The Red Eyebrows or Chimei (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.
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 (Emperor Gengshi), leader of the Lülin, to overthrow Wang and temporarily reestablish an incarnation of the Han dynasty. The Red Eyebrows later overthrew Emperor Gengshi and placed their own Han descendant puppet, teenage Emperor Liu Penzi, 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.
Circa 17 CE, 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.
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 befriend 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.
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 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.
Joining of the forces
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 under Wang Mang and Lian Dan
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 Emperor Gengshi on the throne.
Temporary submission to Emperor Gengshi
After Wang Mang's death, the entire empire largely, at least nominally, submitted to Emperor Gengshi as the legitimately restored Han emperor. Emperor Gengshi temporarily placed his capital at Luoyang, and he sent diplomats to try to persuade Chimei generals to submit as well. Fan Chong and the other key generals agreed, and 20 odd Chimei generals went to Luoyang and were made marquesses. However, they were not given any actual marches, and, seeing that their men were about to disband, they fled from Luoyang, back to their then-base of Puyang. The strategist Liu Lin (劉林) suggested to Liu Xiu, then a key general of Emperor Gengshi's, to break the Yellow River levee and destroy the Chimei by that manner, but Liu Xiu refused.
Campaign against Chang'an
By late 24, while Chimei was strong militarily, the soldiers were fatigued from all of the wars and wanted to return home. Fan and the other leaders concluded that in order to keep them together, a bigger goal needed to be set. They therefore set their eyes on Emperor Gengshi's regime, which by then had relocated to Chang'an. The Chimei forces were divided into two armies, one led by Fan and Pang, targeting Wu Gate (武關, in modern Shangluo, Shaanxi), and the other led by Xu, Xie, and Yang, targeting Luhun Gate (陸渾關, in modern Luoyang, Henan), but both aiming for Chang'an.
In spring 25, the two armies rejoined at Hongnong (弘農, in modern Sanmenxia, Henan) and defeated a major general of Emperor Gengshi's, Su Mao (蘇茂). By this point the Chimei had grown to about 300,000 men. Emperor Gengshi's generals wanted to abandon Chang'an and head back to their home territory in modern southern Henan and northern Hubei, but Emperor Gengshi refused.
About this time, after being urged to do so by priests of Liu Zhang (Prince Jing of Chengyang whose principality many Chimei men came from and who was worshipped as a god after his death in 177 BC) the Chimei leaders seriously considered the idea of finding one of Liu Zhang's descendants and making him emperor to inherit the Han throne. They found three of Liu Zhang's male descendants among their army, and, after drawing lots, they made one of them, the 15-year-old Liu Penzi, emperor—but the new "emperor" had no real power and continued to serve as a cattleman in the army.
In autumn 25, Chimei forces captured Chang'an, and Emperor Gengshi fled, being only followed by several loyal followers, including Liu Zhi (劉祉) the Prince of Dingtao and Liu Gong (劉恭) the Marquess of Shi—who, incidentally, was Liu Penzi's older brother. He soon surrendered and, under intercession by Liu Gong, was made the Prince of Changsha.
Loss of popular support
Meanwhile, Emperor Penzi was installed on the Han throne in Chang'an. Initially, the people of the Guanzhong (關中, modern central Shaanxi) region submitted and offered tributes—and were surprised when the Chimei soldiers continuously robbed them on the way to Chang'an. The locals soon resumed maintaining and defending their outposts. They also started to look forward to Liu Xiu, who by then had declared himself as an emperor as well (establishing the Eastern Han Dynasty), and his general Deng Yu, whose forces were then stationed nearby but not confronting the Chimei forces, content to consolidate his control over the Commanderies of Shang, Beidi, and Anding (modern northern Shaanxi and eastern Gansu) and to wait for the Chimei to collapse by themselves.
The people of Chang'an, under direct Chimei rule, began to yearn for the return of Emperor Gengshi. In response, the Chimei general Xie Lu, who was in charge of Emperor Gengshi at that time, strangled him. Liu Gong hid Emperor Gengshi's body and prepared it for eventual burial.
In 26, Liu Gong, seeing the dangers of the situation for his brother the emperor, decided to make one attempt to either put the situation under control or disengage his brother from the mess. At the New Year's Day imperial gathering, Liu Gong first spoke and asked that Emperor Penzi be allowed to yield the throne, and Emperor Penzi jumped off the throne, took the imperial seal off himself, and spoke while crying:
- Now there is an emperor, but everyone continues to act as robbers. The people hate us and do not trust us. This is because you chose the wrong Son of Heaven. Please return my body to me. But if you want to kill me to divert blame, then I must die.
Fan and the other leaders were ashamed, and they left their seats and bowed down to Emperor Penzi, apologizing for their failures. They physically forced Emperor Penzi back onto the throne and put the imperial seal back onto him. For weeks after the incident, the generals restrained their soldiers from unlawful acts, and the people praised Emperor Penzi as a merciful and brilliant emperor. However, the lawlessness returned before long. Soon, the food supplies were completely depleted, and the Chimei forces burned many Chang'an palaces and other buildings and pillaged the city, then marched west into the modern eastern Gansu region.
Flight back east and collapse
In autumn 26, The Chimei forces attacked the territory held by the regional warlord Wei Xiao (隗囂), but were repelled by Wei. At this time, they suffered from a sudden cold spell that froze many soldiers to death. They headed back east and reentered Chang'an and engaged in a series of battles with Deng and, despite their reduced strength at this time, continued to defeat Deng regularly. The wars led to a severe famine in the Guangzhong region, which affected not only the people of the region but also both Chimei and Deng's forces. Chimei, lacking food, eventually abandoned Chang'an and headed east. Liu Xiu set up two forces at Xin'an (新安, in modern Luoyang, Henan) and Yiyang (宜陽, also in modern Luoyang) to block their progress, as his forces under Deng and Feng Yi, whom he had sent to relieve Deng, continued to battle the Chimei. In spring 27, the Chimei won a great victory against both Deng and Feng at Hu (湖縣, in modern Sanmenxia, Henan) -- a rarity in the records regarding them in that the battle tactics demonstrating Chimei generals' brilliance were recorded in historical accounts. The Chimei general engaged in the tactic of feigning defeat and retreat—abandoning what appeared to be supplies of food. Deng's forces, also hungry, tried to take the food, which turned out to only contain one layer of beans with dirt underneath. Having locked Deng's forces into this frenzy, the Chimei forces then collapsed on them, defeating them.
However, this victory would be the last for the Chimei. About a month later, they suffered a major defeat at Feng's hands—in which Feng created confusion for the Chimei by also coloring his troops' eyebrows red. The remnants of the Chimei withdrew east toward Yiyang. Liu Xiu personally led the troops to wait for them. As the Chimei arrived at Yiyang, they were surprised to see Liu Xiu's overwhelming forces, and decided to negotiate surrender terms. After Liu Xiu agreed not to execute Emperor Penzi, the Chimei emperor and generals surrendered.
The Chimei generals and their families were settled in the Eastern Han capital of Luoyang and given regular stipends and land, but not official positions. Eventually, Fan and Pang prepared to rebel again, and they were discovered and executed. Yang and Xu returned to their home lands and died of old age there. Xie was assassinated by Liu Gong to avenge Emperor Gengshi, and Liu Xiu, sympathetic to Liu Gong, pardoned him.
Liu Xiu made the former Emperor Penzi an assistant to his uncle Liu Liang (劉良), the Prince of Zhao. Later, Liu Penzi suffered an illness that blinded him, and Liu Xiu gave him a large swarth of farmland, allowing him to survive on the rent from the farms.
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