Sui Dynasty Reunifies China

The Sui Dynasty reunified China, introduced administrative reforms, and created the Grand Canal system, laying the foundation for the Tang Dynasty and many Chinese institutions that lasted until the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

After the breakup of the Western Jin Dynasty Western Jin Dynasty (Chin; 265-316), the Chinese Empire was plunged into more than one hundred years of turmoil and divided between north and south. The north was ruled by a series of barbarian, non-Chinese dynasties known as the Northern Dynasties Northern Dynasties (China) , and in the south were the Southern Dynasties Southern Dynasties (China) . In 577, the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-581) defeated the Northern Qi (550-577) for control of the north. In 581, Yang Jian (Yang Chien), an aristocratic military officer affiliated with the Northern Zhou and acting as regent, claimed the mandate of heaven (spiritual authority to rule) and founded the Sui Dynasty (581-618), reigning as Wendi Wendi (Sui emperor) . [kw]Sui Dynasty Reunifies China (581)
[kw]China, Sui Dynasty Reunifies (581)
Sui Dynasty
China;581: Sui Dynasty Reunifies China[0150]
Government and politics;581: Sui Dynasty Reunifies China[0150]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;581: Sui Dynasty Reunifies China[0150]

In 583, Wendi moved to a new capital, Chang’an (modern Xi’an), which he rebuilt with forced labor, making it the largest city in the world. To secure the empire’s borders, Wendi eliminated the Turkish threat on the western border by supporting the Western Turks and encouraging division in the Eastern Turks; to secure the north, he repaired the Great Wall between 586 and 587.

With the north secured, he moved to reunify China. In 587, he conquered the Later Liang Dynasty Later Liang Dynasty (557-587) located in modern Hubei Province. By this time, the last of the Southern Dynasties, the Chen Dynasty Chen Dynasty (Ch’en; 557-589), had become weak, corrupt, disorganized, and inefficient. Wendi easily overran it in 589 by a swift invasion. North and south China were reunited once again. China;reunification of

Wendi was a strong, hardworking administrator. He made important and lasting administrative and legal reforms, beginning with a new legal code in 581 (revised in 583) that was simpler and more lenient than the previous one and became the pattern for the code of the following dynasty. Law;China
China;law He began to consolidate Sui power over China by centralizing civil and military power and incorporating the southern ruling class into the Sui bureaucracy. He simplified and reorganized the administrative structure—eliminating layers of officials, reducing the number of counties, and appointing local officials through the central government—to increase the control of the central government over the countryside. He eliminated the claims of hereditary privilege by reestablishing a civil Examinations, Chinese civil service service system based on appointment and promotions based on a merit system. The military system was reorganized as generally self-supporting militias, whose soldiers served periodic terms of duty but otherwise lived at home.

In the late 580’, Wendi carried out a new census of each household in the empire; he then reimposed the northern equal-field land allocation system. He reintroduced the old head tax system levied in grain and silk, and reduced the period of compulsory labor service. By improving the efficiency of the tax collection, Wendi accumulated great wealth for the empire. The resulting revenues were spent by later emperors on great public works projects and military campaigns. Taxation;China

In 583, he established a system of four state granaries to keep China supplied in times of drought or flood. To facilitate grain transport to the food-poor capitals, between 584 and 589, he constructed a canal eastward from Chang’an to the Tong Pass. Grand Canal (China)

Wendi was a careful and economical ruler. He worked successfully to heal the political and cultural divisions between the north and south. He used Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism religions to legitimate himself as emperor and to unify a people long divided by various races, classes, religions, and regions. A new streamlined legal code of five hundred articles drew on both southern and northern legal principles. By the end of his reign, the Sui had become the greatest empire since the Han. Unfortunately, his successor squandered this legacy in extravagant construction projections, personal extravagance, and ambitious and failed military campaigns.

Wendi’s second son Yang Guang (Yang Kuang) became viceroy of the south in 591. He plotted and schemed against his elder brother, who was demoted to commoner status, and was proclaimed the successor. He reigned as Yangdi Yangdi from 604 to 617. Yangdi furthered the assimilation of the south into the empire and took more interest in its affairs, marrying a princess from the south. He weakened the hold of the northern aristocrats on the government by establishing an examination system based on the Confucian teachings. He also increased the south’s importance by building a second capital at Luoyang (Lo-yang). This new capital and its palaces and gardens were built quickly with vast numbers of forced laborers (reportedly two million) employed in their construction and the transport of timber. Yangdi later added another southern capital on the Yangtze River.

Another part of Yangdi’s efforts to unify the empire involved his plan to extend the Grand Canal system begun by his father. In 605, the canal connected Luoyang with the Huai River and then the Yangtze. In 610, the system was extended south to Hangzhou. Another canal was built northward from the Yellow River to the vicinity of modern-day Bejing. The canal system linked all the major rivers of the eastern plain from the Yangtze to the northern frontier, and canals allowed easy movement of grain and troops.

These canal construction projects were extremely expensive and caused great suffering among the population, who, one million workers at a time, provided the forced labor under conditions of great hardship. It is often said that these projects were done out of a desire to aggrandize Yangdi’s own splendor and indulge his own pleasures. Vast amounts of forced labor were also employed to rebuild and strengthen the Great Wall Great Wall (Sui Dynasty) in 607-609. In one year, one million men were sent out on this task, at great cost to human life: Five or six out of every ten workers died. Although these canals caused great hardship and misery among the people, they contributed greatly to the empire’s unity and commerce.

Yangdi’s military adventures, however, were less successful. His military expeditions were successful at extending the empire southward into Vietnam, Taiwan, and Tonkin and westward along the trade route (the Silk Road), which opened up a prosperous trade with Central Asia and the West. However, other foreign adventures were futile and disastrous. Yangdi’s agent unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the Eastern Turk khan, which turned the powerful Eastern Turks into a hostile neighbor. The most disastrous ventures were Yangdi’s campaigns against Korea Korea;Chinese invasions of . The most powerful of the Korean kingdoms, Koguryŏ, was hostile to China and refused to pay homage to Yangdi, who undertook a punitive campaign. After completing the Grand Canal from Luoyang to Bejing in 611, the emperor assembled a large army and great amounts of supplies. The first campaign was delayed by flood, but campaigns were launched in 612, 613, and 614. The first two were unsuccessful and cost hundreds of thousands of lives and resulted in desertion and banditry in the troops and outbreaks of rebellions in the provinces; these were put down by severe repression, which in turn led to further rebelliousness throughout the empire. The third campaign reached the Korean capital but withdrew without victory. These Korean campaigns brought great hardship and suffering to the people.

The empire was demoralized and ruined financially, and more uprisings and rebellions took place. Yangdi retreated to his southern capital on the Yangtze in 616 to live in luxury, while the northern part of his empire was taken over by local rebel warlords. In 617, Li Yuan, one of the powerful rebels, had a great victory over the Turks; he then seized the capital, overthrew other rebels, and occupied Sichuan and the Han River Valley. A Sui prince, Gongdi Gongdi , was installed as a puppet, while Yangdi was “retired.” After Yangdi’s assassination in 618, Li Yuan Li Yuan (Tang emperor) deposed Gongdi and set himself up as emperor with the name Gaozu (Kao-tsu; r. 618-626) and founded the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907), which would rule united China for nearly three hundred years.


The impact and contributions of the Sui Dynasty to Chinese history far outweigh its brief life-span of less than forty years. Likewise, the harshness of the rulers and the overambitious failed military campaigns and grandiose building projects of the second emperor should not overshadow the dynasty’s political and cultural achievements. The Sui reunited China, ending almost three hundred years of divided political authority and regional cultures (northern and southern). It unified the country not by new innovations but by fusing various legal and religious traditions of the north and south.

The dynasty established a strong, central political authority, revised the taxation and administrative systems, and expanded China’s borders—thus laying the foundations for the even stronger Tang Dynasty and ultimately many of the institutions that held sway during the imperial period up to 1912. These measures to achieve administrative control over the empire also created political and cultural unity for China. The Grand Canal system allowed easy transport and travel throughout the empire. Travel by sea;Grand Canal

Wendi’s rule is noted for its reforms, prosperity, and high morale—which were all undone by his son, Yangdi. The second emperor’s cruelty to his people and the excesses of his projects, which drained the populace and its wealth and disrupted the economy, finally led to popular resentment and rebellions and ultimately to the ruin of the Sui Dynasty.

Further Reading

  • Bingham, Woodbridge. The Founding of the T’ang Dynasty. 1941. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1970. Contains a lengthy account of the Sui Dynasty, especially as it leads up to the Tang Dynasty.
  • Ebrey, Patricia B. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Brief account of the period, but good maps, illustrations, coverage of the arts and culture of the period, and further readings.
  • Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization. Translated by J. R. Foster. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Extended account of history of the period, along with full treatment of culture and civilization.
  • Hook, Brian, ed. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of China. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Brief chronological entries with numerous maps, charts, illustrations, and tables.
  • Huang, Ray. China: A Macro History. Armonk, N.Y.: East Gate, 1988. Good overview of the history of the period with attempts at a historical explanation of events.
  • Paludan, Ann. Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial China. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998. Thumbnail sketches of all the emperors with numerous other articles and illustrations.
  • Roberts, J. A. G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. As title suggests, a very concise presentation.
  • Roberts, J. A. G. Prehistory to c. 1800. Vol. 1 in A History of China. New York: St. Martin’, 1996. Good summary survey of the Sui Dynasty.
  • Rodzinski, Witold. A History of China. Vol. 1. Oxford, England: Pergamon Press, 1979. A concise account.
  • Schirokaur, Conrad. A Brief History of Chinese Civilization. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991. Textbook that gives a good historical survey, as well as treatments of arts, society, science, religion, and technology.
  • “Sui Dynasty.” In Encyclopedia of Asian History. Vol. 4, edited by Ainslie T. Embree. New York: Charles Scribner’, 1988. Good short overview.
  • Wright, Arthur F. The Sui Dynasty. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979. Lengthy and very readable account of the dynasty, with special emphasis on biographies of the emperors.
  • Wright, Arthur F. “The Sui Dynasty (581-617).” In Sui and Tang China, 589-906. Vol. 3 in The Cambridge History of China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Lengthy but very readable account.