Lecture Eleven

Sui Reunification and the Rise of the Tang

Scope: By the late 6th century, the Turkic peoples who had moved into China from Central Asia had adopted many Chinese customs, including Chinese names, and had adapted their political systems to Chinese bureaucratic models. In the 580s, a general of mixed ancestry named Yang Jian overthrew his local ruler, and began to build a new dynastic state, which soon reunified China both north and south of the Yangzi. Known as the Sui dynasty, this state lasted through the rule of only two emperors, but it laid the foundations for a return to large imperial states, which remained the norm for the rest of China’s imperial history. This contrasts starkly with the history of the post-Roman West, where Charlemagne’s efforts to reunify a large empire ultimately ended in failure. In 618, the Sui fell and was succeeded by the Tang, which became one of China’s greatest dynasties and lasted until the beginning of the 10th century.


I. In 581. a general named Yang Jian seized power in one of the Northern Dynasties.

A. Yang was from one of the prominent Sino-Turkic families of the northwest.

1. His family had intermarried with the Chinese and with other mixed clans, including the Dugu or the Yuwen, who ruled various minor dynasties.

2. Yang led his army in rebellion and overthrew the emperor of the Northern Zhou state.

3. He proclaimed a new dynasty, which he called the Sui.

B. Yang set about reunifying China through a combination of military and civil methods.

1. He conquered other states in the north to build his power base.

2. He sent his son, Yang Guang, to be viceroy in the important city of Yangzhou, in the region known as Jiangnan, near the mouth of the Yangzi River.

3. He used patronage of Buddhism to build links to prominent families in the Southern Dynasties.

4. He had Yang Guang marry a princess from one of the Southern royal houses.

5. By 589, Yang Jian had succeeded in bringing all of China proper under his rule.

I. The Sui built a strongly integrated state but did not become a long-lasting dynasty.

A. Yang Jian undertook four main initiatives in developing his new dynastic order.

1. He promulgated a new legal code, in 500 articles, providing a coherent body of law and administration throughout the empire.

2. He adopted the so-called “well-field” system of land tenure, in which land was apportioned by the state every few years to prevent the accumulation of great estates in the hands of powerful families that might challenge imperial power.

3. There were enough exemptions and loopholes, however, to protect the existing landed elite.

4. Yang Jian also established a system of agricultural colonies on the Inner Asian frontier to handle military defense on a self-sustaining basis.

5. He established a system of public granaries to store grain during periods of plenty, which could then be released into the market at times of scarcity both to prevent famine and to keep prices under control.

B. Yang Jian was succeeded by his son, Yang Guang.

1. Yang Guang continued his father’s efforts to build a strong state.

2. He launched military campaigns against Korea and in the northwest, to push new non-Chinese groups, such as the Uighurs, away from the border.

3. He undertook the construction of the Grand Canal to move grain from the prosperous southeast to the less wealthy northwest, where the capital remained.

4. The combination of military campaigning and major construction projects led to unrest among the population, which was subjected to both heavy taxes and labor conscription.

II. In 617, a new dynasty arose that proved to be one of China’s greatest, the Tang.

A. The Tang was founded by Li Yuan and his son, Li Shimin.

1. Rumors and mystical prophecies that someone named Li would take over the throne had led to the purging of several men by that name.

2. Li Yuan was commandant of a garrison at Taiyuan.

3. His son, Li Shimin, convinced him that it was best to rebel and seize power rather than wait to be destroyed by the Sui ruler.

4. In 617, Li Yuan and his son led their army south, defeated the Sui, and proclaimed a new dynasty.

ВThe Tang dynasty consolidated its position over the next 10 years.

1. Between 617 and 621, Li Yuan and his son defeated several other groups that were also trying to seize dynastic power.

2. The Shaolin Monastery provided special fighting monks to serve as a bodyguard for Li Shimin, and they became famous for their prowess in martial arts.

3. In 626, Li Yuan abdicated the throne and his son, Li Shimin, became emperor.

4. With Li Shimin’s ascendance, the Tang was firmly in place.

5. We will follow the history of this great age in the next two lectures.

Essential Reading:

Arthur F. Wright, The Sui Dynasty.

Supplemental Reading:

Victor Cunrui Xiong, Sui-Tang Chang’an.

Questions to Consider:

1. Yang Jian used a combination of military force and diplomacy to reunite the empire. Why was he able to achieve this when none of his predecessors had?

2. Why did the Shaolin monks rally to the cause of Li Shimin, and how could Buddhist monks justify involvement in politics and warfare?

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