Red Eyebrow Rebellion

Red Eyebrow Rebellion
Red Eyebrow Rebellion

The Red Eyebrows were a rebel group formed in China in 18 c.e. against the regime of the usurper Wang Mang that helped defeat him, resulting in the restoration of the Han dynasty.

The year 9 c.e. saw the Wang family reach the zenith of power. The family had climbed to power due to the marriage of one of its daughters to the future emperor Yuan of the Han dynasty. She bore him a son, who became emperor.

As mother and then grandmother of emperors, she wielded enormous power, appointing her brothers to key government positions and after the death of her brothers appointing her nephew Wang Mang regent for a young emperor. In 9 c.e. Wang Mang deposed the child emperor and ascended the throne, founding the Xin (Hsin) dynasty.

Xin means "new". Wang embarked on an ambitious program of reforms that included the nationalization of land, price fixing, and changes to the taxation system. Some of the reforms could not be carried out; all were widely unpopular.

Natural disasters exacerbated Wang’s problems; they included a shift in the course of the Yellow River in the Great Plain, which trapped large numbers of people in the Shandong (Shantung) Peninsula between the two branches of the river.

Famine followed, creating numerous peasant revolts. One was called the Red Eyebrow Rebellion, from the rebel practice of staining their foreheads red as a distinguishing mark.

Since red was also the color of the deposed Han dynasty, perhaps the illiterate rebels were identifying themselves with the imperial house. However, the Red Eyebrow movement was without religious identity or political ideology; its members were desperately poor people seeking food.

No significant leader emerged among them, and they remained a poorly organized motley army. The inability of Wang Mang’s army to defeat the Red Eyebrows gave hope to surviving members of the Liu family of the deposed Han dynasty, who also rose against Wang.

In 23 c.e. a descendant of the founding emperor of the Han was proclaimed emperor. Troops of the new Han emperor and the Red Eyebrows then marched on the capital city Chang’an (Ch’ang-an), where Wang Mang was captured and executed.

Civil war continued between different claimants of the Han throne, while the Red Eyebrows also proclaimed a descendant of the Liu clan, whom they had kidnapped, as emperor. The Red Eyebrows were incapable of setting up a government, appointing mostly illiterate men as ministers, and merely sacked and looted Chang’an when they captured it for the second time in 25 c.e. and then abandoned it the next year when they had consumed all its food.

They were finally defeated in 27 c.e. by the army of the newly proclaimed Guangwu (Kuang-wu) emperor, founder of the newly established Eastern, or Later, Han dynasty, surrendered to him, and disappeared from history. The Red Eyebrow rebels, though incapable of forming a government and governing, nevertheless played a key role in bringing down the rule of Wang Mang and the restoration of the Han dynasty.