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Sui Dynasty

The Sui Dynasty (581 - 618), as one of the ephemeral dynasties in Chinese history, existed for only 38 years. It was established by Yang Jian, a relative of the Northern Zhou empress in 581, who was also named Emperor Wendi. Chang'an (today’s Xi’an) was the capital and Luoyang City was the “support capital”. The Sui Dynasty had only two emperors-Yang Jian (Emperor Wen) and his son Yang Guang (Emperor Yang).
The short-lived Sui Dynasty is similar to the Qin Dynasty. Both of them ended the split period and founded a united dynasty. Both tried to initiate great reforms without conditions ripe for a change yet, which made them ephemeral. Both prepared the performance of a long-lasting government of the succession dynasties with a prospering economy and overwhelming culture by their administratorial reforms, respectively Han and Tang Dynasties.

Map of Sui Dynasty
How was Sui Dynasty established?

In the Northern Zhou Dynasty, during the previous rule of Emperor Xuan, the ruling group of split internally. State politics were in disorder. People were suffering in their lives, and social contradictions were intensified. In order to reform the unstable society, generals of the Han people seized the opportunity to take over the regime leaded by Yang Jian. In 580, Emperor Xuan died of an illness, and Emperor Jing, only eight years old then inherited the throne. Yang Jian assisted the young emperor as his Prime Minister and controlled the military power of the Northern Zhou. In 581, Yang Jian dethroned Emperor Jing, and established the Sui Dynasty. Eight years after ascending to the throne, Yang Jian destroyed the Chen Dynasty in southern China, and reunified China.

How was Sui Dynasty ended?

After Emperor Wen’s death (probability by murder), Emperor Yang succeeded the throne. He was a great but controversial emperor in Chinese history. He carried out many significant projects during his reign. The most outstanding one was the Grand Canal, which connected the Yellow River with the Huai and Yangtze Rivers. Since then, north-south transportation was much easier. The transportation artery laid an important basis for economic and social peak of feudal China. Through several wars, the land of Sui Dynasty expanded.

Jing-Hang Canal

However, those constructions and wars were so expensive. People suffered a lot from intensive corvee and escuage. Ten of thousands able-bodied men were taken from rural farms and other occupations, which damaged the agricultural base and the economy further. Peasant uprisings broke out one after another. In 618, Emperor Yang was killed by its army and Sui Dynasty ended.

What were the achievements of Sui Dynasty?

In politics, Sui practiced “the System of Three Cabinets and Six Departments” in the central government. The three cabinets were: Zhongshu Sheng - the legislative bureau which was the policy making organ of the state in charge of drafting out orders and deciding organizations; Menxia Sheng - the Chancellery of the state which was the deliberation organ of the state; and Shangshu Sheng - the executive bureau which was the administrative organ of the state. The six departments were with Libu (personnel), Hubu (revenue), Libu (rites), Bingbu (war), Xingbu (justice) and Gongbu (works), which were all set up under the Shangshu Sheng to deal with daily affairs. This system was followed by almost every later dynasty since then.
In the local government, Sui simplified the three-grade system - state, prefecture and counties into a two-grade system, carrying out “the System of States and Counties”. By doing so, Sui redressed the overfull organization abuses, restrained political corruption, and saved government expenditures. Sui also ordered that local government officials must be assessed every year, that their term of service at the same place couldn't exceed three years, and that the officials mustn't be from other places. All these measures helped to strengthen the central government's control over the local places, and stopped the local depots from monopolizing the local powers.
At the same time, in selecting government officials, Sui prescribed that every state had to select three excellent candidates whatever family background they were born to, and send them to the central government every year. Those eligible people would be appointed as officials after the government examinations. It was the beginning of “the Imperial Examination System”.
Additionally, Emperor Wen ordered Gao Wan to make new state codes based on the old state rules of Northern Qi and Northern Zhou. In 583, he let Su Wei adjust the codes again, and then Kaihuang Codex was produced. The book was divided into 12 volumes, in which there were 500 punishments subdivided into five kinds and 20 grades and some abominations like scourging and splitting were abolished. Kaihuang Codex laid the groundwork for the codes of the later dynasties.


In economy, Sui ordered the rectification of the household register, checked the population, carried out a land equalization system, and adjusted the taxes and conscript labor. Meanwhile, he ordered to coin standard “Wuzhu” coins, and standardized bronze measuring bucket and iron rulers, which created good conditions for the increase of the economy.
In order to restore the agriculture production and strengthen the state water transport, Emperor Wen constructed “Guangtong Canal” to bring the water in the Weihe River into Tongguan Pass in 584. In 605, Emperor Yang ordered the building of a grand canal running north and south. The Grand Canal centered in Luoyang was divided into four sections – Yongji Canal, Tongji Canal, Hangou Canal and Jiang Nan He, with a total length of 4000-5000 li (1243 to 1553 miles). It was the artery of communications between south and north, leading to Zhuojun (today’s Beijing) in the northeast and getting to Yuhang (Hangzhou today) in the southeast.

Science and Art

Zhao-Zhou Brigde

The Sui Dynasty also made great advances in natural science and art. The noted astronomer Liu Zhuo wrote Huang-ji Calendar, in which the lunisolar precession he worked out was almost the same as that of modern times. Famous artisan Li Chun then designed and constructed the Zhaozhou Bridge which is the most ancient stone bridge in existence, enjoying the fame as “the First Bridge in the World”. Emperor Yang ordered the compilation of Quyu Tuzhi which consisted of 1200 volumes. The book was a geographical book excellent in both pictures and literary compositions, which played an important role in the developing history of geography.


IIn the military, Sui reformed the Fubing System. Before, Fubing were the professional soldiers at that time who were controlled by the generals; they weren't listed in the household booklets of the local states, and their family members also lived in the army with them. After the reform, those army people and their family members were both recorded in the name list of the army and household booklets of their local states. They could get their due farm land and engage in farming at peace time. They just took turns to guard the capital, and carried out their task on the stipulations.

Foreign Relations

In foreign relations, the Sui Dynasty often went on punitive expeditions against the Turkic people in the north, and finally forced them to surrender. The Tuguhun group who lived in the area between Gansu and Qinghai Provinces today often invaded the Sui Dynasty at the beginning. In 596, Emperor Wen let Princess Guanghua marry Tuguhun Khan to improve the relations between them. In 608, Emperor Yang defeated Tuguhun, and set four prefectures there. Then, Emperor Yani sent Zhu Kuan and He Man to attack Liuqiu (Taiwan Province today) twice.
Sui Dynasty, like a flash in the pan was an important turning point in Chinese history. It reunified the country and implemented a series of reforms. Sui Dynasty made full preparation for Tang Dynasty’s prosperity and peak time.

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