Sui dynasty

Last updated


581–618 [lower-alpha 1]
Cheui Dynasty 581 CE.png
Sui dynasty c.609
Sui Dynasty.png
Administrative division of the Sui dynasty circa 610 AD
Capital Daxing (581–605), Luoyang (605–618)
Common languages Middle Chinese
Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Chinese folk religion, Zoroastrianism
Government Monarchy
Emperor Wen
Emperor Yang
Historical era Postclassical Era
 Ascension of Yang Jian
4 March 581
 Abolished by Li Yuan
23 May 618 [lower-alpha 1]
589 est. [1] 3,000,000 km2 (1,200,000 sq mi)
est. 46,019,956 [a]
Currency Chinese coin, Chinese cash
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Blank.png Northern Zhou
Blank.png Chen dynasty
Blank.png Western Liang
Tang dynasty Blank.png
Today part of China
Sui dynasty
Sui dynasty (Chinese characters).svg
"Sui dynasty" in Chinese characters
Chinese 隋朝

The Sui dynasty ( [swěi] , Chinese : 隋朝 ; pinyin :Suí cháo) was a short-lived imperial dynasty of China of pivotal significance. The Sui unified the Northern and Southern dynasties and reinstalled the rule of ethnic Han in the entirety of China proper, along with sinicization of former nomadic ethnic minorities (Five Barbarians) within its territory. It was succeeded by the Tang dynasty, which largely inherited its foundation.


Founded by Emperor Wen of Sui, the Sui dynasty capital was Chang'an (which was renamed Daxing, modern Xi'an, Shaanxi) from 581–605 and later Luoyang (605–618). Emperors Wen and his successor Yang undertook various centralized reforms, most notably the equal-field system, intended to reduce economic inequality and improve agricultural productivity; the institution of the Five Departments and Six Board (五省六曹 or 五省六部) system, which is a predecessor of Three Departments and Six Ministries system; and the standardization and re-unification of the coinage. They also spread and encouraged Buddhism throughout the empire. By the middle of the dynasty, the newly unified empire entered a golden age of prosperity with vast agricultural surplus that supported rapid population growth.

A lasting legacy of the Sui dynasty was the Grand Canal. [2] With the eastern capital Luoyang at the center of the network, it linked the west-lying capital Chang'an to the economic and agricultural centers of the east towards Jiangdu (now Yangzhou, Jiangsu) and Yuhang (now Hangzhou, Zhejiang), and to the northern border near modern Beijing. While the pressing initial motives were for shipment of grains to the capital, transporting troops, and military logistics, the reliable inland shipment links would facilitate domestic trade, flow of people and cultural exchange for centuries. Along with the extension of the Great Wall, and the construction of the eastern capital city of Luoyang, these mega projects, led by an efficient centralized bureaucracy, would amass millions of conscripted workers from the large population base, at heavy cost of human lives.

After a series of costly and disastrous military campaigns against Goguryeo, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, [3] [4] [5] ended in defeat by 614, the dynasty disintegrated under a series of popular revolts culminating in the assassination of Emperor Yang by his minister, Yuwen Huaji in 618. The dynasty, which lasted only thirty-seven years, was undermined by ambitious wars and construction projects, which overstretched its resources. Particularly, under Emperor Yang, heavy taxation and compulsory labor duties would eventually induce widespread revolts and brief civil war following the fall of the dynasty.

The dynasty is often compared to the earlier Qin dynasty for unifying China after prolonged division. Wide-ranging reforms and construction projects were undertaken to consolidate the newly unified state, with long-lasting influences beyond their short dynastic reigns.


Emperor Wen and the founding of Sui

Towards the late Northern and Southern dynasties, the Northern Zhou conquered the Northern Qi in 577 and reunified northern China. The century's trend of gradual conquest of the southern dynasties of the Han Chinese by the northern dynasties, which were ruled by ethnic minority Xianbei, would become inevitable. By this time, the later founder of the Sui dynasty, Yang Jian, an ethnic Han Chinese, became the regent to the Northern Zhou court. His daughter was the Empress Dowager, and her stepson, Emperor Jing of Northern Zhou, was a child. After crushing an army in the eastern provinces, Yang Jian usurped the throne to become Emperor Wen of Sui. While formerly the Duke of Sui when serving at the Zhou court, where the character "Sui " literally means "to follow" and implies loyalty, Emperor Wen created the unique character "Sui ()", morphed from the character of his former title, as the name of his newly founded dynasty. In a bloody purge, he had fifty-nine princes of the Zhou royal family eliminated, yet nevertheless became known as the "Cultured Emperor". [6] Emperor Wen abolished the anti-Han policies of Zhou and reclaimed his Han surname of Yang. Having won the support of Confucian scholars who held power in previous Han dynasties (abandoning the nepotism and corruption of the nine-rank system), Emperor Wen initiated a series of reforms aimed at strengthening his empire for the wars that would reunify China.

In his campaign for southern conquest, Emperor Wen assembled thousands of boats to confront the naval forces of the Chen dynasty on the Yangtze River. The largest of these ships were very tall, having five layered decks and the capacity for 800 non-crew personnel. They were outfitted with six 50-foot-long booms that were used to swing and damage enemy ships, or to pin them down so that Sui marine troops could use act-and-board techniques. [6] :89 Besides employing Xianbei and other Chinese ethnic groups for the fight against Chen, Emperor Wen also employed the service of people from southeastern Sichuan, which Sui had recently conquered. [6] :89

In 588, the Sui had amassed 518,000 troops along the northern bank of the Yangtze River, stretching from Sichuan to the East China Sea. [7] The Chen dynasty could not withstand such an assault. By 589, Sui troops entered Jiankang (Nanjing) and the last emperor of Chen surrendered. The city was razed to the ground, while Sui troops escorted Chen nobles back north, where the northern aristocrats became fascinated with everything the south had to provide culturally and intellectually.

Although Emperor Wen was famous for bankrupting the state treasury with warfare and construction projects, he made many improvements to infrastructure during his early reign. He established granaries as sources of food and as a means to regulate market prices from the taxation of crops, much like the earlier Han dynasty. The large agricultural surplus supported rapid growth of population to a historical peak, which was only surpassed at the zenith of the Tang Dynasty more than a century later.

The state capital of Chang'an (Daxing), while situated in the militarily secure heartland of Guanzhong, was remote from the economic centers to the east and south of the empire. Emperor Wen initiated the construction of the Grand Canal, with completion of the first (and the shortest) route that directly linked Chang'an to the Yellow River (Huang He). Later, Emperor Yang enormously enlarged the scale of the Grand Canal construction.

Sui China divisions under Yangdi (western regions not depicted) China, 610.svg
Sui China divisions under Yangdi (western regions not depicted)

Externally, the emerging nomadic Turkic (Tujue) Khaganate in the north posed a major threat to the newly founded dynasty. With Emperor Wen's diplomatic maneuver, the Khaganate split into Eastern and Western halves. Later the Great Wall was consolidated to further secure the northern territory. In Emperor Wen's late years, the first war with Goguryeo (Korea), ended with defeat. Nevertheless, the celebrated "[Reign of Kaihuang" (era name of Emperor Wen)" was considered by historians as one of the apexes in the two millennium imperial period of Chinese history.

The Sui Emperors were from the northwest military aristocracy, and emphasized that their patrilineal ancestry was ethnic Han, claiming descent from the Han official Yang Zhen. [8] The New Book of Tang traced his patrilineal ancestry to the Zhou dynasty kings via the Dukes of Jin. [9]

The Yang of Hongnong 弘農楊氏 [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [ excessive citations ] were asserted as ancestors by the Sui Emperors, much as the Longxi Li's were asserted as ancestors of the Tang Emperors. [15] The Li of Zhaojun and the Lu of Fanyang hailed from Shandong and were related to the Liu clan which was also linked to the Yang of Hongnong and other clans of Guanlong. [16] The Dukes of Jin were claimed as the ancestors of the Hongnong Yang. [17]

A Sui dynasty pilgrim flask made of stoneware Sui Dynasty Pilgrim Flask.JPG
A Sui dynasty pilgrim flask made of stoneware

The Yang of Hongnong, Jia of Hedong, Xiang of Henei, and Wang of Taiyuan from the Tang dynasty were claimed as ancestors by Song dynasty lineages. [18]

Information about these major political events in China were somehow filtered west and reached the Byzantine Empire, the continuation of the Roman Empire in the east. From Turkic peoples of Central Asia the Eastern Romans derived a new name for China after the older Sinae and Serica : Taugast (Old Turkic: Tabghach ), during its Northern Wei (386–535) period. [19] The 7th-century Byzantine historian Theophylact Simocatta wrote a generally accurate depiction of the reunification of China by Emperor Wen of Sui Dynasty, with the conquest of the rival Chen Dynasty in southern China. Simocatta correctly placed these events within the reign period of Byzantine ruler Maurice. [20] Simocatta also provided cursory information about the geography of China, its division by the Yangzi River and its capital Khubdan (from Old Turkic Khumdan, i.e. Chang'an) along with its customs and culture, deeming its people "idolatrous" but wise in governance. [20] He noted that the ruler was named "Taisson", which he claimed meant "Son of God", perhaps Chinese Tianzi (Son of Heaven) or even the name of the contemporary ruler Emperor Taizong of Tang. [21]

Emperor Yang and the reconquest of Vietnam

A Sui dynasty stone statue of the Avalokitesvara Boddhisattva (Guanyin) Cernuschi Museum 20060812 111.jpg
A Sui dynasty stone statue of the Avalokitesvara Boddhisattva (Guanyin)

Emperor Yang of Sui (569–618) ascended the throne after his father's death, possibly by murder. He further extended the empire, but unlike his father, did not seek to gain support from the nomads. Instead, he restored Confucian education and the Confucian examination system for bureaucrats. By supporting educational reforms, he lost the support of the nomads. He also started many expensive construction projects such as the Grand Canal of China, and became embroiled in several costly wars. Between these policies, invasions into China from Turkic nomads, and his growing life of decadent luxury at the expense of the peasantry, he lost public support and was eventually assassinated by his own ministers.

Both Emperors Yang and Wen sent military expeditions into Vietnam as Annam in northern Vietnam had been incorporated into the Chinese empire over 600 years earlier during the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). However the Kingdom of Champa in central Vietnam became a major counterpart to Chinese invasions to its north. According to Ebrey, Walthall, and Palais, these invasions became known as the Linyi-Champa Campaign (602–605). [6]

The Hanoi area formerly held by the Han and Jin dynasties was easily retaken from the Early Lý dynasty ruler Lý Phật Tử in 602. A few years later the Sui army pushed farther south and was attacked by troops on war elephants from Champa in southern Vietnam. The Sui army feigned retreat and dug pits to trap the elephants, lured the Champan troops to attack then used crossbows against the elephants causing them to turn around and trample their own soldiers. Although Sui troops were victorious many succumbed to disease as northern soldiers did not have immunity to tropical diseases such as malaria. [6] :90

Goguryeo-Sui wars

The Sui dynasty led a series of massive expeditions to invade Goguryeo, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Emperor Yang conscripted many soldiers for the campaign. This army was so enormous it recorded in historical texts that it took 30 days for all the armies to exit their last rallying point near Shanhaiguan before invading Goguryeo. In one instance the soldiers—both conscripted and paid—listed over 3000 warships, up to 1.15 million infantry, 50,000 cavalry, 5000 artillery, and more. The army stretched to 1000 li or about 410 km (250 mi) across rivers and valleys, over mountains and hills. Each of the four military expeditions ended in failure, incurring a substantial financial and manpower deficit from which the Sui would never recover.

Fall of the Sui Dynasty

Chinese swords of the Sui dynasty, about 600, found near Luoyang. The P-shaped furniture of the bottom sword's scabbard is similar to and may have been derived from sword scabbards of the Sarmatians and Sassanians. Chinese swords Sui Dynasty about 600 found near Luoyang.jpg
Chinese swords of the Sui dynasty, about 600, found near Luoyang. The P-shaped furniture of the bottom sword's scabbard is similar to and may have been derived from sword scabbards of the Sarmatians and Sassanians.
Strolling About in Spring, by Zhan Ziqian, Sui era artist Stroll About InSpring.jpg
Strolling About in Spring, by Zhan Ziqian, Sui era artist

One of the major work projects undertaken by the Sui was construction activities along the Great Wall of China; but this, along with other large projects, strained the economy and angered the resentful workforce employed. During the last few years of the Sui dynasty, the rebellion that rose against it took many of China's able-bodied men from rural farms and other occupations, which in turn damaged the agricultural base and the economy further. [23] Men would deliberately break their limbs in order to avoid military conscription, calling the practice "propitious paws" and "fortunate feet." [23] Later, after the fall of Sui, in the year 642, Emperor Taizong of Tang made an effort to eradicate this practice by issuing a decree of a stiffer punishment for those who were found to deliberately injure and heal themselves. [23]

Although the Sui dynasty was relatively short (581–618), much was accomplished during its tenure. The Grand Canal was one of the main accomplishments. It was extended north from the Hangzhou region across the Yangzi to Yangzhou and then northwest to the region of Luoyang. Again, like the Great Wall works, the massive conscription of labor and allocation of resources for the Grand Canal project resulted in challenges for Sui dynastic continuity. The eventual fall of the Sui dynasty was also due to the many losses caused by the failed military campaigns against Goguryeo. It was after these defeats and losses that the country was left in ruins and rebels soon took control of the government. Emperor Yang was assassinated in 618. He had gone South after the capital being threatened by various rebel groups and was killed by his advisors (Yuwen Clan). Meanwhile, in the North, the aristocrat Li Yuan (李淵) held an uprising after which he ended up ascending the throne to become Emperor Gaozu of Tang. This was the start of the Tang dynasty, one of the most-noted dynasties in Chinese history.

There were Dukedoms for the offspring of the royal families of the Zhou dynasty, Sui dynasty, and Tang dynasty in the Later Jin (Five Dynasties). [24] This practice was referred to as Èr wángsānkè (二王三恪).


Model of a Pipa Player, Sui Dynasty Sui dynasty pipa player .jpg
Model of a Pipa Player, Sui Dynasty

Although the Sui dynasty was relatively short-lived, in terms of culture, it represents a transition from the preceding ages, and many cultural developments which can be seen to be incipient during the Sui dynasty later were expanded and consolidated during the ensuing Tang dynasty, and later ages. This includes not only the major public works initiated, such as the Great Wall and the Great Canal, but also the political system developed by Sui, which was adopted by Tang with little initial change other than at the top of the political hierarchy. Other cultural developments of the Sui dynasty included religion and literature, particular examples being Buddhism and poetry.

Rituals and sacrifices were conducted by the Sui. [25]


Buddhism was popular during the Sixteen Kingdoms and Northern and Southern dynasties period that preceded the Sui dynasty, spreading from India through Kushan Afghanistan into China during the Late Han period. Buddhism gained prominence during the period when central political control was limited. Buddhism created a unifying cultural force that uplifted the people out of war and into the Sui dynasty. In many ways, Buddhism was responsible for the rebirth of culture in China under the Sui dynasty.

While early Buddhist teachings were acquired from Sanskrit sutras from India, it was during the late Six dynasties and Sui dynasty that local Chinese schools of Buddhist thoughts started to flourish. Most notably, Zhiyi founded the Tiantai school and completed the Great treatise on Concentration and Insight, within which he taught the principle of "Three Thousand Realms in a Single moment of Life" as the essence of Buddhist teaching outlined in the Lotus Sutra.

Emperor Wen and his empress had converted to Buddhism to legitimize imperial authority over China and the conquest of Chen. The emperor presented himself as a Cakravartin king, a Buddhist monarch who would use military force to defend the Buddhist faith. In the year 601 AD, Emperor Wen had relics of the Buddha distributed to temples throughout China, with edicts that expressed his goals, "all the people within the Four Seas may, without exception, develop enlightenment and together cultivate fortunate karma, bringing it to pass that present existences will lead to happy future lives, that the sustained creation of good causation will carry us one and all up to wondrous enlightenment". [6] :89 Ultimately, this act was an imitation of the ancient Mauryan Emperor Ashoka of India. [6] :89


Confucian philosopher Wang Tong wrote and taught during the Sui Dynasty, and even briefly held office as Secretary of Shuzhou. [26] His most famous (as well as only surviving) work, the Explanation of the Mean (Zhongshuo, 中说) [27] was compiled shortly after his death in 617.


Yang Guang depicted as Emperor of Sui Sui Yangdi Tang.jpg
Yang Guang depicted as Emperor of Sui

Although poetry continued to be written, and certain poets rose in prominence while others disappeared from the landscape, the brief Sui dynasty, in terms of the development of Chinese poetry, lacks distinction, though it nonetheless represents a continuity between the Six Dynasties and the poetry of Tang. [28] Sui dynasty poets include Yang Guang (580–618), who was the last Sui emperor (and a sort of poetry critic); and also, the Lady Hou, one of his consorts.


Posthumous Name (Shi Hao 諡號)
Convention: "Sui" + name
Birth NamePeriod of ReignEra Names (Nian Hao 年號) and their according range of years
Wéndì (文帝) Yáng Jiān (楊堅)581–604Kāihuáng (開皇) 581–600
Rénshòu (仁壽) 601–604
Yángdì (煬帝) or
Míngdì (明帝)
Yáng Guǎng (楊廣)604–618 [lower-alpha 1] Dàyè (大業) 605–618
Gōngdì (恭帝) Yáng Yòu (楊侑)617–618 [lower-alpha 1] Yìníng (義寧) 617–618
Gōngdì (恭帝) Yáng Tóng (楊侗)618–619 [lower-alpha 1] Huángtài (皇泰) 618–619

Family tree of the Sui emperors

Emperors family tree
Dugu Xin 獨孤信
Yang Jian 楊堅 541–604
Wendi 文帝
Dugu Qieluo
獨孤伽羅 544–602
Empress Xian 獻皇后
Duchess DuguLi Bing 李昺 d. 572
Duke of Tang 唐國公
Yang Yong 楊勇
d. 604
Prince of Fangling 房陵王
Yang Guang 楊廣 569–618
Yangdi 煬帝
Yang Jun 楊俊
Prince of Qin 秦孝王
Yang Xiu 楊秀
Yang Liang
Li Yuan 李淵 566–635
Gaozu 高祖
Yang Zhao 楊昭
Cr.Prince Yuande
Yang Jian 楊暕
Prince of Qi 齊王
Yang Gao
楊杲 607–618
Prince of Zhao 趙王
Yang Hao
楊浩 d. 618
Prince of Qin 秦王

Yang Tan 楊倓
Prince of Yan 燕王
Yang Tong 楊侗 605–619
Gongdi 恭帝
Yang You 楊侑 605–619
Gongdi 恭帝

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 In 617, the rebel general Li Yuan (the later Emperor Gaozu of Tang) declared Emperor Yang's grandson Yang You emperor (as Emperor Gong) and "honored" Emperor Yang as Taishang Huang (retired emperor) at the western capital Daxing (Chang'an), but only the commanderies under Li's control recognized this change; for the other commanderies under Sui control, Emperor Yang was still regarded as emperor, not as retired emperor. After news of Emperor Yang's death in 618 reached Daxing and the eastern capital Luoyang, Li Yuan deposed Emperor Gong and took the throne himself, establishing the Tang dynasty, but the Sui officials at Luoyang declared Emperor Gong's brother Yang Tong (later also known as Emperor Gong during the brief reign of Wang Shichong over the region as the emperor of a brief Zheng (鄭) state) emperor. Meanwhile, Yuwen Huaji, the general under whose leadership the plot to kill Emperor Yang was carried out, declared Emperor Wen's grandson Yang Hao emperor but killed Yang Hao later in 618 and declared himself emperor of a brief Xu (許) state. As Yang Hao was completely under Yuwen's control and only "reigned" briefly, he is not usually regarded as a legitimate emperor of Sui, while Yang Tong's legitimacy is more recognized by historians but still disputed.

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Li Mi (Sui dynasty)

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Pei Ju (547-627), birth name Pei Shiju, courtesy name Hongda, formally Duke Jing of Anyi, was a Chinese cartographer, diplomat, politician, and writer who lived in the Sui and Tang dynasties, briefly serving as a chancellor during the reign of Emperor Gaozu of Tang. He was praised by traditional Chinese historians for his ability and lack of corruption, but blamed for flattering Emperor Yang of Sui and practically directly contributing to Sui's downfall by encouraging many external military campaigns that drained Sui's resources. Modern historians have questioned these assessments: Arthur F. Wright labelled the latter judgement in the Zizhi tongjian a "particularly blatant piece of editorializing" and "absurd ... beyond doubt".

Battle of Yanshi

The Battle of Yanshi was fought on 5–6 October 618 between the armies of Wang Shichong and Li Mi, rival contenders for the succession of the Sui dynasty. Wang, who was still ostensibly a Sui loyalist and had been blockaded in Luoyang for months by Li Mi, gambled on a decisive battle and led his troops out to attack the besieging army. Li assembled his forces on a naturally defensible position north of Yanshi town, but Wang managed to surprise Li's forces and approach their camp before they could react. Aided by a secondary cavalry attack from the rear, Wang secured a decisive victory over Li's forces. Although Li managed to escape with part of his army, his authority was shattered, and his followers joined Wang. While Li Mi sought refuge in the rival Tang court, Wang consolidated his control over Henan and eventually deposed the Sui puppet ruler Yang Tong and declared himself as emperor of the new Zheng dynasty. Wang's power lasted until his surrender to the Tang prince Li Shimin in 621.

Lai Hu'er, courtesy name Chongshan, titled Duke of Rong, was a general in Sui dynasty of China. He played an important role in the conquest of Chen dynasty in 589, as well as the campaigns against Goguryeo led by Emperor Yang.


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Further reading

Preceded by
Northern and Southern dynasties
Dynasties in Chinese history
Succeeded by
Tang dynasty