Red Eyebrows

Red Eyebrows
Painted ceramic statues of one Chinese cavalryman and ten infantrymen with armor, shields, and missing weapons in the foreground, and three more cavalrymen in the rear, from the tomb of Emperor Jing of Han (r. 157-141 BC), now located at the Hainan Provincial Museum

The Red Eyebrows (Chinese: 赤眉; pinyin: Chìméi) was one of the two major agrarian rebellion movements against Wang Mang's short-lived Xin dynasty, the other being Lülin. It was so named because the rebels painted their eyebrows red.[1]

Map of peasant uprisings in Xin Dynasty, including Lulin and Red Eyebrows rebellions

The rebellion, initially active in the modern Shandong and northern Jiangsu regions, eventually led to Wang Mang's downfall by draining his resources, allowing Liu Xuan (Gengshi Emperor), leader of the Lülin, to overthrow Wang and temporarily reestablish an incarnation of the Han dynasty. The Red Eyebrows later overthrew Gengshi Emperor and placed their own Han descendant puppet, teenage Emperor Liu Penzi,[2][3][4] on the throne, who ruled briefly until the Chimei leaders' incompetence in ruling the territories under their control (which matched their brilliance on the battlefield) caused the people to rebel against them, forcing them to retreat and attempt to return home. When their path was blocked by the army of Liu Xiu's (Emperor Guangwu) newly established Eastern Han regime, they surrendered to him.

Rise and first rebellion

Circa 17 AD, due to Wang Mang's incompetence in ruling—particularly in his implementation of his land reform policy—and a major Yellow River flood affecting the modern Shandong and northern Jiangsu regions, the people who could no longer subsist on farming were forced into rebellion to try to survive. The rebellions were numerous and fractured. Two key examples are discussed below.

Mother Lü

The case of Mother Lü was a highly unusual one. Her son was a minor official at the Haiqu county (海曲, in modern Rizhao, Shandong) government, who was accused of a minor offence and executed by the county magistrate. Mother Lü, who was a substantial landowner, sold off her property and used the proceeds to recruit poor young men. When she gathered thousands, she stormed the county seat in the year 17 and killed the magistrate to avenge her son's death. She then led her men to the sea, but died soon afterwards.[3]

Fan Chong

Fan Chong (樊崇, who would eventually become the leader of the Red Eyebrows, albeit in a collective leadership) had his own rebellion in 18, also in the Ju and Langya counties (near modern Rizhao region). He used Mount Tai as his base, and he was able to gather about 10,000 men. He soon entered into an alliance with other rebel leaders Pang An (逄安), Xu Xuan (徐宣), Xie Lu (謝祿), and Yang Yin (楊音), pooling resources with them, and they soon became powerful and unstoppable for the local governments.[3]

Joining of the forces

A mural showing chariots and cavalry, from the Dahuting Tomb (Chinese: 打虎亭汉墓, Pinyin: Dahuting Han mu) of the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), located in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China

In 19, at the behest of his official Tian Kuang (田況), Wang Mang oddly reacted to the agrarian rebellions by raising taxes. This only aggravated the agrarian rebels. In 21, Wang sent vice generals Jing Shang (景尚) and Wang Dang (王黨) to try to put down the rebellions, but Jing and Wang's soldiers were so lacking in military discipline that they further angered the populace which had not rebelled, which caused them to join or help the rebels in greater earnest. Tian, who had earlier aggravated the rebellions, however, had some success against them, and he advocated a policy where the villagers would be evacuated to the cities to trap the rebels into attacking fortifications. Wang, who by this point had distrusted Tian due to his military successes, refused and summoned him back to the capital Chang'an.

About this time, Mother Lü died, and her followers joined forces with Fan Chong's forces.

It should be noted that by this point, Fan and the other rebel leaders still lacked any real political ambition—even as they were showing genuine military abilities. The only rules of law that they had among the rebels was that one who murders would die, and one who wounds would be responsible for the care of the victim until he or she heals. The only titles for the rebel leaders were "county educator" (三老, sanlao), "county clerk" (從事, congshi), and "sheriff" (卒史, zushi) -- not more grandiose titles as "general" or "prince".

Confrontation with Xin forces

By 22, the forces that Jing and Wang led against Fan and other rebel generals were in shambles, and in 22, Fan killed Jing in battle.

Wang Mang reacted by sending two of his senior generals, Wang Kuang (王匡) and Lian Dan (廉丹) with a massive (100,000+ men) regular force, against these rebels. Fan and the other rebel leaders, concerned that during battles it would become impossible to tell friend or foe, ordered that their men color their eyebrows red—and this is where the name Chimei (which literally means "red eyebrows") came from.

Wang and Lian, while capable generals on the battlefield, also failed to maintain proper military discipline. This led to a famous lament by the people victimized by their forces:

I'd rather meet the Chimei than the Taishi (太師, Wang's title). The Taishi is relatively mild, but Gengshi (更始, Lian's title -- should not be confused with Liu Xuan's title) wants to kill me!

In winter 22, Wang and Lian had some successes against the Chimei leader Suolu Hui (索盧恢), capturing the city of Wuyan (無鹽, in modern Tai'an, Shandong). Rather than allowing their forces to rest, however, Wang decided to attack the Chimei stronghold of Liang (梁, in modern Shangqiu, Henan), and Lian reluctantly attacked Liang with him. At the battle of Chengchang (成昌, in modern Tai'an, Shandong), the tired Xin forces were defeated by the Chimei and collapsed. Lian died in battle and Wang fled without his troops. This ended any serious attempt by Xin forces against the Chimei, as Xin would soon be confronted with the even closer Lülin threat, which would capture Chang'an in 23 and kill Wang Mang, ending the Xin Dynasty and placing Gengshi Emperor on the throne.

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