Relief of Zhang Daoling and his wife

How a Daoist Movement Emerged Out of Han Dynasty Chaos

As the Han empire crumbled and the Yellow Turban Rebellion sought to overthrow imperial rule, the “Way of the Five Pecks of Rice” quietly planted the roots of a durable Daoist movement

As natural disasters, epidemics, famines, sky-high taxes, corruption, and warlords ran rampant across territories of the crumbling Han empire in the late 2nd century, the peasants began to do what they do best—rebel.

Millions famously took up arms in the Yellow Turban Rebellion (黄巾军, named after the yellow kerchiefs followers wore during battles), led by the Daoist healer Zhang Jue (张角), and tried to violently topple the Han regime in 184. But while Zhang Jue’s attempt to implement Daoist governance by force of a “celestial revolution” is well-known in Chinese history, another Daoist movement around the same time was more successful and perhaps more influential. Indeed, just six years after Zhang Jue and his army were crushed in 185, an independent Daoist state was established in Han territory which would last 25 years and influence the future of Daoism to the present day.

This religious movement, known as the “Way of the Five Pecks of Rice (五斗米道)” or “Way of the Celestial Masters (天师道),” was led by Daoist healer Zhang Daoling (张道陵) and later his grandson Zhang Lu (张鲁), and its legacy remains through Daoist followers today who adhere to the “Way” set out by the Zhangs and those who claim direct lineage from these leaders. Zhang Meiliang, who lives in Taiwan, claims the title of 65th Celestial Master today, while Longhu Mountain in Jiangxi province remains a sacred place for followers of the Way of the Celestial Masters on the Chinese mainland.

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author Davide L. Barattin

Davide L. Barattin is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese. Coming from Italy, he is fascinated by China’s past and present, being especially curious about the country’s history, and aspires to better understand its future paths.

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