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 Qin Dynasty first unified China and built its Great Wall. The the Sui (pronounced Swee) dynasty built the Grand Canal, linking the militarily strategic north with the economic wealth and food supply in the the south and laid the basis for the Tang dynasty (A.D618–907). Both the Qin and the Sui dynasties were short-lived, but extremely important. In addition to building great public works projects both were ruled by fierce tyrants.
The Sui Dynasty rose to power in 581. 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.”
The Sui'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 Canala 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]
Sui Dynasty Rulers
Sui Dynasty Rulers: 1) Wen-di (Wendi, Yang Chien, Yang Jian, 581–604); 2) Yang-di (Yangdi, Yang Ti, Yang Guan, 604–617); 3) Gongdi (617–618).
The Sui founder was Wen-di (ruled 589–604), also known by his birth name, Yang Chien (Yang Jian). He seized the throne in one of the many small states that controlled China during the period of upheaval. After eight years spent consolidating his power, he took the imperial throne. Known as the "Cultivated Emperor" and remembered as one of China's better rulers. A former general, he launched the dynasty, implemented reform and resurrected Han institutions. The imperial bureaucracy was strengthened and warlords and aristocrats were stripped of their wealth. [Source: Middle Ages Reference Library, Gale Group, Inc., 2001]
According to the Middle Ages Reference Library:“It was Wen-di's aim to build a strong central government, so he abolished inheritance of office, a corrupt practice that had spread among civil servants. To make sure government workers were qualified, he instituted a civil-service examination system, based on Confucian principles, which would remain in use up to the twentieth century. Furthermore, he introduced a new law code and moved aggressively against Mongol and Turkic nomads in northern China.
Wen-di may have been assassinated by his son, Yang-di (ruled 604–618). Yangi-di built a huge network of canals, most notably the Grand Canal, a thousand-mile waterway that connected the Yangtze (YAHNG-zay) River with the Yellow River to the north. But Yang-di was ruthless, and his military campaigns proved costly. Though he enjoyed a measure of success in Vietnam and Central Asia, an expedition into Korea (612–14) failed. Yang-di was assassinated, and thus the Sui dynasty ended, like the Qin, after the reign of just two emperors.
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]
Creations of the Sui dynasty
Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: The last of the northern dynasties, the Northern Zhou, had been brought to an end by Yang Chien: rapid campaigns had made an end of the remaining petty states, and thus the Sui dynasty had come into power. China, reunited after 360 years, was again under Chinese rule. This event brought about a new epoch in the history of the Far East. But the happenings of 360 years could not be wiped out by a change of dynasty. The short Sui period can only be described as a period of transition to unified forms. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]
“In the last resort the union of the various parts of China proceeded from the north. The north had always, beyond question, been militarily superior, because its ruling class had consisted of warlike peoples. Yet it was not a northerner who had united China but a Chinese though, owing to mixed marriages, he was certainly not entirely unrelated to the northern peoples. The rule, however, of the actual northern peoples was at an end. The start of the Sui dynasty, while the Zhou still held the north, was evidence, just like the emergence in the north-east some thirty years earlier of the Northern Ch'i dynasty, that the Chinese gentry with their landowning basis had gained the upper hand over the warrior nomads.
“The Chinese gentry had not come unchanged out of that struggle. Culturally they had taken over many things from the foreigners, beginning with music and the style of their clothing, in which they had entirely adopted the northern pattern, and including other elements of daily life. Among the gentry were now many formerly alien families who had gradually become entirely Chinese. On the other hand, the foreigners' feudal outlook had influenced the gentry, so that a sense of distinctions of rank had developed among them. There were Chinese families who regarded themselves as superior to the rest, just as had been the case among the northern peoples, and who married only among themselves or with the ruling house and not with ordinary families of the gentry. They paid great attention to their genealogies, had the state keep records of them and insisted that the dynastic histories mentioned their families and their main family members. Lists of prominent gentry families were set up which mentioned the home of each clan, so that pretenders could easily be detected. The rules of giving personal names were changed so that it became possible to identify a person's genealogical position within the family. At the same time the contempt of the military underwent modification; the gentry were even ready to take over high military posts, and also to profit by them.
Problems Faced by the Sui Dynasty
Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The new Sui empire found itself faced with many difficulties. During the three and a half centuries of division, north and south had developed in different ways. They no longer spoke the same language in everyday life (we distinguish to this day between a Nanking and Peking "High Chinese", to say nothing of dialects). The social and economic structures were very different in the two parts of the country. How could unity be restored in these things? [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]
“Then there was the problem of population. The north-eastern plain had always been thickly populated; it had early come under Toba rule and had been able to develop further. The region round the old northern capital Ch'ang-an, on the other hand, had suffered greatly from the struggles before the Toba period and had never entirely recovered. Meanwhile, in the south the population had greatly increased in the region north of Nanking, while the regions south of the Yangtze and the upper Yangtze valley were more thinly peopled. The real South, i.e. the modern provinces of Fukien, Kwangtung and Kwangsi, was still underdeveloped, mainly because of the malaria there. In the matter of population the north unquestionably remained prominent.
Sui Dynasty Under Wen-di
Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: The founder of the Sui dynasty, known by his reign name of Wen-di (589-604), came from the west, close to Ch'ang-an. There he and his following had their extensive domains. Owing to the scanty population there and the resulting shortage of agricultural labourers, these properties were very much less productive than the small properties in the north-east. This state of things was well known in the south, and it was expected, with good reason, that the government would try to transfer parts of the population to the north-west, in order to settle a peasantry round the capital for the support of its greatly increasing staff of officials, and to satisfy the gentry of the region. This produced several revolts in the south. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]
“As an old soldier who had long been a subject of the Toba, Wen-di had no great understanding of theory: he was a practical man. He was anti-intellectual and emotionally attached to Buddhism; he opposed Confucianism for emotional reasons and believed that it could give him no serviceable officials of the sort he wanted. He demanded from his officials the same obedience and sense of duty as from his soldiers; and he was above all thrifty, almost miserly, because he realized that the finances of his state could only be brought into order by the greatest exertions. The budget had to be drawn up for the vast territory of the empire without any possibility of saying in advance whether the revenues would come in and whether the transport of dues to the capital would function.
“This cautious calculation was entirely justified, but it aroused great opposition. Both east and south were used to a much better style of living; yet the gentry of both regions were now required to cut down their consumption. On top of this they were excluded from the conduct of political affairs. In the past, under the Northern Ch'i empire in the north-east and under the Ch'en empire in the south, there had been thousands of positions at court in which the whole of the gentry could find accommodation of some kind. Now the central government was far in the west, and other people were its administrators. In the past the gentry had a profitable and easily accessible market for their produce in the neighboring capital; now the capital was far away, entailing long-distance transport at heavy risk with little profit.
“The dissatisfied circles of the gentry in the north-east and in the south incited Prince Kuang to rebellion. The prince and his followers murdered the emperor and set aside the heir-apparent; and Kuang came to the throne, assuming the name of Yang-di. His first act was to transfer the capital back to the east, to Loyang, close to the grain-producing regions. His second achievement was to order the construction of great canals, to facilitate the transport of grain to the capital and to provide a valuable new market for the producers in the north-east and the south. It was at this time that the first forerunner of the famous "Imperial Canal" was constructed, the canal that connects the Yangtze with the Yellow River. Small canals, connecting various streams, had long been in existence, so that it was possible to travel from north to south by water, but these canals were not deep enough or broad enough to take large freight barges. There are records of lighters of 500 and even 800 tons capacity! These are dimensions unheard of in the West in those times. In addition to a serviceable canal to the south, Yang-di made another that went north almost to the present Peking.
“Hand in hand with these successes of the north-eastern and southern gentry went strong support for Confucianism, and a reorganization of the Confucian examination system. As a rule, however, the examinations were circumvented as an unimportant formality; the various governors were ordered each to send annually to the capital three men with the required education, for whose quality they were held personally responsible; merchants and artisans were expressly excluded.
Sui Dynasty Under Yang-di
Yang-di (569 - 618,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-di 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-diis “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-di, generally known as a tyrant elsewhere in China, is acclaimed as a wise ruler here in Yangzhou.”|*|
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.” |*|
Sui Dynasty and the Turks
Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “In foreign affairs an extraordinarily fortunate situation for the Sui dynasty had come into existence. The T'u-chueh, the Turks, much the strongest people of the north, had given support now to one and now to another of the northern kingdoms, and this, together with their many armed incursions, had made them the dominant political factor in the north. But in the first year of the Sui period (581) they split into two sections, so that the Sui had hopes of gaining influence over them. At first both sections of the Turks had entered into alliance with China, but this was not a sufficient safeguard for the Sui, for one of the Turkish khans was surrounded by Toba who had fled from the vanished state of the Northern Zhou, and who now tried to induce the Turks to undertake a campaign for the reconquest of North China. The leader of this agitation was a princess of the Yu-wen family, the ruling family of the Northern Zhou. The Chinese fought the Turks several times; but much more effective results were gained by their diplomatic missions, which incited the eastern against the western Turks and vice versa, and also incited the Turks against the Toba clique. In the end one of the sections of Turks accepted Chinese overlordship, and some tribes of the other section were brought over to the Chinese side; also, fresh disunion was sown among the Turks. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]
“Under the emperor Yang-di, P'ei Chu carried this policy further. He induced the Tölös tribes to attack the T'u-yu-hun, and then himself attacked the latter, so destroying their power. The T'u-yu-hun were a people living in the extreme north of Tibet, under a ruling class apparently of Xianbei origin; the people were largely Tibetan. The purpose of the conquest of the T'u-yu-hun was to safeguard access to Central Asia. An effective Turkestan policy was, however, impossible so long as the Turks were still a formidable power. Accordingly, the intrigues that aimed at keeping the two sections of Turks apart were continued. In 615 came a decisive counter-attack from the Turks. Their khan, Shih-pi, made a surprise assault on the emperor himself, with all his following, in the Ordos region, and succeeded in surrounding them. They were in just the same desperate situation as when, eight centuries earlier, the Chinese emperor had been beleaguered by Mao Tun. But the Chinese again saved themselves by a trick. The young Chinese commander, Li Shih-min, succeeded in giving the Turks the impression that large reinforcements were on the way; a Chinese princess who was with the Turks spread the rumour that the Turks were to be attacked by another tribe—and Shih-pi raised the siege, although the Chinese had been entirely defeated.
Sui Dynasty and the Turks and with Korea
Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: In the Sui period the Chinese were faced with a further problem. Korea or, rather, Koguryo, the most important of the three states in Korea, had generally been on friendly terms with the southern state during the period of China's division, and for this reason had been more or less protected from its North Chinese neighbors. After the unification of China, Korea had reason for seeking an alliance with the Turks, in order to secure a new counterweight against China. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]
As Koguryo's domain increased, it confronted China's Sui Dynasty (581-617) in the west and Silla and Paekche to the south. Silla attacked Koguryo in 551 in concert with King Sung (r. 523-54) of Paekche. After conquering the upper reaches of the Han River, Silla turned on the Paekche forces and drove them out of the lower Han area. While a tattered Paekche kingdom nursed its wounds in the southwest, Silla allied with Chinese forces of the Sui and the successor Tang Dynasty (618-907) in combined attacks against Koguryo. The Sui emperor Yang Di launched an invasion of Koguryo in 612, marshaling more than 1 million soldiers only to be lured by the revered Koguryo commander lchi Mundk into a trap, where Sui forces virtually were destroyed. Perhaps as few as 3,000 Sui soldiers survived; the massacre contributed to the fall of the dynasty in 617. Newly risen Tang emperor Tai Zong launched another huge invasion in 645, but Koguryo forces won another striking victory in the siege of the An Si Fortress in western Koguryo, forcing Tai Zong's forces to withdraw.Koreans have always viewed these victories as sterling examples of resistance to foreign aggression. Had Koguryo not beaten back the invaders, all the states of the peninsula might have fallen under extended Chinese domination. Thus commanders like lchi Mundk later became models for emulation, especially during the Korean War (1950-53). [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]
“A Turco-Korean alliance would have meant for China a sort of encirclement that might have grave consequences. The alliance might be extended to Japan, who had certain interests in Korea. Accordingly the Chinese determined to attack Korea, though at the same time negotiations were set on foot. The fighting, which lasted throughout the Sui period, involved technical difficulties, as it called for combined land and sea attacks; in general it brought little success.
Collapse of the Sui Dynasty
Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The continual warfare entailed great expense, and so did the intrigues, because they depended for their success on bribery. Still more expensive were the great canal works. In addition to this, the emperor Yang-di, unlike his father, was very extravagant. He built enormous palaces and undertook long journeys throughout the empire with an immense following. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]
All this wrecked the prosperity which his father had built up and had tried to safeguard. The only productive expenditure was that on the canals, and they could not begin to pay in so short a period. The emperor's continual journeys were due, no doubt, in part simply to the pursuit of pleasure, though they were probably intended at the same time to hinder risings and to give the emperor direct control over every part of the country. But the empire was too large and too complex for its administration to be possible in the midst of journeying.
“The whole of the chancellery had to accompany the emperor, and all the transport necessary for the feeding of the emperor and his government had continually to be diverted to wherever he happened to be staying. All this produced disorder and unrest. The gentry, who at first had so strongly supported the emperor and had been able to obtain anything they wanted from him, now began to desert him and set up pretenders. From 615 onward, after the defeat at the hands of the Turks, risings broke out everywhere. The emperor had to establish his government in the south, where he felt safer. There, however, in 618, he was assassinated by conspirators led by Toba of the Yu-wen family. Everywhere now independent governments sprang up, and for five years China was split up into countless petty states.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons Grand Canal: 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 August 2021