Celestial Masters Rebellion

  • Other Names: 五斗米 (Wǔdǒu mǐ), 米賊 (Mǐ zéi)
  • Chinese: 天師道 (Tiān shīdào)

The Celestial Masters (Tiān shīdào), also known as the Rice Thieves (Mǐ zéi) or the Five Pecks of Rice (Wǔdǒu mǐ), were a rebel group whose actions contributed significantly to the fall of the Han Dynasty in China. The faith healing cult they cultivated is said by some scholars to have been a key predecessor in the development of religious Daoism.[1]

Emerging during the reign of Emperor Shun of Han (125-144 CE), the rebels managed to take control of much of what is today Sichuan province, the breadbasket of China proper. They held much of this territory for decades, resisting the authorities, until they finally gave in to the regional warlord Cao Cao (155-220) in 215, swearing fealty to him.

Not merely a disorganized band of peasant rebels, the so-called Celestial Masters implemented an organized government within their territory. Based on the structure of the Han bureaucracy, it had one particularly key difference: each post was held not by an individual, but by a married couple.

Little is known about the group, as all surviving sources are from hostile points of view. However, their semi-legendary ruler Zhang Daoling may have been originally from the Eastern Han capital of Luoyang. According to traditional accounts, he bankrupted his family seeking elixirs of immortality, and then relocated to Sichuan in the hopes of duping the people there by starting a faith healing movement. His movement, generated out of a combination of his own ideas and native Sichuan folk religion (including, likely, beliefs and practices of non-Han peoples of the region), centered on the idea that illness was caused by sin, and health by repenting. According to this theology, Heaven took an active role in harming and helping people, striking down families which were sinful, and granting longevity to those who were virtuous. Further, sin could be inherited - one could suffer for the sins of one's parents or ancestors.


  • Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 72-73.
  1. Schirokauer, 89.