Sui dynasty

The Sui dynasty (581–618), which reunified China after almost four centuries of political fragmentation during which the north and south evolved in distinct ways, had a significantly more significant role than its brief duration would indicate. Similar to how the Qin rulers of the third century BCE had reunified China following the Zhanguo (Warring States) era, the Sui reunified China and established numerous institutions later adopted by the Tang. However, like the Qin, the Sui overextended their resources and succumbed. As with the Qin, conventional history has evaluated the Sui somewhat unjustly, emphasizing the severity of the Sui rule and the megalomania of its second emperor while minimizing the Sui’s numerous excellent accomplishments.

Wendi (reigned 581–604), the founder of the Sui dynasty, was a high-ranking official at the Bei (Northern) Zhou court and a member of a powerful northwestern aristocratic family that had served successive non-Chinese royal houses in northern China and intermarried with the families of their foreign masters. In 577, the Bei Zhou reunified China north by defeating the rival Bei Qi dynasty in the northeast. The accession of a seemingly disturbed and reckless young emperor to the Zhou throne in 578/579 triggered a series of court intrigues, schemes, and murders. In 579, Wendi was able to install a youngster as puppet emperor and capture the crown two years later.

He soon established order within his borders by controlling all of northern China and commanding tremendous forces. He built himself a magnificent new capital, Daxing, near the sites of the former Qin and Han capitals, a metropolis constructed rapidly with excessive use of forced labor. This mighty metropolis remained (later under the name Chang’an) the capital of the Sui and Tang dynasties and the seat of administration until the start of the 10th century.

Wendi also acted swiftly to defend the borders of his new state. China had a dangerous northern neighbor throughout the sixth century in the form of the Turks (Tujue), who ruled the steppe from the boundaries of Manchuria to the borders of the Byzantine and Sasanian empires. At the time of Wendi’s ascension to power, the Turks were splintering into two massive empires, the eastern one controlling the northern Chinese border from Manchuria to Gansu and the western one spanning a broad arc north of the Tarim Basin into Central Asia.

Wendi facilitated this division by backing Tartu, the khan of the western Turks. Throughout his rule, Wendi promoted factional conflict among eastern Turks. Simultaneously, he bolstered his northern fortifications by rebuilding the Great Wall. In the northwest region surrounding the Koko Nor (Qinghai Hu; “Blue Lake”), he subdued the Tuyuhun tribe, who periodically ravaged the borderlands.

In the late 580s, Wendi’s state was sufficiently strong and safe for him to take the last step toward reunifying the whole nation. In 587, he deposed the emperor of Hou (Later) Liang, a kingdom that, since 555, had dominated the middle Yangtze valley as a puppet of the Bei Zhou. In 589, he defeated the last southern dynasty, the Chen, whose resistance had been little. Subsequently, many rebellions against the Sui administration sprang out in the south but were swiftly put down. Wendi reigned over a solidly restored empire at this time.

The institutional reforms of Wendi of Sui Dynasty

Wendi accomplished far more than consolidating and reuniting the empire. He constructed consistent institutions and a structure of governance that lasted through the Tang dynasty and beyond. As a diligent administrator, he hired a number of ministers who combined practical statecraft expertise with a flexible attitude to ideological issues. They reintroduced Confucian official ceremonies to gain the literati’s favor and create a link with the Han empire while simultaneously fostering Buddhism, the prevalent religion of the south, and aiming to construct the emperor’s image as a Buddhist saint-king.

However, pragmatic politics and institutional changes achieved Wendi’s permanent success. In the latter days of the Bei Zhou, he was responsible for revising the laws, and one of his first acts as emperor was to issue the New Code of 581, a criminal code. His ministers wrote the new Kaihuang Code and administrative legislation in 583.

These were much simpler and more liberal than the rules of Bei Zhou. Significant effort was expended to ensuring that local authorities studied and implemented the new legislation. Towards the conclusion of Wendi’s reign, when neo-Legalist political advisors acquired the upper hand in court, the application of the law grew more stringent. The Kaihuang code and laws have been lost, but they served as a model for the Tang code, the most significant body of legislation in East Asian history.

Under Wendi, the central government evolved into a complicated system of ministries, boards, judges, and directors. A separate body, the censorate, oversaw the behavior of its staff. The emperor presided over this apparatus, and all commands and laws were issued in his name. He was aided by the chiefs of the three core ministries, who served as state affairs advisors (yiguozheng). This structure subsequently served as the foundation for the early Tang’s central government.

Moreover, he implemented a comprehensive reform and reorganization of municipal administration. The three-tiered local government system inherited from the Han dynasty was reduced to chaos during the fifth and sixth centuries due to excessive subdivision; there were countless local districts, some of which were governed by a single family. Wendi streamlined the organization by immediately subordinating a considerably smaller number of counties to prefectures.

In addition, he standardized the disorganized rural administrative entities into townships (Xiang). The central government now appoints the heads of prefectural and county governments rather than members of influential local families, as was formerly the case. This change ensured that local authorities would be central government agents. It also incorporated local officials into the standard pattern of bureaucratic advancement, resulting in a more homogenous civil service over time.

Since population registration had fallen into disarray during the Bei Zhou period, a rigorous new census was conducted in the 580s. It documented the age, position, and land holdings of every member of every family in the empire. On its basis, the land allocation system used by succeeding northern dynasties from the end of the fifth century was reinstated. The tax system likewise adhered to the ancient concept of grain and silk head taxes applied at a regular rate. The taxable age was increased, and the yearly period of labor duty to which all taxpayers were subject was shortened.

Despite his frontier campaigns and massive construction projects, Wendi’s administration was thrifty and prudent. In the 590s, he had amassed substantial reserves, and when he merged the Chen regions into his empire, he freed the new people from taxes for ten years to assure their devotion.

The military structure was similarly based on the northern dynasties, which organized the imperial armies as militias. The troops completed regular annual service tours but resided at home and supported themselves for most of the year. To make the garrisons self-sufficient, many troops were placed in military colonies on the boundaries. Only when there was a campaign did the military establishment’s expenses skyrocket.

Integration of the southern states

The second Sui emperor, Yangdi (reigned 604–617/618), has been portrayed as the epitome of hubris, extravagance, and personal depravity, who spent his wealth on megalomaniacal architectural projects and foolish military expeditions. This fictitious Yangdi was mostly the result of a negative account of his reign published immediately after his death. His reign began smoothly, maintaining the trends established by Wendi; in 607, a new rewrite of the legal code decreased punishments in general.

The principal accomplishment of Yangdi was the consolidation of the south into an united China. There is little evidence that the south was ever brought into conformity with all the administrative practices of the north; the land allocation system seems unlikely to have been implemented there, and it is likely that the population registration, the essential foundation for the entire fiscal and military system, was only partially carried out in the old Chen territories. However, Yangdi was intimately linked with the south on a personal level. Married to a princess from the southern state of Liang, he served as viceroy for the southern territories from 591 to 600. Their successful incorporation into the Sui empire after the initial wave of uprisings was largely attributable to his administration and the generally amiable policies implemented in the former Chen territories.

His connection with the southern interest was one of the reasons he established an examination system based on the Confucian Classical curriculum to recruit scholars from the southern and northeastern aristocracy who had retained Confucian learning traditions into the bureaucracy. Until then, the court had been controlled by mixed-ancestry aristocratic families from northern China who were typically less cultured.

Yangdi also sought to undermine the power of the northwest by constructing a second great capital city on the eastern plains’ boundary at Luoyang. This capital was not only remote from the nobles’ homelands in the northwest, but also readily supplied by the fertile farmlands of Hebei and Henan. The new city was created in a hurry, requiring a large number of labourers for both construction and transporting the necessary lumber and other resources. Yangdi also constructed new palaces and a vast imperial park, utilising labour in an extravagant manner.

The Bian Canal would connect Luoyang with the Huai River and Jiangdu (present-day Yangzhou), the capital of the south, on the Yangtze. This was part of a larger scheme to unify the empire. The majority of this route followed preexisting rivers and old canals, but it was nevertheless an enormous endeavour that required vast numbers of forced labourers to work under deplorable conditions. As part of a wider attempt to rebuild and prolong the Grand Canal, in 605, a canal system was established between the capital at Luoyang and the Yangtze, and in 610, it was extended south of the Yangtze to Hangzhou.

Simultaneously, in preparation for battles in Manchuria and along the Korean border, another enormous canal was constructed from Luoyang to the region of present-day Beijing, to the north. By 611, the entire eastern plain was connected by canals to the major river systems of northern China, offering a main route from the Yangtze delta to the northern boundary. The building of these rivers was exorbitantly expensive, resulted in unimaginable pain, and left a legacy of widespread social discontent, but in the long run, the transportation system was to play a crucial role in sustaining the empire’s unity. In 607 and 608, as a precaution against the resurgence of the eastern Turks, massive labour levies were necessary to construct and fortify the Great Wall in Shanxi.

Foreign relations under Yangdi

Yangdi pursued an active foreign policy in addition to these forward-thinking building projects. An invasion to the south gained dominion over the former Chinese colony of Tongking and the central Nam Viet Champa state of Lin-yi (present-day Vietnam). Several expeditions were dispatched to Taiwan, and diplomatic connections were established with Japan. The Tuyuhun were expelled from Gansu and Qinghai, and Sui colonies were founded along the major trade routes to the west. The rulers of the several minor Central Asian nations and the monarch of Gaochang (Turfan) became vassals. The commerce between Central Asia and the West flourished.

The Turks remained the most significant menace from abroad. By the beginning of the seventh century, these peoples were completely divided into the eastern Turks, who occupied the majority of the northern Chinese border, and the incredibly powerful western Turks, whose dominions extended westward to the north of the Tarim Basin as far as Sassanid Persia and Afghanistan.

During the early years of Yangdi’s reign, the western Turks, whose leader, Chuluo, was half-Chinese, enjoyed cordial relations with the Sui. In 610, however, Yangdi supported Shegui, a competitor who expelled Chuluo. With an army of 10,000 followers, he entered service at Yangdi’s palace. After 612, as Sui authority began to wane, the western Turks under Shegui progressively replaced Sui garrisons in Central Asia and seized control of the Tarim Basin nations. The eastern Turks had maintained cordial relations with the Sui, with their khans marrying Chinese princesses. In 613, Pei Ju, Yangdi’s primary agent in dealing with foreign nations of the north, unsuccessfully sought to dethrone and divide the khanate of the eastern Turkish khan. In the latter years of his reign, Yangdi had to struggle with an increasingly hostile and strong neighbour as relations with the Turks rapidly worsened.

His most expensive endeavour was a series of Korean campaigns. At that time, Korea was divided into three kingdoms, the most significant and powerful of which was Koguryo in the north. It refused to pay respect to Yangdi and was hostile to the Chinese. Yangdi meticulously planned a large-scale punishing campaign, which included the building of the Yongjiqu Canal from Luoyang to Beijing. In 611, the canal was completed; a large army and an abundance of supplies were amassed; but, devastating flooding in Hebei delayed the battle.

Throughout the years 612, 613, and 614, Yangdi fought against the Koreans. The failure of the first two operations was accompanied by the breakout of several small rebellions in Shandong and southern Hebei. The subsequent strong repression caused widespread chaos throughout the empire. In 614, another another army was dispatched to Korea and besieged the capital city of Pyongyang, but it was forced to retreat without achieving a conclusive victory. These failed operations diverted Yangdi’s focus away from the increasingly crucial internal issues of his kingdom, resulted in an enormous loss of lives and material, and created severe difficulties for the civilian populace. The Sui were left disheartened, militarily handicapped, and bankrupt.

At that time, Yangdi made the decision to strengthen his ties with his northern neighbours. Despite the fact that the Sui were no longer in a position of power, his ambassador, Pei Ju, continued to plot against the eastern Turkish khan. In the summer of 615, when Yangdi travelled to Yanmen to assess the Great Wall’s fortifications, he was encircled and besieged by the Turks for a month before being liberated.

Rapidly, rebellions and upheavals erupted in every corner of the empire. Late in the year 616, Yangdi decided to retreat to his southern stronghold of Jiangdu, and most of northern China was divided into rebel governments vying for the throne. Yangdi remained officially emperor until his assassination by members of his entourage at Jiangdu in the spring of 618.

By 617, however, the real powers in China were the various local rebels: Li Mi in the region around Luoyang, Dou Jiande in the northeast, Xue Ju in the far northwest, and Li Yuan (who remained nominally loyal but had established a local position of great power) in Shanxi (who remained nominally loyal but had established a local position of great power). Li Yuan inflicted a devastating defeat on the eastern Turks at the start of 617, consolidating his local control in the impenetrable mountainous region surrounding Taiyuan.

In the summer of 617, he assembled an army and marched on the capital with the assistance of Turks and other local troops; Chang’an fell before the end of the year. The northern rebels under Xue Ju were defeated, and Li Yuan’s forces captured Sichuan and the Han River basin. In 617, Gongdi, a Sui prince, was enthroned as “emperor,” while Yangdi was declared “retired emperor.” After Yangdi’s death in the summer of 618, Li Yuan (also known by his temple name, Gaozu) ousted his puppet prince and crowned himself emperor of a new dynasty, the Tang, which would rule for over three centuries.

The Tang Dynasty (618–907)

When Gaozu (reign 618–626) became emperor, he was merely one of several competitors for leadership of the Sui dynasty. It took several years for the empire to be completely pacified. After the suppression of Xue Ju and the pacification of the northwest, the Tang had to contend with three major rival forces: the Sui remnants led by Wang Shichong at Luoyang, the rebel Li Mi in Henan, the rebel Dou Jiande in Hebei, and Yuwen Huaji, who had assassinated the previous Sui emperor Yangdi and now commanded the Sui’s southern armies.

Wang Shichong appointed Yangdi’s grandson as the next Sui emperor at Luoyang. Yuwen Huaji led his soldiers in an assault on Luoyang, and Wang Shichong convinced Li Mi to return to the Sui and aid him in combating Yuwen Huaji. Li Mi destroyed Yuwen Huaji’s army, but his own forces were severely weakened. Wang Shichong, seeing an opportunity to eliminate his most immediate adversary, seized Luoyang and defeated Li Mi’s men. Li Mi escaped to Chang’an and afterwards surrendered to the Tang. Wang Shichong ousted the puppet Sui prince at Luoyang and crowned himself emperor in the spring of 619.

In 621, Li Shimin, the son of Gaozu, was besieging him in Luoyang while the Tang army progressively drove him to retreat towards Henan. During this time, Wang Shichong tried to forge an alliance with Dou Jiande, the most powerful of the Sui rebels, who held a large portion of Hebei and had completed the 619 defeat of Yuwen Huaji’s soldiers.

He controlled the strategic region of southern Hebei, where he had successfully withstood the Tang army and the forces of Wang and Li Shimin. Now, Dou consented to come to Wang’s help; but, in the spring of 621, Li Shimin assaulted his army, defeated it, and captured Dou. Then, Wang capitulated. The Tang had thus eliminated its two most formidable competitors and expanded its dominance over the vast majority of China’s most populated and rich area, the eastern plain.

The opposition to the Tang’s conquest did not stop here. The majority of surrendered rebel forces were treated leniently, and their commanders were frequently confirmed in office or granted administrative positions in the Tang empire. Dou and Wang were dealt with harshly, however, with Dou being killed and Wang being slain on his route to exile.

At the end of the year 621, Liu Heita’s rebels in the northeast headed by Dou’s partisans reclaimed the majority of the northeast. Beginning in 623, he was eventually destroyed by a Tang army led by crown prince Jiancheng. The extended struggle in Hebei and the rather brutal Tang subjugation of the province marked the beginning of resistance and antagonism in the northeast that persisted to a certain extent throughout the Tang dynasty.

It was not limited to the northeast alone. In 622, his erstwhile Turkish allies ultimately fought and killed Liu Wuzhou in the far north of Shanxi, who had been a continual menace since 619. During the chaos at the end of the Sui, Xiao Xian established himself as emperor of Liang in the south, dominating the Yangtze core area, Jiangxi, Guangdong, and Annam (Vietnam).

The Tang army descended the Yangtze from Sichuan with a massive fleet and won two decisive naval engagements against Xiao Xian’s soldiers. Xiao Xian surrendered to the Tang in 621, granting the Tang authority over the central Yangtze and the far south. Another rebel, Li Zitong, from Zhejiang, conquered the southeast. Ending the year 621, he too was decisively beaten near present-day Nanjing. As was the case with Xiao Xian’s territories, the southeast was assimilated into the Tang empire with minimal conflict and opposition. Fu Gongtuo, a commander who established an independent state in Danyang (Nanjing) in 624, quickly put down the final southern uprising. The Tang family completely pacified and united the empire after a decade of war and instability.

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