The Red Turban Rebellion in China (1351-1368)

Kublai Khan on horseback


Disastrous floods on the Yellow River washed away crops, drowned villagers, and changed the river's course so that it no longer met up with the Grand Canal. The hungry survivors of these catastrophes began to think that their ethnic-Mongol rulers, the Yuan Dynasty, had lost the Mandate of Heaven. When those same rulers forced 150,000 to 200,000 of their Han Chinese subjects to turn out for a massive labor corvee to dig out the canal once more and join it to the river, the laborers rebelled. This uprising, called the Red Turban Rebellion, signaled the beginning of the end for Mongol rule over China.

The first leader of the Red Turbans, Han Shantong, recruited his followers from the forced laborers who were digging out the canal bed in 1351. Han's grandfather had been a sect leader of the White Lotus sect, which provided the religious underpinnings for the Red Turban Rebellion. Yuan Dynasty authorities soon captured and executed Han Shantong, but his son took his place at the head of the rebellion. Both Hans were able to play upon their followers' hunger, their displeasure at being forced to work without pay for the government, and their deep-seated dislike of being ruled by "barbarians" from Mongolia. In northern China, this led to an explosion of Red Turban anti-government activity.

Meanwhile, in southern China, a second Red Turban uprising began under the leadership of Xu Shouhui. It had similar complaints and goals to those of the northern Red Turbans, but the two were not coordinated in any way. 

Although the peasant soldiers originally identified with the color white (from the White Lotus Society) they soon switched to the much luckier color red. To identify themselves, they wore red headbands or hong jin, which gave the uprising its common name as the "Red Turban Rebellion." Armed with makeshift weapons and farm implements, they should not have been a real threat to the Mongol-led armies of the central government, but the Yuan Dynasty was in turmoil.

Initially, an able commander called Chief Councillor Toghto was able to put together an effective force of 100,000 imperial soldiers to put down the northern Red Turbans. He succeeded in 1352, routing Han's army. In 1354, the Red Turbans went on the offensive once more, cutting the Grand Canal. Toghto assembled a force traditionally numbered at 1 million, although that is no doubt a gross exaggeration. Just as he began to move against the Red Turbans, court intrigue resulted in the emperor dismissing Toghto. His outraged officers and many of the soldiers deserted in protest of his removal, and the Yuan court was never able to find another effective general to lead the anti-Red Turban efforts.

During the late 1350s and early 1360s, local leaders of the Red Turbans fought among themselves for control of soldiers and territory. They expended so much energy on each other that the Yuan government was left in relative peace for a time. It seemed as if the rebellion might collapse under the weight of different warlords' ambition.

However, Han Shantong's son died in 1366; some historians believe that his general, Zhu Yuanzhang, had him drowned. Although it took two more years, Zhu led his peasant army to capture the Mongol capital at Dadu (Beijing) in 1368. The Yuan Dynasty fell, and Zhu established a new, ethnically-Han Chinese dynasty called the Ming.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Red Turban Rebellion in China (1351-1368)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). The Red Turban Rebellion in China (1351-1368). Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Red Turban Rebellion in China (1351-1368)." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).