Sui Dynasty

Sui Dynasty

The Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE) was a brief one with only two reigning emperors but it managed to unify China following the split of the Northern and Southern Dynasties period. As had happened previously in Chinese history, a short-lived dynasty made important structural changes which paved the way for a more long-lasting successor, where culture and the arts flourished, in this case, the Tang Dynasty. Reforms in government, the civil service administration, laws and land distribution helped restore and centralise imperial authority. At the same time, the regime became infamous for its immorality, huge public spending projects, and military follies, which combined to bring rebellion and, ultimately, its overthrow.

The Unification of China

In the late 6th century CE China was still beset with warring states who incessantly vied with each other for greater wealth and power. The three centuries of disunity would finally come to an end in 581 CE when one commander, known then as Yang Jian (aka Yang Chien), seized government from his military base in Guanzhong and unified the north. Not just a talented general, Jian was well-connected, and when his daughter married the heir of the Northern Zhou dynasty, he was given an imperial connection. The heir had died in 580 CE which allowed Jian to declare himself regent. To ensure no revival or rebellion would knock him off his newly acquired throne, Jian had 59 members of the royal Zhou family murdered and then set his sights on the south in 588 CE.

The Sui were nothing if not ambitious & they were not merely interested in protecting their borders but also dramatically expanding them.

Giving his new state the name of Sui, after his father's fiefdom, Jian amassed an army of over half a million and a huge fleet which included five-decked ships capable of carrying 800 men. Sailing down the Yangtze River, he swept all before him and captured Nanjing within three months. By 589 CE the south had fallen. China was a single state once again, with its capital at Chang'an, and Jian, who would become known as Emperor Wendi, established a short-lived but important dynasty in the development and history of China.

Sui Achievements

The Sui Dynasty consisted, then, of only two emperors: Wendi (aka Wen or Wen-ti), who reigned 581-601 CE, and his son Yangdi (aka Yang Guang or Yang-ti) who reigned from 604 to 618 CE. Aided by such figures as the great military commander Yang Su, the emperors consolidated their control over a unified China and expanded their territory. They also improved and centralised the administration system, established a single, unified, and less complex law code, and introduced land reforms. The old Nine Rank System of officials was abolished and, instead, local prefects were selected on merit which was demonstrated in their performance in civil service examinations held in the capital. Officials were then sent to provinces different from their birth to reduce local corruption and abuse of personal connections. For the same reason, their term of office was limited to three or four years. All religions were tolerated and supported with imperial handouts so that another potential source of division was minimised. Just as the Qin Dynasty had prepared China for the more durable and successful Han Dynasty, the Sui were paving the way for another golden age of Chinese history in the form of the Tang Dynasty.

An example of the important Sui land reforms was the extension of the Equal Field System (Jun tian) which had been first introduced in the late 5th century CE by Emperor Xiaowen of the Wei. Emperor Wendi applied the system to all of China in 582 CE. Designed to ensure small farmers did not get swallowed up by large estate owners, the government allocated a plot of land which could be worked during the farmer's working lifetime (up to 59 years of age). When he retired or died the majority reverted back to the state, and a small part could be inherited by his offspring. In another measure to help poorer farmers, extra granaries were built and filled (with tax in kind) which were reserved for destitute farmers in times of natural disaster or poor harvests.

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In practice, unfortunately, much of the state's good intention towards lowly farmers was lost thanks to corrupt local officials who were bribed by larger landowners to falsify records and claims. Still, the concept was established that all such land, in effect, belonged to the emperor, and the Equal Field System was more successfully applied to new territory acquired by conquest which the Chinese aristocracy had no prior claim to.

One of the costliest Sui projects was the construction of a massive canal to join the Yangtze & Yellow Rivers.

Rather less useful to the ordinary populace was the Sui's big spending on their own palaces and other public building projects in the major cities of Chang'an, Luoyang, and Yangzhou. It did not help matters that Wen maintained three capital cities: Luoyang, Daxing, and Jiangdu, or that he kept a harem of thousands within the pornographic-covered walls of his Maze Pavilion pleasure palace.

One of the costliest projects was the construction of a massive canal to join the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, the so-called Grand Canal. Built by conscripted labour, it was certainly grand at 40 metres (130 ft) wide and with a road running along its length. The project would eventually see three canals built, and although there was much hardship amongst the labourers tasked with building them, they did help to further connect northern and southern China. The canals proved a vital method for transporting troops and the grain tax from the south to north, where there was much less grain. Critics would later say the immoral Yangdi only wanted the canals so that he could travel around China at ease on his barges pulled by hundreds of beautiful young women, but the Tang emperors, for one, would be eternally grateful for the project. The road network was also improved and extended by Yangdi, another step forward in creating a unified China.

Military Campaigns

Sui China was not without its threats from neighbouring states, and the Great Wall was a notable point of defence against the Eastern Turks (Tujue) and so was extended and reinforced. The Sui were nothing if not ambitious, though, and they were not merely interested in protecting their borders but also dramatically expanding them. Things went well in the south with Sui armies conquering territory from the Annam and the Champa in southern Vietnam. There, in the early years of the 7th century CE, they successfully dealt with armies fielding war elephants by putting their crossbows to good use, terrifying the elephants which then stampeded back on their own lines. The elephants may not have accounted for many Chinese lives, but malaria certainly did, as most of the army was from the northern provinces of China and it was their first and fatal encounter with tropical diseases.

A Sui expedition met with even greater disaster in 598 CE when it attacked the kingdom of Goguryeo (Koguryo) in Korea and northern Manchuria. Goguryeo, perhaps sensing China's ambitions, had already made sorties into Sui territory but now it faced a massive invasion force. As it happened, the Chinese ran out of supplies, hit heavy rains, and had to return home. A second invasion was launched in 611 CE, this time by sea but was destroyed in a storm. Going for third time lucky, the Sui attacked again in 612 CE, this time with Yangdi leading the army in person. The great Korean general Ulchi Mundok was up to the task, though, and masterminded a resounding victory at the Battle of Salsu River. According to legend, of the 300,000-strong Sui army, only 2,700 ever returned to China. Two more attacks were rebuffed in 613 and 614 CE. Finally, Goguryeo had had enough and built a 480 km (300 miles) long defensive wall in 628 CE so as to deter any further Chinese ambitions. The lack of victories in Korea could be blamed on no one else but the commander who had led them, the emperor himself. Yangdi's prestige and reputation were dealt a fatal blow.


The defeat to Goguryeo and the hardships endured by the Chinese peasantry led to widespread rebellion in 613 CE, which was only fuelled by more military losses, this time to the Eastern Turks. The rebellions rumbled on until 617 CE. When Yangdi was assassinated by the son of one of his own generals, the Sui dynasty fell and the government was taken over by one Li Yuan, later to be known as Gaozu and founder of the Tang Dynasty. Emperor Yangdi, meanwhile, became the subject of critical Chinese historians who probably exaggerated his immoral rule as one of absolute tyranny and corruption. The last emperor had to be bad in order to justify the loss of his Mandate of Heaven.

Yangdi's father fared rather better in the historical record, largely thanks to his early support for Confucian and Taoist scholars, and his patronage of Buddhist temples which led to him becoming known as the “Cultured Emperor”. The difference in the two Sui emperors' lasting reputation is rather indicative of the period itself which is praised for its contribution towards unifying and modernising China but at the same time pilloried for its excessive waste and neglect of the welfare of the Chinese people.

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Map of the Northern and Southern Dynasties in the year 560 AD (Click on the image to see it larger)

The process of eventual Chinese reunification was already set in motion in 577 AD, when the Northern Zhou state (557 AD - 581 AD) defeated and incorporated the Northern Qi state (550 AD - 577 AD). Both states had been indirect successors of the Tuoba Wei Dynasty. However, the Northern Zhou's capable Emperor Wu died just a year later and was succeeded by his incompetent son, who reigned for only 2 years until his death as Emperor Xuan.

Yuwen Yong alias Emperor Wu, the Emperor of Northern Zhou (Tang dynasty painting by Yan Liben)

The Sino-Turkic military general Yang Jian (541 AD - 604 AD) from the Sui home district of the Northern Zhou state then effectively seized power as the regent of the succeeding child Emperor Jing (Emperor Xuan's son). However, Yang Jian convinced the child emperor to abdicate the throne to him in 581 AD. He then proclaimed the Sui Dynasty (581 AD - 618 AD) which he ruled as Emperor Wen.

Emperor Xuan of Northern Zhou Emperor Jing of Northern Zhou

During the next 8 years, Emperor Wen pursued his goal of unifying China through military action and cunning diplomacy. At first, the nascent Sui empire solidified its dominating position in China's north by eliminating rivals militarily or creating dissension within their ranks.

Yang Jian, the founding Emperor Wen of Sui (Tang dynasty painting by Yan Liben)

The former Northern Dynasties were thereby unified. In 582 AD, Emperor Wen's son Yang Guang married a princess (later known as empress Xiao) of the vassal Western Liang state, securing the alliance between Sui and Western Liang.

Empress Xiao, wife of Emperor Wen's son Yang Guang

Decisive military action against the southern Chen state (the last of the 4 states that had succeeded one another as the Southern Dynasties) required careful preparation.

The Sui state prepared by building up the strength of its military over several years and by using propaganda that placed a lot of emphasis on both states' shared adherence to the Buddhist religion (religious differences between North and South were already minimal then). By using Buddhism as a way to win sympathizers in the South, the questionable feasibility of a true North - South reunification of the Chinese people, based on the astonishing differences in literary traditions between North and South (explained in the preceding chapter), was sublimely brushed aside.

Bronze plaque from the Sui dynasty showing a seated Buddha, Bodhisattvas and monks

When the time for military action came in 589 AD, the Chen state didn't put up much resistance and China was unified once again under the Sui dynasty. Emperor Wen and his son Yang Guang, hoping to solidify their new empire, then established a new institutional/administrative order and political structure that, though not prolonging the short-lived Sui dynasty, set the right conditions for the flourishing of the next dynasty - the Tang dynasty.

Their new legal code was an amalgamation of laws from different dynastic states in north and south and was meant to regulate both government and everyday affairs of ordinary citizens. Learning from the mistakes of past rulers that often had to contend with rebellions of landless peasants, Emperor Wen and Yang Guang further set about creating a new land distribution system - the so-called "equal - field" system - that ensured access (not necessarily equal) of all the peasantry to tracts of farmland.

Under this system, the assigned land was partially redistributed after the death of its owner to ensure both that no peasants remained completely without land and that no individual landowners could amass undue amounts of land. However, the vast tracts of land that the new aristocratic class had begun to amass during the later Han dynasty was not affected by this system of redistribution and they retained their land holdings in their entirety.

Zhan Ziqian's painting "Strolling About in Spring", the earliest surviving Chinese landscape painting (Click on the image to see it larger)

Furthermore, recognizing the continuing threat of invasion from forces outside of China (especially near its northwestern border), the Sui rulers established agricultural colonies of soldiers in these border areas. That had the advantage that in case of an invasion, the defending troops were already located in the danger areas, where they sustained themselves through their own agricultural work.

To further secure the Sui dynasty's territory from incursions by nomadic tribes, vast new sections of the Great Wall were built in China's North and Northwest. Some of these construction projects occupied more than one million workers. Major repair work of the sections built during earlier times (the Qin and Han dynasty) was undertaken as well.

remnants of the Great Wall near Yulin, Shaanxi province

Finally, a system of public granaries was established during the Sui dynasty. In this system the government purchased surplus grain during harvest time at subsidized prices and stored it in these public granaries. In case of rising commodity prices (due to bad harvests, floods), the government then sold the surplus grain and thereby helped to lower and stabilize prices again.

After Emperor Wen's death, his son Yang Guang succeeded him as Emperor Yang of Sui and continued the efforts to strengthen the empire. Even though his military expedition to invade the Korean peninsula was a failure, his troops managed to push back the threatening Turkic nomads in the Northwest. However, these military expeditions drained the country's financial and material resources considerably and the empire lost a large number of soldiers, all of which began to stir up resentment and unrest among large parts of the population.

Sui dynasty bronze mirror

During Emperor Yang's leadership, work on a number of water canals (that would later be known as the Grand Canal) that would carry grain from the mouth of the Yangtze River to the poorer Northwest was started. Due to climate change, the now hotter and drier Northwest was struggling to produce enough grain to feed the growing population. Even though the construction of the Grand Canal is now regarded favourably, it was not a popular measure at the time, especially among the population that was displaced because of it.

old channel of the historic Grand Canal near Yangzhou's historical center

Li Yuan, the founding Emperor Gaozu of the Tang dynasty

Rising anger among the oppressed population about these public works projects and military campaigns led to an increasing number of rebellions in large parts of the empire. That was one factor in the demise of the Sui dynasty by the year 618 AD. Another important but odd factor was a series of rumours regarding certain mystical events that began to circulate among the population of the Sui capital in Chang'an in the preceding years. A rumour began to spread (first through soothsayers, later through a popular song) that a person with the family name Li would ascend the throne.

Li Yuan's son Li Shimin, who later became Emperor Taizong

Naturally, Emperor Yang wasn't pleased about this and in his efforts to protect the throne for the Yang family began to discredit and eliminate a number of officials and otherwise influential people surnamed Li. Li Yuan (566 AD - 635 AD), the commander of the military garrison in Taiyuan north of Chang'an, was one such leader who felt threatened by Emperor Yang's intrigues against people named Li and was motivated by his ambitious son Li Shimin (598 AD - 649 AD) to strike preemptively.

Chinese History Digest's summary continues with the Tang dynasty, one of the most prosperous periods in China's history.

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Wendi’s institutional reforms

Wendi achieved much more than strengthening and reunifying the empire. He provided it with uniform institutions and established a pattern of government that survived into the Tang dynasty and beyond. A hardworking administrator, he employed a number of extremely able ministers who combined skill in practical statecraft with a flexible approach to ideological problems. They revived the Confucian state rituals to win favour with the literati and to establish a link with the empire of the Han, and, at the same time, they fostered Buddhism, the dominant religion of the south, attempting to establish the emperor’s image as an ideal Buddhist saint-king.

Wendi’s lasting success, however, was in practical politics and institutional reforms. In the last days of the Bei Zhou, he had been responsible for a revision of the laws, and one of his first acts on becoming emperor was to promulgate a penal code, the New Code of 581. In 583 his ministers compiled a revised code, the Kaihuang Code, and administrative statutes. These were far simpler than the laws of the Bei Zhou and were more lenient. Considerable pains were taken to ensure that local officials studied and enforced the new laws. Toward the end of Wendi’s reign, when neo-Legalist political advisers gained ascendancy at court, the application of the laws became increasingly strict. The Kaihuang code and statutes have not survived, but they provided the pattern for the Tang code, the most influential body of law in the history of East Asia.

The central government under Wendi developed into a complex apparatus of ministries, boards, courts, and directorates. The conduct of its personnel was supervised by another organ, the censorate. The emperor presided over this apparatus, and all orders and legislation were issued in his name. He was assisted by the heads of the three central ministries who acted as counselors on state affairs (yiguozheng). That system later provided the basic framework for the central government of the early Tang.

Even more important, he carried out a sweeping reform and rationalization of local government. The three-level system of local administration inherited from Han times had been reduced to chaos during the 5th and 6th centuries by excessive subdivision there were innumerable local districts, some of them extremely small and dominated by single families. Wendi created a simplified structure in which a much reduced number of counties was directly subordinated to prefectures. He also rationalized the chaotic rural administrative units into a uniform system of townships ( xiang). Appointments to the chief offices in prefectures and counties were now made by the central government rather than filled by members of local influential families, as had been the practice. This reform ensured that local officials would be agents of the central government. It also integrated local officials into the normal pattern of bureaucratic promotion and in time produced a more homogeneous civil service.

Since the registration of population had fallen into chaos under the Bei Zhou, a careful new census was carried out during the 580s. It recorded the age, status, and landed possessions of all the members of each household in the empire, and, based on it, the land allocation system employed under the successive northern dynasties since the end of the 5th century was reimposed. The tax system also followed the old model of head taxes levied in grain and silk at a uniform rate. The taxable age was raised, and the annual period of labour service to which all taxpayers were liable was reduced.

Wendi’s government, in spite of his frontier campaigns and vast construction works, was economical and frugal. By the 590s he had accumulated great reserves, and, when the Chen territories were incorporated into his empire, he was in a position to exempt the new population from 10 years of taxes to help ensure their loyalty.

The military system likewise was founded on that of the northern dynasties, in which the imperial forces were organized into militias. The soldiers served regular annual turns of duty but lived at home during the rest of the year and were largely self-supporting. Many troops were settled in military colonies on the frontiers to make the garrisons self-sufficient. Only when there was a campaign did the costs of the military establishment soar.

Decline and Ruin

The decline of the Sui Dynasty started from the second monarch, Emperor Yang, who was a typical tyrant. His reputation was that of a son who lacked respect for his parents, committed patricide and usurped the throne.

Emperor Yang led a luxurious and corrupt life. Upon gaining the throne, he employed two million laborers to build the second capital city of Luoyang and was even reputed to have cruised along the river in a large dragon ship, with thousands of ships following in attendance.

Pottery of Chicken,
Sui burial objects

Craving greatness and success, Emperor Yang also waged war against Gaoli (currently Korea). Both burdensome military service and heavy corvee labor forced peasants to leave their farmland. Later, famine was common and caused by the resulting desolation leaving all the countryside in extreme misery.

In 611, peasants from Mt. Changbaishan in Shandong began a rebellion. Before long, rebels from all over the country formed into several powerful groups. Among them, the main military force was called the Wagang Army which was led by Zhai Rang and Li Mi. The force captured the granary of the Sui Court and issued the food to the peasants.

As a result, the Sui regime became rather unstable and in 618, when Emperor Yang was strangled by one of his subordinates, it completely collapsed.

Goguryeo-Sui wars

The biggest factor that led to the downfall of Sui Dynasty was a series of massive expeditions into the Korean Peninsula to invade Goguryeo, one of the three kingdoms of Korea. The war that conscripted the most soldiers was caused by Sui Dynasty's second emperor, Emperor Yang. This army was so enormous it recorded in historical texts that it took 30 days for all the armies to exit their last rallying point near Shanhaiguan before invading Korea. In one instance the soldiers—both conscripted and paid—listed over 3000 warships, 1. 15 million infantry, 50,000 cavalry, 5000 artillery, and more. There were as many supporting laborers and an exorbitant military budget that included mounds of equipment and rations (most of which never reached the Chinese vanguard, as they were captured by Goguryeo armies already). The army stretched to 1000 li or about 410 kilometers across rivers and valleys, over mountains and hills.

In all four main campaigns, the military conquest ended in failure. Nearly all the Chinese soldiers were defeated by the prominent army leader Eulji Mundeok of Goguryeo. According to the Book of Tang, of the 305,000 Chinese troops, only 2,700 returned to China. Soldiers in summer clothes would return several years later, barely living through the cold and famishing winter. Many died of frostbite and hunger.

Eventually resentment of the emperor increased and the wars, coupled with revolts and assassinations, led to the fall of the Sui Dynasty. One great accomplishment was rebuilding the Great Wall of China , but this, along with other large projects, strained the economy and angered the resentful workforce employed. During the last few years of the Sui Dynasty, the rebellion that rose against it took many of China's able-bodied men from rural farms and other occupations, which in turn damaged the agricultural base and the economy further.

Men would deliberately break their limbs in order to avoid military conscription, calling the practice "propitious paws" and "fortunate feet. " In the year 642, Emperor Taizong of Tang made an effort to eradicate this practice by issuing a decree of a stiffer punishment for those who were found to deliberately injure and heal themselves.

Although the Sui Dynasty was relatively short (581-618 CE), much was accomplished during its tenure. The Grand Canal was one of the main accomplishments. It was extended north from the Hangzhou region across the Yangzi to Yangzhou and then northwest to the region of Luoyang. The eventual fall of the Sui Dynasty was due to the many losses in Southern Manchuria and North Korea. It was after these defeats and losses that the country was left in ruins and rebels soon took control of the government. Emperor Yang was assassinated in 618. He had gone South after being defeated by Korea and was killed by his advisors. Meanwhile, in the North, aristocrat Li Yuan (李淵) held an uprising after which he ended up ascending the throne to become Emperor Gaozu of Tang. This was the start of the tang dynasty, one of the most-noted dynasties in Chinese history.

Jin Dynasty

One of the kingdoms finally won, after many interesting turns of events. The Jin Dynasty was established, lasting from 265–420 AD. The first of the two periods, the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316), was founded by Emperor Wu. Although providing a brief period of unity after conquering the Kingdom of Wu in AD 280, the Jin could not contain the invasion and uprising of nomadic peoples after the devastating War of the Eight Princes. The capital was Luoyang until 311 when Emperor Huai was captured by the forces of Han Zhao. Successive reign of Emperor Min lasted four years in Changan until its conquest by Former Zhao in 316.

Meanwhile remnants of the Jin court fled from the north to the south and reestablished the Jin court at Jiankang, which was located south-eastward of Luoyang and Changan and near modern-day Nanjing, under Prince of Longya. Prominent local families of Zhu, Gan, Lu, Gu and Zhou supported the proclamation of Prince of Longya as Emperor Yuan of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420) when the news of the fall of Changan reached the south.

Rediscovering the Sui Dynasty

While the Sui Dynasty reigned for only 37 years, the bold actions of its power-hungry emperors had a profound impact on the lives of its people. The Dynasty’s founder, Emperor Wen, took control of the northern half of a divided China in a coup against his own six-year-old grandson, who had been placed on the throne by his daft father shortly before the latter’s death. After ruthlessly murdering his son-in-law’s blood relatives to secure his hold on the throne, Wen set about to unify the country under his authoritarian rule. He eventually raised a 500,000-strong army, and met little resistance from the ruling dynasty in southern China when he marched his soldiers into their territory. In 589 the south surrendered, giving Wen and his Sui Dynasty control over the entire country.

The Sui Dynasty’s most lasting legacy was attained through internal developments. The Grand Canal that links the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers was constructed in its original form during the Sui Dynasty, using conscripted workers acting under the command of the mad Emperor Yang, Wen’s successor. Like so many megalomaniacs, Yang wanted to be remembered for eternity, and he launched his great landscape-altering project as a way to secure his place in history.

Ultimately, it was Yang’s ambition that led to the collapse of the Sui Dynasty empire, less than four decades after it was originally formed. Yang’s territorial ambitions knew no bounds, and while he was able to seize some land from the Vietnamese in the south through aggressive military campaigns, his attempts to duplicate that success in the north in Korean territory resulted in catastrophic defeat. His increasingly unpopular government was overthrown in 618, and a new (and largely now forgotten) dynasty soon sprung up to take its place.

Figures unearthed in Chinese tomb discovered in Henan province of central China. (Zhou HuiYing / China Daily )

This is part 3 of our TEFL China series – Ancient China: Sui and Tang dynasty. For the previous parts check our TDC’s TEFL blog. The main source for this post is the HarvardX: SW12.3, Cosmopolitan Tang: Aristocratic Culture in China. This is the 3rd part of a 10 MOOC series about the history of China, spanning from the ancient sage kings upto modern China.

Ancient China: Sui and Tang dynasty – Overview

The period before the Tang dynasty was characterized by conflict between Northern and Southern dynasties with different kinds of rulers and political systems, between Northern ‘Barbarians’ and Southern ‘Aristocrats’ with an affinity of literature and writing, a divide between Han and non-Han-Chinese. *the Han dynasty ruled over a unified China between 206BCE and 220AD

Before the Tang took control over China, the short-lived Sui dynasty will bring an end to four centuries of conflict and division and conquer the Southern dynasties and unify China once more in 589. The Sui, who only last for merely 73 years, will pave the way and lay the foundation for the success of the Tang dynasty (Wikipedia – Sui dynasty).

The Tang will continue reforms started by the Sui with strengthening the central and civic control over local administration and local (war-)lords. They link the political powerful North with the fertile South with the construction of the Grand Canal, still the longest an oldest canal in the world (Wikipedia – Grand Canal). Buddhism will become a state-sponsored religion and military campaigns will see the expansion into South-East and North-East Asia.

Historically, the Tang dynasty, is characterized by two periods: The first part, as a centralized and cosmopolitan empire, where the internal competition between aristocratic lords is channeled into civil and central power flourishing trade into Central Asia the reorganization of the tax system centralized agrarian reforms inclusion of non-Chinese into the empire a golden age for scholarship, literature and law, which attracts envoys, traders and pilgrims from across Asia and the world.

The second part of the Tang, will see overexpansion through continuous military campaigns the establishment of standing armies, including the reliance on frontier people as generals, which eventually led to the breakdown of the tax and military system, revolts by the professional armies, rise of frontier kingdoms (e.g. Uyghurs, Tibetans, Turks) and the retreat of central power and control.

The end of the Tang empire comes with a revolt led by a failed civil servant, Huang Chao, by 874 which takes a decade to suppress and although the Tang defeat the revolt, will never recover and once again, China will descent into unrest and division.

Nonetheless, the Tang empire is seen as one of the greatest Chinese dynasties. The territorial expansion will give China a sense as the great hegemon of East Asia, the centralized hierarchical order will serve as a new model of a rational state and the example as China as a cosmopolitan country, which not only takes but also gives something back to the world.

Ancient China: Sui and Tang dynasty – Social, religious, economical and military order

Social political order in the Tang dynasty

The imperial family of the Tang, the Li family, is of so-called ‘mixed blood’. One of the founders is ethnically Han-Chinese but as its tradition of the great clans in the North-West, they intermarried with the tribal people of the area, the Turks. Similar to the Sui imperial family, the Li clan is partly living in yurts and speaking the Turk language. Foreigners serve as generals and officials in the empire. There is no sense of anti-foreignism. For the Tang, foreign simply means outside of the empire. And once they are conquered – they are Chinese as well.

Women also have a surprisingly modern role in society. They are not just decorative and bound to their home, as it is a tradition at the time in the South but they are actively taking part in society. One of the best examples is Empress Wu. She briefly usurp the throne and establish the Wu-Zhou dynasty. The empress in not the only but one of the very view female Chinese empress ruling China. Empress Dowager at the end of the Qing dynasty might be another example later in history.

Inclusion is one of the reasons for the success of the Tang. The central government incorporates the great clans of the North-East, the South-East and Sichuan. By the way, if you would like to teach English in Sichuan let us know, we from TeachDiscoverChina are the experts for TEFL China in Sichuan province.

There are two problems which the Tang have to solve to make the empire work: The first one is how to shift the loyalty of the clans to the central court? They solve that issue by introducing a hereditary system for government positions. Official posts in the central government can be passed on from on clan members to their heirs and hence the clans will be guaranteed to stay in (central) power.

The other problem is how to cut the ties of the clans from their home bases / local domination? This will be solved by administrative reforms (started by the Sui) in reorganizing prefectures and counties and the ‘rule of avoidance’. The ‘rule of avoidance’ states that officials might not serve where they have relatives. It is still operative in today’s’ China. These reforms help to break the great clans from their local dominion and give local government more independence and the central government the control over appointments and ranks. The great clans could make their male heirs eligible for office but could not decide for which role/rank.

As the central government decides the rank of officials, the prestige of the great clans depends on ranking and the service to dynasty. There is a ranking system which will determine the prestige accordingly. The great clans are also not allowed to intermarry. Education will further become one possible path into office, which is potentially open for everyone. Those reforms will bolster the supremacy of the imperial house / the Li family over the clans as ‘primus inter pares’ (the first among equals) but still continue the competition between the clans.

Religious order of the Tang

During the Tang dynasty Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism will not only become all be patronized by the state but also institutionalized and also centralized or canonized. As a side note, all three stated forms here are understood as a religion according to a normative set of rules as one ought to behave, etc.


Confucianists in Tang China are without exception all bureaucrats or civil servants. They have Confucian temples with a school in most counties but by no mean all and an imperial academy in the capital. Followers of Confucius are both political and religious/cultural figures – they give prayers and so on.


In contrary to Christianity, there is no such thing as baptism or conversion to Buddhism. Instead, one chooses to patronage Buddha. The real Buddhists are the nun and monks. According to official counts during the Sui dynasty in 589, there are about 2M registered nuns and monks in the North. Far less in the South. They live in monasteries and nunneries with extensive landholdings, including rent income from respective households. Those land holdings are one of the reasons why Buddhism is attacked and/or attempts of suppression by governments throughout imperial China.


In the 3 rd century, a reformed Daoism is more an imitation of Buddhism with Daoist temples and officiants (= priests). Daoists are only 1/10 of Buddhists in numbers but they hold a special claim in the Tang dynasty. The imperial house has the surname Li. One of the central figures of Daoism – Laozi – also held the same surname. Hence the imperial house claims to be direct descendants from Laozi, which gives Daoism a special favor in the empire. E.g. religious debates were held, wherein the end the Daoist contestant wins.

Patronage of religion in Tang

Sui and Tang patronage all three religions at the same time but also tried to centralize control over them. Tang were less concerned about their commitment to one single religion but focused on control over their practices.

During the dynasty, there are attempts to integrate all three religious texts or teachings into one central religion or teaching. The emperor is the central representative for all three religions, similar to the country unified different states into one empire. During Tang, religious, sectarian texts will be canonized.

Despite those three religions other practices, such as Manicheans, Christians or Zoroastrians) have a place in the thriving and bustling capital of Tang, Chang’an. Which is by that time the greatest city in the world with around 1M inhabitants

Economical order during the Tang dynasty

Started by the Sui, the tax system was further reformed under the Tang. Namely the ‘equitable field system (or Juntianfa in Chinese). It was basically a contract between farmers and the central government. Farmers were given guaranteed land rights in exchange for revenue. More productive land had to pay less and less productive land had to give more tax. Land rights were given at the age of 18 and had to be returned with death or at the age of 60 – retirement age. The annual obligation was not just grain but also textile and a set amount of labor hours.

As mentioned before, the great clans were treated differently. They received land as part of their salary and high officials got estates including farmers, which could be inherited and were also tax-exempt.

The idea of how to organize the state was that the great clans as the peak of the social, political and economic elite, while all surplus went to the central government. In its core, the model of the Tang dynasty was a unified hierarchy from the top down of power, status, culture and wealth.

Chang’an as the capital of the Tang empire was at its time the greatest city of the world, with all the hustle and bustle. It was an important center point for luxury goods for the Tang aristocracy, which attracted merchants from around the globe

Military order under the Tang

During the first half of the Tang, the central court had to solve the problem of a very decentralized and highly independent military. The solution was the creation of a militia system in frontier areas, where part of the farmers were trained as an army reserve in exchange for tax-exempts.

With the ongoing territorial expansion, the Tang needed that tax revenue and had to establish a standing army, defend growing borders and skirmishes with nomads, which spelled an end to the militia system eventually.

It was replaced by professional armies with military governors, which created problems at a later time when those governors increased their power when the center grew increasingly weaker.

World power Tang

Ancient China: Sui and Tang dynasty – How the Tang dynasty dominated the region. The territory between Bagdad and Chang’an was highly contested by different powers, such as Persians, Moslems, Turks, Tibetans, and others. The Tang were by far the most successful at that time.

Tang armies controlled trade routes and established protectorates throughout Central Asia. Continued expansion until 753 saw a first battle between a Chinese and an Arab army at the Talas river, which resulted in the defeat of the Tang army. It is argued that both armies at the time were not at their peak but were battled at several fronts through overexpansion. The Tang empire stretched and faced military problems in Northern Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Korea.

Though it was not just conquest by the Tang, what made it so successful. It brought a new model of order to its world. All those countries were looking up to the Tang and were keen to learn from the empire. They sent embassies of students, monks, high officials, and aristocrats. Some of them stayed their whole life as officials. They learned Tang education, technology, history, political system and its model for government, the legal system and its rule of law, military organization and Tang religion. After returning to their countries they brought the Tang system with them and with that the Tang empire became the fundament of the East Asian civilization.

Furthermore, those who came to the empire learned the writing from the Tang which for example became the basis for Japanese and Korean. They learned how to live in squared cities with a grid system, eat with chopsticks, drink tea and wear silk clothes.

I think it is an amazing thought that no matter where you are in Southeast Asia and you eat with chopsticks, you hold a part of the amazing history of Tang China in your hands. And it seems to me that the Tang were so successful as they were an open and inclusive country which didn’t just conquer territory but also brought law and a more modern way of the state organization to the region. It not just held people and countries in (military) awe but inspired them to be like the Tang!

If you want to find traces in China, for example in Xi’an the modern name for the Tang capital Chang’an (or actually the capital for 10 Chinese dynasties), while teaching English in China let us know and we find you the perfect school for discovering China.

So, that was part 3 of our blog series – Ancient China: Sui and Tang dynasty – let us know what you think in the comment section!

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You've only scratched the surface of Sui family history.

Between 1964 and 2004, in the United States, Sui life expectancy was at its lowest point in 2000, and highest in 1994. The average life expectancy for Sui in 1964 was 54, and 82 in 2004.

An unusually short lifespan might indicate that your Sui ancestors lived in harsh conditions. A short lifespan might also indicate health problems that were once prevalent in your family. The SSDI is a searchable database of more than 70 million names. You can find birthdates, death dates, addresses and more.

Watch the video: The Sui Dynasty