SUI DYNASTY (A.D. 581-618) AND FIVE DYNASTIES (907–960): PERIODS BEFORE AND AFTER THE TANG DYNASTY

SUI DYNASTY


Yang Di

China was reunified in A.D. 589 by short-lived but influential Sui dynasty (A.D. 581-617), which has often been compared to the earlier Qin dynasty in tenure and the ruthlessness of its accomplishments. The Sui dynasty's early demise was attributed to the government's tyrannical demands on the people, who bore the crushing burden of taxes and compulsory labor. These resources were overstrained in the completion of the Grand Canal--a monumental engineering feat-- and in the undertaking of other construction projects, including the reconstruction of the Great Wall. Weakened by costly and disastrous military campaigns against Korea in the early seventh century, the dynasty disintegrated through a combination of popular revolts, disloyalty, and assassination. [Source: The Library of Congress]

Commerce, the arts and science all flourished during the Sui Dynasty. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “After 300 years of division and fragmentation following the collapse of the Han dynasty in 220 A.D., China was once again unified under the Sui dynasty. The political and governmental institutions established during this brief period lay the foundation for the growth and prosperity of the succeeding Tang dynasty.”

Sui Dynasty Rulers

Sui Dynasty Rulers: 1) Wendi (581–604); 2) Yangdi (604–617); 3) Gongdi (617–618).

Under the "Cultivated Emperor," Yang Jian, a former general who launched the dynasty, land reform was undertaken, Han institutions were resurrected, the imperial bureaucracy was strengthened and warlords and aristocrats were stripped of their wealth. The Sui dynasty fell apart in 618 after massive public works projects and three unsuccessful incursions into Korea overextended the empire's resources.

The last Sui emperor, Sui Yang To (A.D. 581-618), took the throne after murdering his father and older brother. He had a queen, two deputy queens, 6 royal consorts, 72 concubines and 3,000 palace maidens but even that wasn't enough to satisfy him sexually. He had a particular thing for teenage virgins and reportedly used a "virgin wheelchair" to capture them. According to a palace historian after the girl was seated "clamps would automatically spring up to hold arms and spread her legs apart, while the mechanized cushion would place her body in the right position to receive the royal favor." [Source: People's Almanac]

Good Websites and Sources on the Tang Dynasty: Wikipedia ; Google Book: China’s Golden Age: Everday Life in the Tang Dynasty by Charles Benn books.google.com/books; Empress Wu womeninworldhistory.com ; Good Websites and Sources on Tang Culture: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Tang Poems etext.lib.virginia.edu enter Tang Poems in the search; Tang Horses persiancarpetguide.com China Vista chinavista.com

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; 2) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; 4) Ancient China Life ancientchinalife.com ; 5) Ancient China for School Kids elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History)

Books: 1) Benn, Charles, “Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty,” Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002; 2) Schafer, Edward H. “The Golden Peaches of Samarkan,” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963; 3) Watt, James C. Y., et al. “China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200–750 A.D. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004; 4) Cambridge History of China Vol. 3 (Cambridge University Press); 5) The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com.

Yang Guang (569 - 618)

Yang Guang (ruled 604-618) was the second emperor of the Sui dynasty. On the positive side he strengthened the centralized administrative framework, designated Luoyang as an important city following the capital city of Changan and constructed the Grand Canal. On the negative side he faced rebellion throughout the country as he failed in a series of military campaigns in Koguryo (Korea). He was famously outraged at the letter he received from the official diplomatic delegations sent by the Prince Shotoku, the leader of Japan at the time, which read, “The emperor in the land of rising sun sends a letter to the emperor in the land of setting sun.” [Source: Takahiro Suzuki, Yomiuri Shimbun, September 9, 2014 |*|]

Takahiro Suzuki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “The people’s dissatisfaction also grew as Yang Guang continued large-scale, labor-intensive construction projects, making more than 2 million people work on the construction of the Grand Canal. Moreover, the three expeditions that he made to Koguryo left the empire bankrupt. In 616, when rebellions broke out all around China, Emperor Yang killed officials who advised him to return to Changan to deal with the issue and shifted his base to Yangzhou, which was a key location along the Grand Canal. However, he indulged heavily in drinking and dining, and was unable to regain his power. He was killed by a subject a year and a half later, which led to the fall of the Sui dynasty. |*|

“Because the “authoritative version” of history in China is always revised by the new dynasty, which then makes claims to its own legitimacy, the previous dynasty is always demonized. One meaning of the character “Yang” in the name Yang Guang is “to arrogantly maintain distance from the common people,” and the Tang dynasty, which succeeded the Sui, used this character as the posthumous title. “Many institutions of the Sui dynasty were continued in the Tang dynasty,” said Prof. Li Wencai of Yangzhou University. “Yang Guang was a great sovereign ruler of considerable achievement, and Tang desperately tried to stain his reputation.” |*|

“The tomb of Emperor Yang was discovered in Yangzhou in March 2013. But since there already exists a mausoleum in Yangzhou, the discovery has created a controversy as to which tomb is the real one. “I hope that one of the tombs is real because Emperor Yang is important to us,” commented a 58-year-old woman living near the mausoleum. Yang Guang, generally known as a tyrant elsewhere in China, is acclaimed as a wise ruler here in Yangzhou.”|*|


Sui Dynasty at its greatest extent


Yang Guang and the Grand Canal

Takahiro Suzuki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Yangzhou in Jiangsu Province has always flourished as a city of water transportation, as it is located on the Yangtze River. The canal that runs through the center of the city is iconic. Originally built in the 5th century B.C., it was expanded and developed into the Grand Canal by Yang Guang. Lush willows grow along both sides of the canal and are known among local residents as “yangliu,” or riverside willows. They were planted along the banks when Emperor Yang had his people build the canal. [Source: Takahiro Suzuki, Yomiuri Shimbun, September 9, 2014 |*|]

“Before becoming emperor in the capital Changan, Yang Guang spent 10 years in Yangzhou as a provincial governor and loved the city of scenic beauty. When part of the construction of the Grand Canal between Changan and Yangtze was finished in 605, Yang Guang visited Yangzhou in a “dragon boat,” a boat used for pleasure cruises. It is said that on the completion of the entire 2,700 kilometers, he traveled from Yangzhou to somewhere near the current Beijing area in a dragon boat. It can be said that Emperor Yang was at the height of his rule around this time. |*|

“The construction of the Grand Canal was necessary to transport products from the developed lower reaches of the Yangtze River to the northern areas. Though there was criticism that the emperor planted willows on the banks just to suit his taste for austere elegance, it is believed that they were actually planted to reinforce the banks. It is obvious that Yang Guang had immense foresight, since the Grand Canal has proved invaluable even after the Sui dynasty fell. Though part of the canal is now disconnected, it is still in use after all these years as a route for transporting cargo.” |*|

Grand Canal

The Grand Canal --- largest ancient artificial waterway in the world and an engineering marvel on the scale of the Great Wall of China --- was launched in the Sui Dynasty. Begun in A.D. 540 . and completed in A.D. 1327, it is 1,107 miles long and has largely been dug by hand by a work force described as a "million people with teaspoons." The world's longest modern canal, the Belomorsko-Baltiyskiy Canal in Russia, is 1,410 miles long.

The Grand Canal today extends from Tianjin in the north to Hangzhou in the south. It connects Beijing and Xian in the north with Shanghai in the south, and links four great rivers—the Yellow, the Yangtze, Huai and Qiantang. Water levels are maintained using a system of stone gates which channel water in and out of the canals. When it is necessary to prevent flooding gates are opened so that water can be diverted into lakes.

The Grand Canal was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2014. On paper the Grand Canal runs 1,760 kilometers, between Beijing and Hangzhou, which is about 200 kilometers from Shanghai. But since the 1970s the northern part of its course—from Beijing to Jining—has been too dry and shallow to accommodate shipping. The waterway’s main commercial artery encompasses 580 kilometers from Jining to the Yangtze. [Source: Ian Johnson, National Geographic, May 2013]

Good Websites and Sources on the Grand Canal: Wikipedia Wikipedia Travel China Guide (click attractions) Travel China Guide ; Map Encarta Encarta ; Links in this Website: JIANGSU PROVINCE factsanddetails.com

History of the Grand Canal

leftIan Johnson wrote in National Geographic, “The original canal system, built by Emperor Yang of the Sui dynasty, was seen by Chinese historians as an act of brilliant madness. Ancient China’s main rivers ran west to east, and Yang wanted to break this grip of geography. He needed a way to move rice from the fertile region around the Yangtze northwest to feed his court and, crucially, his armies, which were constantly battling nomadic tribes. So the emperor’s officials press-ganged an estimated million workers, mostly farmers, into building the first section of the canal. Supervised by thousands of soldiers, the men and women were driven around the clock. Yang “inflicted intolerable sufferings,” a ninth-century poet wrote, yet these projects “provided endless benefits to the people.” Officially the work was finished in 171 days in the year 605, but in reality it took six years to complete and claimed an untold number of lives—many of them villagers who starved because there weren’t enough hands left to harvest the crops. [Source: Ian Johnson, National Geographic, May 2013 ]

“The canal did more than move grain—as the country’s unifying feature, it was a potent political symbol and a strategic target for invaders. In the early 1840s, when the British wanted to put a stranglehold on China during the first Opium War, they occupied Zhenjiang, at the intersection of the canal and the Yangtze, throttling the flow of grain and tax revenues to Beijing. Within weeks China surrendered.

“The Grand Canal was also a cultural conduit. Emperors on visits to inspect the canal’s locks and levees observed and co-opted local ways. That’s said to be how Beijing acquired two trademarks: Peking duck, from Shandong Province, and Peking opera, from Anhui and Hubei. Theater troupes, who relied on the canal to get around, said prayers to its wharves, while poets were moved by its very presence. Writing in the eighth century, Zhang Ji describes a temple on the canal whose “ringing bell reaches my boat at midnight.”

Construction of the Grand Canal

The Grand Canal was created by connecting a series of smaller canals built in separate areas. It was constructed primarily to move troops from the north to south and transport food from the rich agricultural lands in the south to overpopulated cities and towns in the north. It was also built to allow merchants to avoid transporting their cargoes on the high seas where they were vulnerable to typhoons and pirates.

Construction of the canal has been done in a piecemeal fashion over the centuries, with new sections added and others abandoned and rebuilt. The bulk of the work was done during the Sui dynasty under the leadership of the ruthless emperor Yang Di, who put 5.5 million workers to work during a six year period, ending to 610 A.D. No one knows how may died digging the canals but it was probably in the tens of the thousands. During the height of the Tang dynasty, which followed the Sui Dynasty, long strings of barges carried 100,000 tons of grain a year from the rice fields in the south to the north.

The great Mongol leader Kublai Khan put three million people to work in 1279 to extend the Grand Canal 135 miles to north so that rice could be transported from the fertile Yangtze Delta, near Shanghai, to his new capital, present-day Beijing.

Five Dynasties Period (907–960) After the Tang Dynasty

Dynasty One: Later Liang: Rulers: Taizu (907–910); Modi (911–923) [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Dynasty Two: Later Tang: Rulers: Zhuangzong (923–926); Mingzong (926–934); Feidi (934–935).

Dynasty Three: Later Jin: Rulers: Gaozu (936–944); Chudi (944–947).

Dynasty Four: Later Han: Rulers: Gaozu (947–948); Yindi (948–951).

Dynasty Five: Later Zhou: Rulers: Taizu (951–954); : Rulers: Shizong (954–960).

Liao Dynasty (907–1125)

Five Dynasties and the Rise of Nomad Empire


Emperor Shizong

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “During the decades following the fall of the Tang, control of China was deeply fragmented. In North China, five successive ruling houses, which were little more than warlord military powers, controlled most of the Yellow River valley region, while in the South, a different array of ten states existed during the period (which is therefore sometimes called the period of “five dynasties and ten kingdoms”). Of the five dynasties in the North, three were controlled by non-Chinese rulers, leaders of different Turkic tribal groups that had harried the northwest regions of China during the Tang, and that benefited from the fall of that dynasty. The strength of the Tang had been such that it had reestablished the great territorial reach of the Han government, an empire stretching north and west in the face of the vibrant tribal cultures of the northern steppe. The disintegration of the Tang made way for these nomadic peoples to coalesce in political alliances that rivaled Chinese states in effective strength. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“During the Five Dynasties era, with no central political force in China to hinder the growth of these configurations at the edge of “Han Chinese” territories, the stage was set for nomadic groups to flourish politically to a degree that had not been seen since the time of the Xiongnu threats to the early Han Dynasty state. Under these circumstances, the first of a series of great nomad empires emerged. This was the empire of the Liao, a dynastic house ruled by leading clans of a tribe knows as the Khitans (Qidan in Chinese). For the next several centuries, the Liao and sophisticated successor states – the Jin state of the Jurchens of Manchuria and the great Mongol empire – pressed China from the north and west with such ferocity that no Chinese government could approach the strength and extent of the Tang. /+/

“Towards the close of the Five Dynasties, the Khitan tribes became so powerful that they wrested from Chinese control significant areas south of the old Great Wall line – including the territory of present-day Beijing. When China was at last reunified in 960 under the Song Dynasty, the pressure of the Liao presence confined the new government to an area substantially smaller than that of the Tang. In the twelfth century, the Khitans were overthrown by a fresh expansion from the north: the Jurchen empire, led by a people from eastern Manchuria. The Jurchens established their own dynasty, the Jin, which was so powerful that it overran the northern half of China proper, including the Yellow River Valley, forcing the Song to cede its entire northern region. A century and a half later, the Jurchens were in turn routed by the explosive expansion of the Mongol empire, which extinguished the Song and founded, in China, the Yuan Dynasty. /+/

“Although the Mongol empire withdrew from China after only about one hundred years, and a Han Chinese period of rule – the Ming Dynasty – ensued, China was once more conquered by a nomadic: the Manchus (ethnically identical with the Jurchens), who ruled China from 1644 until the twentieth century. /+/


Five Dynasties, Ten Kingdoms, AD 923


“Thus the latter phases of traditional China’s political history are dominated by the presence of strong non-Chinese governments, either bordering China and hemming it in to the north and west, or ruling China directly as occupiers. In terms of the history of the Song, during the earlier phase, known as the Northern Song, the pressure of the Khitan Liao state on the northern steppe restricted the geographical scale of the dynasty’s reach. During the latter phase, the even stronger pressure of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty in the north split China Proper in two, with the Song government, known as the Southern Song, in a position closer to a government in exile from its cultural homeland than that of an imperial state.’ /+/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons Grand Canal: Beifan.com http://www.beifan.com/

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.