Sui Dynasty

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  • Dates: 581-618
  • Chinese/Japanese: 隋 (Suí / Zui)

The Sui Dynasty was a short-lived but significant dynasty in Chinese history which reunited China in 589 after over 360 years of division, and which set the foundations for the Tang Dynasty which would follow. Its brief reign was characterized chiefly by efforts of centralization and consolidation.

The Sui was established in 581 when Yang Jian, a general of the Northern Zhou Dynasty, usurped the throne, declaring an end to the Northern Zhou and taking the throne himself as Emperor Wen of Sui. Within eight years, he conquered the remainder of China, putting an end to the period of Northern and Southern Dynasties (a sub-section of the Six Dynasties Period) and reuniting China under a single Imperial state for the first time since the fall of the Han in 220.

Building on a legacy of Sino-Nomadic governments of the north, Emperor Wen attempted to reconcile this political heritage with that of the more dominantly Han Chinese political traditions of the south, incorporating Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism alongside one another in the formulation of a new legal code. A layer of local authority was removed, making local governments more strongly responsible to the Imperial capital, and the "rule of avoidance" was employed, preventing officials from serving in their home province, or from serving more than one term of service (usually three years) in a given locale; this prevented them from gaining too much power locally, and helped assure they would serve as agents of the empire, not bending to local interests.

The Sui was also active militarily on the borders, beginning many engagements which would be carried forward by the Tang. Expeditions were sent as far south as central Vietnam, and bases were established along caravan routes to the west. Central Asian states such as Turfan were subordinated as tributary states, and nomadic peoples were pushed back out of parts of Gansu and East Turkestan. The first regular official envoys to China from Japan, the kenzuishi, were received, marking the beginning of more regular and formal court-to-court interactions between China and Japan.

Emperor Wen was succeeded by his son, Emperor Yang of Sui, in 604. Under Emperor Yang, the Sui completed the Grand Canal, linking Beijing, Luoyang, Chang'an and Kaifeng in the relatively dry north with Yangzhou and Hangzhou in the comparatively lush and agriculturally more productive south. Repeatedly unsuccessful military expeditions against the Korean kingdom of Koguryo stretched the empire's armies and budget, however, and is generally cited among the chief factors contributing to the fall of the Sui. In a word, the Sui is typically said to have overextended itself. Like the Qin Dynasty many centuries earlier, the Sui fell after only one change of emperors, and was succeeded by the Tang, headed by top-ranking Sui general Li Yuan, who forced the abdication of Emperor Yang in 617, and took the throne as Emperor Gaozu of Tang the following year.

Preceded by:
Six Dynasties Period
Sui Dynasty
Succeeded by:
Tang Dynasty


  • Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 100-101.