Home > Chinese History

Sui Dynasty History

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

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 Sui Dynasty to the end

In Yangzhou, Jiangsu

Yang You

Yining: 617


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

Zhuang Mausoleum in Qianxian, Shaanxi

History of Sui Dynasty

Establishment of Sui Dynasty

The founder of Sui Dynasty was Yang Jian, son of a famous general in Zhou Dynasty. After his father died, Yang Jian inherited the name of his father and became the Lord Sui. In 579, the 7-year-old Emperor Jing of 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 the 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 annihilate the only existing regime Chen Dynasty in the south and achieved the unification of China.

Achievements of Emperor Wen of Sui Dynasty

After successfully establishing the Sui Dynasty, Emperor Wen launched a series of reforms in terms of politics, economics, and military. After several years of restoration, Sui Dynasty became rich and strong.
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 councils 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 to cut down some expenditures and improved the working efficiency. The Emperor also reformed the talents screening system in a massive scale. He organized many times of imperial examinations and promoted a lot of talents regardless of their birth. In addition, Emperor Wen enacted the “Law of Kaihuang”, which had a great impact on 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 own 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 lands of others or owned people. 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 and attack those nearby, and alienating the strong enemies and unifying the weak ones to defend against the powerful Turkic invaders in the northern frontier.

Decline of Sui Dynasty

The decline of Sui Dynasty started in the reign of Emperor Yang of 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 simple and kind to people at the early ages. While his brother Yang Yong was straightforward and luxurious. In 600, Yang Guang instigated the Dugu Empress to persuade the 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 the advantage and usurped the throne. In 605, Yang Guang (Emperor Yang of Sui) changed the reign title to be “Daye”.
After successfully ascending the throne, Yang Guang began to reveal the true self, which was a brutal, incompetent and indulgent one. In 611, the peasant uprisings broke out everywhere in the country and Sui Dynasty fell in 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 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. In June 12th 618, Li Yuan forced the Yang You out of the throne and became the emperor himself. Hereby the Tang Dynasty was born.

How did Sui Dynasty decline?

In the first few years after the enthronement of Emperor Yang of Sui, the Sui Dynasty was still strong and powerful. However, the utilitarian emperor wanted to make quick success. He ordered to build a new capital in Luoyang, construct the Grand Canal, reconstruct the Great Wall and expedite to surrounding countries.

1.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, which will enable the rulers to better control central China and southern China. 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 greatly damaged the national economics.

2.Building of Grand Canal

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

3.Expedition to the West

Emperor Yang was also ambitious about pioneering to western China. In 609, the Sui army controlled the gateway between central China and western 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 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 the unification and maintained the condition for only 11 years. Then, Chinese society fell into chaos again and was divided into southern and northern dynasties. Warlords fought one another, greatly damaging the 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 big families. When Emperor Wen took over the power, he decided to recruit talents from all over the country. The situation of aristocrats holding all the administrative positions was broken and common 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 Grand Canal has always been a shame on the history of Sui Dynasty. However, the construction of Grand Canal was more beneficial in the long run.