Zhu Jun, were sent against the rebels in Yingchuan, Runan and Nanyang. Zhu Jun recommended Sun Jian's appointment to call up troops and join his forces. With such widespread rebellion to deal with, the imperial commanders were anxious to gain any reinforcements that they could, and the territory of the lower Yangzi, not directly affected by Zhang Jiao's movement, was close enough to be a convenient source of recruits for the imperial army. Sun Jian collected his troops, and he marched to join Zhu Jun's army with a thousand men under his command. The fighting against the Yellow Turbans of Yingchuan, Runan and Nanyang was frequently fierce, with varying success.
In the third month of 184, soon after the rebellion had broken out, the Yellow Turban Zhang Mancheng defeated and killed the Grand Administrator of Nanyang, and in the fourth month, at the beginning of summer, the imperial army under Zhu Jun was defeated by the Yellow Turban Bo Cai in Yingchuan, while the Grand Administrator of Runan was defeated by another force of rebels.
To oppose the Yellow Turbans, Huangfu Song, , and Zhu Jun formed a subjugation force to go on the offensive. looked for people to be in the volunteer forces. Liu Bei one of the people to answer the call, rescued General Dong Zhuo from the enemy. In AD 184, the Yellow Turban Rebellion started in the provinces Shandong and Henan. At this time the rebel force consisted of approximately 360,000 fighters. He Jin, the half-brother of , was placed in charge of putting the rebellion down.
In the middle of the year 184; however, the tide turned. In the fifth month Huangfu Song and Zhu Jun combined their armies to defeat Bo Cai, and in the sixth month they destroyed the Yellow Turbans of Runan in a Battle at Xihua in Henan. Then the two generals went separate ways, Huangfu Song to join in the attack on the rebels north of the Yellow River, and Zhu Jun to deal with the Yellow Turbans of Nanyang. By this time, a new Grand Administrator had defeated Zhang Mancheng and killed him. In that campaign; however, the Yellow Turbans were able to capture the capital of the commandery, Wan city, and they took refuge there.
For the next several months, the core of the campaign was the fighting in and around Wan city, until the place was finally stormed and the defenders massacred in the eleventh month, midwinter at the beginning of 185. The capture of Wan city was the last great defeat of the Yellow Turbans. Their forces in the North China plain had been destroyed in the field by the imperial armies during the summer, their strongholds were besieged and captured, and the three Zhang brothers were dead. The remaining, scattered rebels were pursued by commandery and county forces in various mopping-up operations, and in the twelfth month of the Chinese year, mid-February of 185, the government issued a proclamation of celebration, changing the reign title to the slogan "Pacification Achieved."
The rebels were defeated in February AD 185, but only two months later, the rebellion broke out again. In AD 185, it spread to the Taihang Mountains on the western border of and in 186 it reached Shaanxi, Hebei, and Liaoning, in 188 it reached Shanxi. In the same year, a second independent uprising took place in Sichuan, but it wasn't coordinated with the Yellow Turban Rebellion in other parts of the country.
In December 188 and early in 189, the rebels threatened Luoyang, which was the capital city of the Han Dynasty at the time. As a reaction, imperial troops were sent both west and south to confront the rebels. Although the southern detachment was able to score a victory, its commander, Lu Zhi, was arrested for not keeping on the offensive against the rebels. In 192, Cao Cao was able to defeat the rebels again after they marched into Yanzhou, who eventually ceased to pose a military challenge by the year 205. Cao Cao defeated Zhang Bao and Zhang Liang, effectively swaying the momentum to the imperial forces. Zhang Jiao died of illness, and a year later the rebellion was crushed.
Aftermath and impact
The Han armies had gained a glorious victory, and it was a remarkable achievement that they removed so quickly the threat of Zhang Jiao's rebellion. The cost, however, was very high. Over wide areas the offices of the government had been destroyed, magistrates had been killed, and whole districts were cut off from the writ of the central government. The enemy had been slaughtered in the hundreds and thousands, many innocent people had been left homeless or destitute by the wars, and the economy and society over great parts of this most populous region of the empire were left in ruins and without resources. Unrest remained and bandits appeared in every district; the government, in no position to put down all the lesser disturbances, was forced to patch up the situation as best it could. A long period of consolidation was needed to restore some measure of peace and prosperity, but that breathing space was not given.
While the Yellow Turban rebellion was eventually defeated, the military leaders and local administrators gained self-governing powers in the process. This hastened the collapse of the Han Dynasty in AD 220. After Emperor Ling of Han died in AD 189, a power struggle between He Jin and the eunuchs ensued in which He Jin was assassinated on September 22 189. He Jin's chief ally Yuan Shao retaliated by setting the emperor's palace on fire and . Finally, the warlord Dong Zhuo was able to gain control over the underage heir to the throne which he used as a legitimation for occupying the capital, which was ransacked on the occasion. Because of his cruelty, Dong Zhuo was murdered in 192, setting the stage for Cao Cao's rise to power.
Despite the negativity portrayed in the ''Romance of Three Kingdoms'', being a large scale rebellion against corrupted authority, several peasant uprisings in China were patterned after the Yellow Turban Rebellion or claimed to be its spiritual successors.
The ''Yellow Scarves Rebellion'' is the opening event in the ''"Romance of the Three Kingdoms"''. Two Koei video game series, '''' and ''Dynasty Warriors'', are based on the ''Romance of the Three Kingdoms'' and also contain the Yellow Turban Rebellion. Earlier version of the video game used the name ''Yellow Scarves Rebellion'', but in later versions this was changed to ''Yellow Turban Rebellion''.