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Imperial China, Reunification Under the Sui Dynasty (581-618)

Yangdi, Sui dynasty, Yang Jian, new dynasty, Luoyang

The division of the north and south, although largely following natural geographic divisions, was never stable, and there were repeated efforts at reunification. In the 570s and 580s, the long period of division was brought to an end. The successors of the Xianbei Northern Wei (whose dynastic names changed from Western Wei, to Northern Zhou, to Sui because of palace coups) took the area around modern-day Sichuan in 553, the northeast in 577, and the south in 589.

The founder of the Sui dynasty was Yang Jian, also known as Wendi or Emperor Wen. He was ethnically Chinese but had married into a non-Chinese military family. In 581 Wendi deposed the child emperor of the Northern Zhou dynasty and secured his position by killing 59 princes of the Zhou royal house. He then sought to legitimate his position by presenting himself as a Buddhist cakravartin king, a monarch who uses force to defend the Buddhist faith.

In 604 Wendi was succeeded by his son, Yang Guang. The new emperor, known as Yangdi or Emperor Yang, launched several ambitious projects, including construction of the section of the Grand Canal from the city of Yangzhou on the Yangtze River to Luoyang, near the Huang He. The canal made it much easier to transport the rich agricultural products of the Yangtze Valley to the north, and it also fostered increased north-south communication. The Sui strengthened the power of the central government by curtailing the power of local officials to appoint their own subordinates. Some civil service posts were filled through a new method called the Examination System, which was designed to be free of favoritism by allowing all men, regardless of status, to compete in tests on the Confucian classics.

Yangdi pursued an aggressive foreign policy. He reasserted imperial Chinese control over what is now northern Vietnam, which the Han dynasty had conquered in the 2nd century bc, and undertook campaigns against Central Asian tribes to the north and west. Yangdi also twice launched campaigns against the Korean state of Koguryo, although both ended disastrously for his armies.

The Sui dynasty lasted only two reigns. Yangdi’s ambitious projects and military campaigns led to exhaustion and unrest, and in 617 a Sui general, Li Yuan, captured the capital. After the emperor’s death in 618, Li Yuan declared himself emperor of a new dynasty, the Tang.

Article key phrases:

Yangdi, Sui dynasty, Yang Jian, new dynasty, Luoyang, Examination System, repeated efforts, Han dynasty, reunification, Grand Canal, military campaigns, reigns, northern Vietnam, Yangtze River, monarch, central government, Sui, unrest, armies, century bc, subordinates, exhaustion, successors, Tang, Huang, northeast, son, force, campaigns, Wendi, founder, princes, new method, south, status, construction, position, end, area, tests, section, Li Yuan


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