Start of the rebellion
In 17 AD, the Jing Province (荊州, modern Hubei, Hunan, and southern Henan) was suffering a famine that was greatly exacerbated by the corruption and incompetence of Xin officials. The victims of the famine were reduced to consuming wild plants, and even those were in short supply, causing the suffering people to attack each other. Two men named Wang Kuang (王匡) and Wang Feng (王鳳), both from Xinshi (新市, in modern Jingmen, Hubei) became arbiters in some of these disputes, and they became the leaders of the enfamined people. They were later joined by many others, including Ma Wu (馬武), Wang Chang (王常), and Cheng Dan (成丹). Within a few months, 7,000 to 8,000 men gathered together under their commands. They had their base at Lulin Mountain, and their modus operandi was to attack and pillage villages far from the cities for food. This carried on for several years, during which they grew to tens of thousands in size.
Wang sent messengers issuing pardons in hopes of causing these rebels to disband. Once the messengers returned to the Xin capital Chang'an, some honestly reported that the rebels gathered because the harsh laws made it impossible for them to make a living and therefore they were forced to rebel. Some, in order to flatter Wang Mang, told him that these were simply evil resistors who needed to be killed, or that this was a temporary phenomenon. Wang listened to those who flattered him and generally relieved those who told the truth from their posts. Further, Wang made no further attempts to pacify the rebels, but instead decided to suppress them by force. In reality, the rebels were forced into rebellion to survive, and they were hoping that eventually, when the famine was over, they could return home to farm. As a result, they never dared to attack cities.
In 21, the governor of Jing Province mobilized 20,000 soldiers to attack the Lulin rebels, and a battle was pitched at Yundu (雲杜), a major victory for the rebels, who killed thousands of government soldiers and captured their food supply and arms. When the governor tried to retreat, his retreat route was temporarily cut off by Ma Wu, but Ma Wu allowed him to escape, not wanting to offend the government more than the rebels have done already. Instead, the Lulin rebels roved near the area, capturing many women, and then returning to the Lulin Mountain. By this point, they had 50,000 men.