The chaotic Northern and Southern Dynasties abruptly ended when Emperor Xuan of Northern Zhou suffered and died from a stroke at the age of twenty. Yang Jian, the Duke of Sui and Emperor Xuan’s father-in-law, had been an excellent as well as shrewd administrator during the time of the former Northern Zhou emperors. It was no different during the time of Emperor Xuan. It was Yang Jian who held the upper hand when it came to politics after the young and unstable Emperor Xuan indulged in vice and cruelty. The Sui Dynasty resulted from this and is recorded on the Biblical Timeline with World History between 581 – 618 AD.
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Emperor Xuan died in 579 AD and left Northern Zhou to his seven-year-old son, Emperor Jing. To keep the empire intact, Yang Jian appointed himself the coregent of the young ruler but steadily built a circle of supporters composed of trusted government officials to consolidate his power (the generals Yang Su and Gao Jiong, as well as the prominent government official and writer Li Delin, were among his supporters). Gao Jiong silenced any dissent against Yang Jian, while Li Delin praised the Duke of Sui in his writings and supported the belief that the Duke was a better ruler than the current Emperor. By 580 AD, the Duke of Sui’s efforts to sideline the young emperor paid off when Emperor Jing signed his own abdication and Yang Jian formally acceded the throne as Emperor Wendi of Sui. He also ordered the execution of the members of the former royal family (which included his own grandson) to get rid of other claimants to the Northern throne.
Yang Jian, now Emperor Wendi of Sui, sought to reunite the Southern Chen domain with his own Northern Kingdom. The Southern Chen kingdom became weak during the rule of its incompetent king. Emperor Wendi conquered it easily after seven years of preparation. The Northern and Southern Dynasties were no more, and a greater part of China was once again united after nearly two hundred years of fragmented kingdoms. Emperor Wendi of Sui then spent the next years strengthening the unity of the northern and southern kingdoms with the establishment of a unified government with a clear hierarchy. He ordered that all weapons be confiscated from civilians to prevent rebellions, had the crumbled portions of the Great Wall rebuilt, laid out a new legal code, and improved relations with his southern domain.
He also fought against the Kingdom of Goguryeo in the Korean Peninsula but was unsuccessful in his quest for domination because of the outstanding defense of the troops led by General Mundeok. Emperor Wendi’s court was beset with intrigues during the last years of his reign. The victims included long-time general Gao Jiong (demoted to the commoner rank after a conflict with Empress Dugu) as well as Li Delin (stripped of his position as governor because of court rumors). One of the emperor’s most ambitious projects was the Grand Canal that connected the Yellow River with the Yangtze, but the canal was built at the expense of the laborers and the taxpayers which made Wendi unpopular among the people toward the end of his reign. Emperor Wendi died in 604 AD and was succeeded by his second son, the Emperor Yangdi of Sui.
One of the emperor’s most ambitious projects was the Grand Canal that connected the Yellow River with the Yangtze, but the canal was built at the expense of the laborers and the taxpayers which made Wendi unpopular among the people toward the end of his reign. Emperor Wendi died in 604 AD and was succeeded by his second son, the Emperor Yangdi of Sui.
Collapse of the Sui Dynasty
Emperor Yangdi continued his father’s Grand Canal project, but it was at a great cost. The people resented the high taxes they needed to pay for the completion of the project while many of the laborers died or became impoverished. He also continued his father’s war with Goguryeo which teetered between a stalemate and a complete failure for twenty years, until the Sui troops were finally defeated by General Mundeok’s forces in Pyongyang during 612 AD. When news of the Sui defeat reached Luoyang, his officers promptly declared a rebellion against Emperor Yangdi. He died in the city while the battle raged on in 618 AD. Upon Yangdi’s death, his sons briefly inherited the throne, but they were soon disposed of in 619 AD. The rebel officer Li Yuan promptly declared himself Gaozu emperor and started the new Tang Dynasty.
Picture By Ian Kiu – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3082893
Twitchett, Denis, ed. Cambridge History of China. Vol. 3. Sui and T’ang China 589-906, Part 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Xiong, Victor Cunrui. Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty: His Life, Times, and Legacy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.
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