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Sui Dynasty History

Sui Dynasty (581 - 618) is a dynasty of grand unity preceding the Tang Dynasty and following the chaotic eras of Southern and Northern Dynasties. It’s the second unification in Chinese history, and it’s often regarded together with Tang Dynasty as both dynasties shared a similar culture, system, and social characteristics. Modern people often believe that the Tang Dynasty was a prosperous time; only a few can acknowledge that the flourishing Tang Dynasty was the Sui Dynasty's continuity.

Sui Dynasty Emperors


Reign Title

Reign Years



Yang Jian

Kaihuang: 581-601

Renshou: 601- 604

581- 604

Founder of Sui Dynasty

Tai Mausoleum in Yangling, Shaanxi

Yang Guang

Daye: 604 - 618

604 - 618

Led the Sui Dynasty to the end

In Yangzhou, Jiangsu

Yang You

Yining: 617


A puppet emperor that was established by Li Yuan, the founder of the Tang Dynasty.

Zhuang Mausoleum in Qianxian, Shaanxi

History of the Sui Dynasty

Establishment of the Sui Dynasty

The founder of the Sui Dynasty was Yang Jian, son of a famous general in the Zhou Dynasty. After his father died, Yang Jian inherited the name of his father and becameSui Dynasty Map Lord Sui. In 579, the 7-year-old Emperor Jing of the Zhou Dynasty ascended the throne, and Yang Jian made his daughter Yang Lihua the empress. As the emperor himself was too young to attend the state affairs, Yang Jian acted as a regent. Two years later, Yang Jian forced Emperor Jing out of the throne and enthroned himself the emperor (later regarded as Emperor Wen of Sui Dynasty). He made Chang’an (today’s Xian) the capital city and changed the reign title to Kaihuang. Therefore, the Sui Dynasty was established. In 588, Emperor Wen sent troops to eradicate the only existing regime Chen Dynasty in the south and achieved China's unification.

Achievements of Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty

After successfully establishing the Sui Dynasty, Emperor Wen launched a series of political, economic, and military reforms. After several years of restoration, the Sui Dynasty became rich and robust.

In terms of politics, Emperor Wen reformed the administration departments and set up three councils and six ministries to consolidate the imperial power. The three councilsSui Dynasty Statue refer to Neishi, Shangshu, and Menxia, and the six ministries refer to Li, Hu, Li, Bing, Xing, and Gong. He also simplified the departments of towns and counties, which helped cut down some expenditures and improve working efficiency. The Emperor also reformed the talent screening system on a massive scale. He organized many times of imperial examinations and promoted a lot of talents regardless of their birth. Besides, Emperor Wen enacted the “Law of Kaihuang," which significantly impacted the laws issued in later generations.

In terms of economics, Emperor Wen of Sui issued the decree of Equal Field (allowing peasants to have their land), reduced taxation, and cut down the attended time of citizens, giving peasants more time to farm on their land. Meanwhile, the emperor also issued decrees to fight against those who encroached on the lands of others. Lastly, the emperor also ordered the dams to be built to ensure a better yielding in farms.

In terms of military, the emperor adopted the strategy of keeping friendly relations with distant states, attacking those nearby, alienating the strong enemies, and unifying the weak ones to defend against the powerful Turkic invaders in the northern frontier.

Decline of the Sui Dynasty

The decline of the Sui Dynasty started in the reign of Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty. Emperor Yang Yang Guang is the second son of Emperor Wen. He was ambitious and a great pretender. To meet the expectation of Emperor Wen, Yang Guang always acted to be kind and straightforward to people at an early age. In contrast, his brother Yang Yong was direct and luxurious. In 600, Yang Guang instigated the Dugu Empress to persuade Emperor Wen to deprive Yang Yong of the crown prince and made himself the crown prince. His plan succeeded. In 604, Emperor Wen was severely sick, Yang Guang took advantage and usurped the throne. In 605, Yang Guang (Emperor Yang of Sui) changed the reign title to be “Daye."
Sui Dynasty Painting

After successfully ascending the throne, Yang Guang began to reveal the true self, a brutal, incompetent, and indulgent one. In 611, the peasant uprisings broke out everywhere in the country, and the Sui Dynasty fell into a precarious situation. However, the insensitive Emperor Yang still kept his indulgent lifestyle and exploited people. In 616, when he began his second travel to southern China, Emperor Yang lost his base camp. Two years later, the emperor was killed by the very general he appointed in Jiangdu (today’s Yangzhou). Sui Dynasty came to an end after only 38 years of governing.

It’s easy to assume that Emperor Yang of Sui is the last emperor of the Sui Dynasty; the fact is he is not. After Emperor Yang died, Yang Hao, Yang You, Yang Dong were made the emperors successively, and they were all murdered by the warlords. On June 12th, 618, Li Yuan forced the Yang You out of the throne and became the emperor himself. With this, the Tang Dynasty was born.

How did the Sui Dynasty decline?

Sui Dynasty Lijing Gate

1.The Building of New Capital

The capital city Chang’an is located in western inland of China, which makes it hard to transport grain supplies. In 605, Emperor Yang sent Yang Su and Yuwen Kai to build a new capital in Luoyang, enabling the rulers to control central China and southern China better. Meanwhile, he also ordered the state granaries to be built nearby Luoyang. After the palaces in Luoyang were completed, the Emperor decided to move. However, the heavy demand corvee and large sums of expense significantly damaged national economics.

2.The Building of the Grand Canal

To connect the economic exchange between central China and southern China, Emperor Yang also ordered the Grand Canal with Luoyang as a center to be constructed.It was supposed to do plenty of benefits, including connecting many rivers, promoting the development of coastal cities, and facilitating the cultural and economic exchange betweenGrand Canal south and north China. However, the project was too massive and made people’s lives miserable. Also, Emperor Yang liked to travel south for pleasure. He made two journeys to south China and laid heavy burdens on people every time.

3.Expedition to the West

Emperor Yang was also ambitious about pioneering western China. In 609, the Sui army controlled the gateway between central China and west China. However, to show off his power, Emperor Yang squandered a lot of wealth to the western tribes. During 612-614, Emperor Yang sent armies to conquer Korea, which became the direct cause of peasant revolts.

Achievements of Sui Dynasty


Sui Dynasty is the second unified dynasty in Chinese history. Starting from the Huangjin Uprising in the late Eastern Han Dynasty, China was in a chaotic situation for 410 years. Firstly, the country was divided into Wei, Shu, and Wu states until the Jin Dynasty achieved unification and maintained only 11 years. Then, Chinese society fell into chaos again and was divided into southern and northern dynasties. Warlords fought one another, significantly damaging society and economics. Later, when Yang Jian began to destroy other regimes and unify the country, he was like a hero to people.

2.Imperial Examination System

Previous to the Sui Dynasty, the administrative officers were all recommended by the former officers or from prominent families. When Emperor Wen took over power, he decided to recruit talents from all over the country. The situation that aristocrats held all the administrative positions was broken, and ordinary people also had the chance to be officers and make their families respectful. Emperor Yang further improved the imperial examination system by organizing examinations. Later, the system became a routine and inherited by later generations.

3.Grand Canal

The construction of the Grand Canal has always been a shame in the history of the Sui Dynasty. However, the construction of the Grand Canal was more beneficial in the long run.

Check out the Sui Dynasty legacy at:

8 Days In-depth Silk Road Culture Tour to Dunhuang and Zhangye

6 days Shanghai -Suzhou - Hangzhou Trip