Home Chinese Culture China History The Sui Dynasty — a Short but Significant Dynasty

The Sui Dynasty — a Short but Significant Dynasty

The Sui Dynasty (581–618) ruled over much of China, after uniting the four kingdoms of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420–589). Reminiscent of the Qin Empire, it was a short, intense dynasty, with great conquests and achievements. It's considered with the following Tang Dynasty (618–907) as a great Chinese era.

Sui Dynasty Key Facts

  • Chinese: 隋朝 Suícháo /sway-chaoww/ 'Sui [surname] Dynasty'
  • Established: 581, replacing the Northern Zhou Dynasty
  • Capital: first at Daxing (Xi'an), then moved to Luoyang
  • Emperors: Wen (581–604) and Yang (604–618)
  • Contribution: united China (589), construction of the Grand Canal and Great Wall
  • Ended: 618, defeated by a clan rebellion which began the Tang Dynasty

The Pre-Sui Era (200–581) — When China Was Divided

The Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220) lasted for about 200 years. At its end, the Eastern Han empire split into three warring states. That was called the Three Kingdoms Period.

Then in 376 AD, there were two large empires that divided the region into north and south. Northern Zhou (557–581) was one of the empires in northern China. After the Northern Zhou conquest of Northern Qi, it controlled a big inland region of northern China and the Han Chinese people were ruled by the Xianbei ethnic minority, under the Yuwen family.

Yang Jian Usurped the Northern Zhou Dynasty in 581

One of the generals of the Northern Zhou's army was Yang Zhong, the Duke of Sui.

After Yang Zhong died, his son Yang Jian inherited his father's title, and usurped the throne in 581 by military coup. Yang Jian adopted the title Emperor Wen, and took over the Northern Zhou kingdom, renaming it the Sui Dynasty.

sui dynasty map

Emperor Wen (581–604)

It's very rare that emperors in China have such a lasting effect as Emperor Wen.

During his reign, he initiated construction projects involving millions of laborers reminiscent of the Qin Dynasty. His major policies were spreading Buddhism, reinstituting rule by Confucian bureaucrats, and making the people poorer for his wars and construction projects.

After ruling his large empire for 23 years, he died aged 64 in 604.

Emperor Wen Conquered the Chen Empire and United China in 589

The Chen empire was to the southeast and the big Yangtze River was a natural boundary. It is said that Emperor Wen sent about 500,000 troops across the Yangtze River in 588. In 589, he conquered the Chen empire's capital, Jiankang, which is now called Nanjing.

The fall of Chen united China for the first time in 369 years, and the big Sui empire began!

Emperor Wen Started to Build the Grand Canal

Grand CanalThe Grand Canal

He made Luoyang his capital and he started to build the Grand Canal to help develop his new capital. However, he didn't finish building it and then died. His son, Yang Guang, continued to work on the Grand Canal and finished it.

Millions were forced to work on it. It is thought that maybe half of the laborers died from the hard labor and bad conditions.

Emperor Wen Rebuilt the Great Wall

Even before Yang Jian became an emperor, he had the Great Wall north of his kingdom rebuilt. After he became an emperor, he rebuilt other sections of the wall along his northern boundary.

Emperor Wen Launched War on Vietnam

Another of his goals was to conquer Vietnam. He sent an army south in 602 and captured Hanoi. As the army went further south, although it won battles, the troops died from tropical diseases.

Emperor Wen Supported the Spread of Buddhism

BuddhismBuddha

Emperor Wen was a Buddhist and tried to spread Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism had spread and became popular in the region in the various kingdoms since the Eastern Han era (25–220). In the year 601, Emperor Wen passed the edict:

"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."

Emperor Wen's Confucian Officials

During the Han era, educated Confucian bureaucrats ruled the Western Han empire. Their influence waned in the Eastern Han empire, and they didn't rule in the Northern Zhou state.

Emperor Wen followed the example of the Western Han empire and recruited officers using the imperial examination system, placing Confucian literati into his administration of power.

Emperor Yang (Ruled 604–618)

Yang Guang (569 – April 11, 618) was the second son of Emperor Wen. He came to power in the year 604, when many believe he killed his father. He was titled Emperor Yang.

Emperor Yang ruled for 14 years from 604 to 618, and continued his father's policies of installing a Confucian bureaucracy, starting wars, and carrying out major construction projects. However, he exhausted the empire's resources with these projects, and the people rebelled. He was even more like the First Emperor than his father, and he was also known for expending a lot of money on luxuries.

  • Big projects: completed the Grand Canal, commanded the reconstruction of the Great Wall, built the new capital of Luoyang
  • Military wars: attacked Yuyuhun, fought against Tujue, invaded Goguryeo three times (an ancient Korean kingdom)

Great Wall Construction

He commanded that the Great Wall was to be rebuilt. During his reign, millions of laborers were forced to extend a section that stretched into Inner Mongolia.

Grand Canal Construction

A major engineering achievement was finishing the construction of much of the Grand Canal from Hangzhou to Beijing. He urged his people to finish it quickly because he wanted to use it to transport resources for his war against Goguryeo.

Although building the canal impoverished his own empire, the relative ease of traveling across it added to the Tang empire's prosperity.

The Grand Canal is the world's longest canal and artificial river. It extended from the merchant city of Hangzhou in the south, across the Yangtze River, and up to Luoyang, which was the capital of the empire.

See the Grand Canal in Hangzhou and the Grand Canal in Suzhou where it is at its best, in China's Yangtze Delta area of ancient water towns.

War Against Goguryeo, an Ancient Kingdom of Korea

He used the Grand Canal to send large armies for his campaigns into the Korean Peninsula to invade Goguryeo. A costly expedition was said to involve about 1.5 million troops and thousands of ships.

It is said that large amounts of equipment and rations were captured by the Goguryeo troops. Altogether, there were about three campaigns, and the Goguryeo troops defeated them all. Many died in the severely cold winters.

Fall of the Sui Dynasty (618) — Harsh Rule Led to Revolts

There was a lot of discontent about the loss of life, the forced labor, and the heavy taxes. Heavy taxation and compulsory labor duties caused widespread revolts and a brief civil war. Emperor Yang was assassinated in 618 by his adviser, Yuwen Huaji. (He had nothing to do with the Yuwen royal family of the Northern Zhou, who his father had usurped.)

In the northern part of the empire, Li Yuan (566–635) and his clan emerged as powerful rulers. After capturing Daxing (now Xi'an), Li Yuan declared himself Emperor Gaozu of the Tang Dynasty in the year 618. (Li Yuan was actually Emperor Yang's cousin. Their mothers were sisters.)

The Sui Dynasty Paved the Way for a Long and Prosperous Dynasty — As Did the Qin Dynasty

Along with the Qin Dynasty, the Sui Dynasty was one of the two dynasties that had the shortest duration. The Qin Dynasty had ruled much of the same region 800 years beforehand, although their great empire only lasted for 15 years.

Just as the Qin Dynasty did, the Sui Dynasty united China after a period of warring kingdoms, then used the people to carry out huge construction projects and fight large-scale wars to invade other countries. Qin's Great Wall and Sui's Grand Canal ranked among the world's greatest feats of engineering at the time.

Tyranny and huge loss of life led to the fall of both the Qin and Sui in civil rebellions.

However, both Sui and Qin dynasties cleared the way and built the foundation for prosperous and long-lasting dynasties that followed. The Qin Dynasty was replaced by the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), and the Sui Dynasty paved the way for the golden age of the Tang Dynasty (618–907).

Sui Dynasty Sites and Tours

If you are interested in the Sui Dynasty's history, you can visit the Grand Canal in Hangzhou. See our popular Hangzhou tour below for inspiration:

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