Sui Dynasty

The Sui Dynasty (581-618AD) became a unified state again after nearly 300-year-long division in this country, forming a connecting link between the preceding Southern and Northern Dynasties and the following Tang Dynasty. The dynasty existed for a short time, only 37 years, but its great significance cannot be ignored like Qin Dynasty. It ended the long-time division and achieved unity in this country. It was also during Sui Dynasty that the new systems of government institutions and imperial examinations were set up, which influenced the whole country for about 1300 years.

What was the reason for the short life of the Sui Dynasty? It is not so easy to explain. But most of the scholars agreed that the Sui’s regime of tyranny sparked the anger of common people and triggered the civil upheaval as the ambitious Emperor Yangdi had launched too many wars and gigantic projects in the state, the people couldn’t bear the burdens anymore, and had to overthrow the rule.

Sui Dynasty Facts

In Chinese: 隋朝

Time period: 581– 618

Capitals: Daxing (now Xian), Luoyang 

Population: registered population was 46.85 million; the actual number might reach 55m

Main ethnical groups: Han, Xianbei, Turk (Tujue)

Main religions: Buddhism, Taoism

First Emperor: Yang Jian, Emperor Wendi of Sui 

Last Emperor: Yang You, Emperor Gongdi of Sui

Territory: 4.67m square kilometers

Administrative center: three departments and six ministries

Sui Dynasty Buddha relics

In 581, Emperor Jing of the Northern Zhou Dynasty abdicated in favor of the Prime Minister Yang Jian, and the Northern Zhou Dynasty fell. Emperor Wendi - Yang Jian named his state "Sui" with the capital in Daxing City (now Xi'an, Shaanxi Province). 8 years later, the Sui army went south to destroy the Chen Dynasty and unified the whole country. From then on, the empire witnessed its golden age under the rule of the first emperor.

In 604 AD, Emperor Yang Guang took the throne and built the Eastern Capital (now Luoyang City, Henan Province). He ordered to construct the Grand Canal connecting the northern and the southern parts of China; he started three wars against the kingdom of Goguryeo (parts of Northeast China and North Korea). However, what he had done over-consumed the national strength and resources, which stirred up the resentment and protest of the people. In 618, General Yuwen Huaji killed Emperor Yangdi of Sui. In the same year, the Governor of Taiyuan - Li Yuan forced Yang You, the last emperor of Sui to renounce his throne to him. The following dynasty was called "Tang", which was the heyday in ancient Chinese history.

Sui Dynasty Emperors – Timeline with Years

 Reign Title Dynastic Title Name of the Emperor Reign Years Burial Tomb Remarks
KaihuangSui Wen DiYang Jian23Tailing MausoleumThe first emperopr of Ming Dynasty
DayeSui Yang DiYang Guang14NoneHe was killed by Yuwen Huaji during the mutiny
YiningSui Gong DiYang You0.5NoneHe died one year after Li Yuan took over the throne.

Sui Dynasty Art: Painting, Calligraphy, and Music/Performance

During Sui Dynasty, the outstanding achievements in arts were reflected in painting, music and other performances. According to historic records, there were more than 20 famous painters in the dynasty, such as Zhan Ziqian, Dong Boren, Zheng Fashi, Tian Sengliang, Yang Qidan, Sun Shangzi, Yuchi Bazhina and others. In that period, the art of painting was still dominated by religious themes (Buddhism and Taoism), but landscape painting has gradually developed into an independent school of painting, with great progress in themes, styles and techniques. For example, Zhan Ziqian was good at space and layout design. His work "Spring Tour" (You Chun Tu) is the oldest landscape painting in existence today, which is the convincing evidence that the painters of the Sui Dynasty basically solved the problem of how to reflect natural landscapes in their painting. Zheng Fashi, Tian Sengliang, Yang Qidan and others were famous painters of religious themes in the Sui Dynasty. They once painted on the small pagoda of Guangming Temple in Chang'an at the same time. Zheng Fashi painted the east and north walls, Tian Sengliang painted the west and south walls, and Yang painted the four outer walls. Their combined exquisite and majestic works were called "Three Wonders" by the people at the time, and developed the art form of religious murals. Yuchi Bazhina was born in Khotan (Hetian, Xinjiang), and is good at painting figures in the Western Regions. He inherited the skills of Zhang Sengyao (a painter of the Southern Dynasty), and developed the "concave-convex method". His unique and creative painting techniques have a great influence on later generations.

The calligraphy of the Sui Dynasty was skillful and neat, which stuck to the traditional writing rules. Famous calligraphers include Ding Daohu, Shi Ling and Zhiyong. Now we can still appreciate the calligraphy works like Thousand-character Classic and some Buddhist scriptures from that period. Through the stele inscriptions, the Sui’s calligraphy works such as "Longzang Temple Stele", "Qifa Temple Stele", "Dong Meiren Zhi" and other stele inscriptions show the unique style of calligraphy. At the end of the Sui Dynasty and the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, the famous calligraphers Ouyang Xun and Yu Shinan, and together with Chu Suiliang and Xue Ji, they were collectively known as the "Four Great Calligraphy Masters of the Early Tang Dynasty".

The music of the early Sui Dynasty inherited the ethnic music of Gaochang (a type of minority music) in the Western Regions since the Northern Zhou Dynasty. After conquering the Kingdom of Chen, Sui government obtained the new music scores and set up an organization Qingshangshu Office under the Taichangsi Department to manage the music issues. During the reign of Emperor Yang Jian, all the music was divided into 7 different categories. Later it was developed into nine different categories of music during Emperor Yangdi’s regime. Among the nine pieces of music, only Qingle is originated from the Han people. Most of other music styles came from minority areas or other countries. There were many musicians in the Sui Dynasty, among which Wan Baochang was believed to be the most outstanding representative. According to his biography included in “Sui Book”, there were sixty-four volumes in Wan Bao Chang's famous book "Musical Score".

In the Sui Dynasty, more art forms were introduced from the Western Regions, such as inverted acrobatics, dancing on the edge of knives, playing with ropes or poles, blowing a Bili instruments to dance. It was recorded that during the reign of Emperor Yangdi, many different styles of songs, dances and performances could be found on Duanmen Street in Luoyang. Many exotic musical instruments were also brought into this country by the artists coming from afar. All these phenomena also stimulated the development of traditional Chinese music and performing arts. 

Sui Dynasty Achievements & Inventions

The unification of the Sui Dynasty ended the long-term division of the state, and social productivity was restored and developed. Under the influence of the relatively stable political situation, the science and technology saw obvious progress.

The first outstanding progress was the calculation of traditional astronomical measurement, especially about the calendar. In 600 AD, the famous astronomer Liu Zhuo (544-610) adopted a new method to calculate the movement of the sun and the moon when formulating the "Huangji Calendar". He also proposed a theoretical method of measuring the length of the meridian. Due to opposition from the conservatives, the plan was not implemented, and the "Huangji Calendar" was not promulgated as well. Another astronomer in the Sui Dynasty, Dan Yuanzi, compiled the stars list into seven-character long verses according to the constellation set by Chen Zhuo of the Jin Dynasty, which was a good way of popularizing astronomical knowledge. In addition, well-known figures in the astronomical circle of the Sui Dynasty included Liu Xiaosun, Yu Jicai, Yu Zhi, Lu Taiyi, Xiao Ji and Geng Xun. They all contributed to the development of astronomy. 

With the economic and cultural exchanges, the geography also took a step forward in Sui Dynasty. In particular, there were some scientific methods for the drawing of maps at that time. During the reign of Emperor Yangdi, in order to develop the trade routes with the Western Regions, Pei Ju had collected information on Central Asia and the Western Regions, and worked out a complete geographic book with a total of three volumes, the maps were drawn with colored ink. In 610AD, Emperor Yangdi ordered his officials to compile a 1,200-volume map book called "Au Yu Tu Zhi", with pictures in the front of each volume. This is a national geography monograph with both maps and texts, and it occupies a considerable position in the development history of Chinese geology.

Chinese herbal medicine in the Sui Dynasty also had significant progress. On the basis of the accumulated practical experience of human beings in the long-term struggle against diseases, many prominent medical doctors emerged in the dynasty, such as Xu Zhizang, Xu Cheng, Zhen Quan, Chao Yuanfang, etc. In 610 AD, the "General Treatise on Causes and Manifestations of All Diseases" compiled by Chao Yuanfang and others objectively reflected the medical level of that time. The book has fifty volumes, divided into sixty-two chapters and 1720 treatises. It mainly discusses the etiology and symptoms of various diseases, and includes the diagnosis and prevention of diseases. The main diseases listed in the book are stroke, rheumatism, consumptive fatigue, typhoid fever, smallpox, cholera, malaria, dysentery, edema, jaundice, diabetes, beriberi, vomit, hemorrhoid fistula, carbuncle, etc. From this book, we can see that the medical science in the Sui Dynasty had reached a very high level of understanding of the etiology of various diseases. According to the records of the book, the Sui doctors had invented and implemented surgical operations such as artificial abortion, intestinal anastomosis, vascular ligation and tooth extraction, which are the earliest in the world, and reflect the advanced medical skills of the doctors of Sui Dynasty.

Sui Dynasty Clothing: Hairstyles, Dress, Hat and other Fashion

Thanks to the social stability and economic development, Emperor Wendi carried out some reforms. In order to unify the clothing of the whole country, the official uniform was strictly stipulated first during his reign. At the beginning of the Sui Dynasty, Emperor Wendi advocated the practice of frugality. It was recorded that the governor of Xiangzhou, Dou Lutong, presented silks and brocades to the emperor, but Emperor Wendi ordered to burn them at the imperial court to prohibited extravagance. In 605 AD, after Yang Guang (Emperor Yangdi) came to the throne, he abandoned his father’s policy and turned much extravagant, seeking the gorgeous costumes and jewelries. In order to maintain his patriarchal system, Emperor Yangdi ordered his officials to follow the ancient rituals and adopted a strict system of official attires at different ranks. 

It was Emperor Yangdi of Sui ordered his people not to wear any yellow clothes. Since then, "Yellow Robe" began to refer to the special clothing of the emperors after the Sui Dynasty, and yellow has also become the exclusive clothing color of emperors. Regarding the common people's clothing, the men in the early Sui Dynasty still wore a kind of military uniform style clothes called “Kuzhe or Kuxi”, popular among those ethnic people of the previous Northern Dynasty, which have a folded collar, close-fitting clothes, large sleeves, big trouser legs, and a band on the waist (leather belt for nobilities and officials). In the second half of Sui Dynasty, many people in the north wore round-neck robes with narrow sleeves, a leather belt around the waist, a kerchief wrapped around the head and soft boots. While in the south, the attire styles of Wei and Jin Dynasties were still popular with loose clothes, large sleeves, long skirts and wooden high clogs. Only few people accepted the fashion style of northern regions. 

Sui Dynasty Architecture: Daxing City, the Grand Canal, Chi Road and Hanjia Granaries

Although the Sui Dynasty lasted only 37 years, it left brilliant great construction projects for the later generations. The other three projects have gradually disappeared in the course of history, only parts of the Grand Canal built in the Sui Dynasty are still in use.

At that time, Chang'an (now Xian) was dilapidated due to years of wars and social chaos, and the people moved away, turning it into a deserted and empty city. Emperor Wendi of Sui decided to build a new capital in the southeast of Chang'an City, which was named Daxing City. It was the largest city at that time, with an area of ​​1.4 times that of Beijing City in Ming and Qing Dynasties, and 2.4 times that of Chang'an City in the Han Dynasty. In order to strengthen the regime of the east and south, the Sui Dynasty also used Luoyang as the auxiliary capital, and Luoyang also became the political, economic and cultural center of the Sui Dynasty. 

The Grand Canal can be regarded as the greatest project of the Sui Dynasty. Most of the rivers in China run east-west, but the Grand Canal of the Sui Dynasty runs from the north to the south, opening the main artery of north-south traffic. This was a significant construction work that has benefited Chinese people in terms of transportation, which promoted economic growth and cultural exchanges. For more information, please see below.

During the period of Emperor Yangdi of Sui Dynasty, he also ordered to build a highway from Yulin, Shaanxi to Beijing. The road was astonishingly 120 meters in width with a length of 1,500 km. It was designed to transport army and supplies to conquer the northwestern kingdom of Goguryeo.

In 1969, the archaeologists discovered a large granary called Hanjia Cang built in the Sui Dynasty. In one huge cellar of the granary, 500,000 catties of millet stored in the Northern Song Dynasty were found. This means that the granary built more than 300 years ago was still in use in the Northern Song Dynasty. Along the banks of the Grand Canal, people found many granaries of this type, which can show the development level of agriculture in the Sui Dynasty. We can possibly say that if there was no such good foundation left by the Sui Dynasty, the Tang Dynasty may not necessarily achieve the prosperity in its early period.

Another outstanding achievement of engineering construction is Zhaozhou Bridge (or Anji Bridge). This bridge is located on the Xiaohe River in Zhaoxian County, Hebei Province. It was first built in 605AD under the supervision of designer Li Chun during the Sui Dynasty. It has a history of more than 1,400 years, which is thought to be the oldest stone bridge extant in China. It is made of forty-five or so one-ton stones. The bridge is 50.82 meters long and 9.6 meters wide, with a central span of 37.37 meters (122.6 ft). This kind of design was first seen in Europe in the 14th century, and that bridge in France was damaged and no longer in use, which was more than 700 years later than Anji Bridge.

The Grand Canal in China

In China, the Grand Canal may actually refer to two different canals, mainly built in two dynasties. One is called Sui-Tang Grand Canal, first built in Sui Dynasty and maintained in Tang Dynasty. Another one is called Jing-Hang Grand Canal, mainly built in Yuan Dynasty, which is about 900 km shorter than the previous one.

The Grand Canal is a master piece of water project created by ancient Chinese people. Up to now, it is the longest canal in the world, and possibly the earliest canal in the world. The first part of the Grand Canal was built in 486 BC, then the following Sui-Tang Grand Canal, the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, with a total length of 2,700 kilometers, spanning Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shandong, Henan, Anhui, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang, eight provinces and municipalities. The canal goes through the North China Plain, connecting the five major river systems of Hai River, Yellow River, Huai River, Yangtze River and Qiantang Rivers. In the past 2500 years, the canal was once the main artery of north-south traffic in ancient China.

On June 22, 2014, the Grand Canal was approved to be included in the World Heritage List at the 38th World Heritage Conference, becoming the 46th World Heritage Site in China.

The Sui-Tang Grand Canal

In order to solve the problem of transportation of supplies in the Sui Dynasty and accelerate the exchange of materials and culture between the North and the South, Emperor Yangdi decided to build a long canal by making full use of natural rivers and short canals built in previous dynasties. The Sui-Tang Grand Canal runs between Hangzhou in the south and Beijing in the north, with the intermediate station in Luoyang. After the completion of the Grand Canal, grain, silk and porcelain and other commodities produced in Jiangsu and Zhejiang could finally be transported by boat in large quantities and economically to Luoyang, the political center of the state.

The Sui-Tang Grand Canal began to be built in AD 605. It was estimated that nearly 5 millions of farmers were successively forced to work on the project. It took six years to complete the entire canal with a total length of 2,700 kilometers, making it one of the greatest projects in the world.​​ 

This canal had been in operation for more than 500 years, going through the Tang Dynasty, the Five Dynasties, the Song Dynasty, until the end of the Southern Song Dynasty. It was replaced by the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal in Yuan Dynasty. After the Mongolians took over the power of the country, they ordered to alter the course of the canal. Instead of passing by Luoyang, the canal went straight from Beijing and Hangzhou and cut the length of it by more than 900 kilometers. From then on, the eastern parts of China became economically developed regions due to the convenient transportation and trade, compared with the inland regions of China.    

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