Emperors of the Sui Dynasty of China

581-618 CE

Emperor Wen, founder of the Sui Dynasty

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain 

During its short reign, China's Sui Dynasty reunited northern and southern China for the first time since the days of the early Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). China had been mired in the instability of the Southern and Northern Dynasties period until it was unified by Emperor Wen of Sui. He ruled from the traditional capital at Chang'an (now called Xi'an), which the Sui renamed "Daxing" for the first 25 years of their reign, and then "Luoyang" for the last 10 years.

Accomplishments of the Sui Dynasty

The Sui Dynasty brought a great number of improvements and innovation to its Chinese subjects. In the north, it resumed work on the crumbling Great Wall of China, extending the wall and shoring up the original sections as a hedge against nomadic Central Asians. It also conquered northern Vietnam, bringing it back under Chinese control.

In addition, Emperor Yang ordered the construction of the Grand Canal, linking Hangzhou to Yangzhou and north to the Luoyang region. Although these improvements may have been necessary, of course, they required a huge amount of tax money and compulsory labor from the peasantry, which made the Sui Dynasty less popular than it might otherwise have been.

In addition to these large-scale infrastructure projects, the Sui also reformed the land-ownership system in China. Under the Northern Dynasties, aristocrats had amassed large tracts of agricultural land, which was then worked by tenant farmers. The Sui government confiscated all of the lands, and redistributed it evenly to all of the farmers in what is called the "equal field system." Each able-bodied male received about 2.7 acres of land, and able-bodied women received a smaller share. This boosted the Sui Dynasty's popularity somewhat among the peasant class but angered the aristocrats who were stripped of all their property. 

Mysteries of the Time and Culture

The second ruler of Sui, Emperor Yang, may or may not have had his father murdered. In any case, he returned the Chinese government to the Civil Service Examination system, based on the work of Confucius. This angered the nomadic allies that Emperor Wen had cultivated, because they did not have the tutoring system necessary to study Chinese classics, and thus were blocked from attaining government posts.

Another cultural innovation of the Sui era as the government's encouragement of the spread of Buddhism. This new religion had recently moved into China from the west, and the Sui rulers Emperor Wen and his empress converted to the Buddhism before the conquest of the south. In 601 CE, the emperor distributed relicts of the Buddha to temples around China, following in the tradition of Emperor Ashoka of Mauryan India.

The Short Run of Power

In the end, the Sui Dynasty only held on to power for about 40 years. In addition to angering every one of its constituent groups with the different policies mentioned above, the young empire bankrupted itself with an ill-planned invasion of the Goguryeo Kingdom, on the Korean Peninsula. Before long, men were crippling themselves to avoid being conscripted into the army and sent to Korea. The huge cost in money and in men killed or injured proved the Sui Dynasty's undoing. 

After Emperor Yang's assassination in 617 CE, three additional emperors ruled over the next year and a half as the Sui Dynasty crumbled and fell.

The Sui Dynasty Emperors of China

  • Emperor Wen, personal name Yang Jian, the Kaihuang Emperor, ruled 581-604
  • Emperor Yang, personal name Yang Guang, the Daye Emperor, r. 604-617
  • Emperor Gong, personal name Yang You, the Yining Emperor, r. 617-618
  • Yang Hao, no era name, r. 618
  • Emperor Gong II, Yang Tong, the Huangtai Emperor, r. 618-619

For more information, see the complete list of Chinese dynasties.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Emperors of the Sui Dynasty of China." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/sui-dynasty-emperors-of-china-195252. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2021, September 3). Emperors of the Sui Dynasty of China. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sui-dynasty-emperors-of-china-195252 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Emperors of the Sui Dynasty of China." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sui-dynasty-emperors-of-china-195252 (accessed March 22, 2023).