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Emperor Yang of Sui -- Controversial Monarch in the History of China with Achievements and Destructions

Yang Guang (569 — 618), the Emperor Yang of Sui, was one of the most controversial emperors in the history of China.

His father left him a wealthy and a unified Sui Empire with nearly 50 million populations, and enough food that was able to support the whole empire for about 60 years, as well as a peaceful environment in the border and good reputation among civilians.

As a very talented monarch that had implemented many advanced policies, Together with his smartness in both military and strategy, the Sui Dynasty’s perdition sounds not quite reasonable.

But he did bury the prosperous empire and got assassinated by one of his own generals, within 14 years.  

His achievements were as exceptional as the destructions.

Perfect Prince Yang Guang With Exceptional Achievements 

When Yang Guang was born into a noble family of the previous Northern Kingdom Zhou; his father Yang Jian was serving there as the general and then regent, and his mother was the famous Dugu Jialuo (or Qieluo).

Years later, his father snatched the throne and established the Sui Dynasty; afterwards, Guang’s older brother became crown prince, while Guang was nominated as the marshal, who then made great contributions in defeating kingdoms in the southern China and the Turkic Khaganate. 

Besides his military achievements, Yang Guang was also quite handsome and artistic; dozens of his excellent poems are showing the world his talent. 

After prince Yang Guang having led Sui’s army defeated the biggest kingdom in the south, he stayed there to manage those places, and tried his best to blend in.

He married a noble girl from a powerful clan there, who was the descendant of King Xiao Yan, and made many friends with other local powerful clans. 

Soon, people in the south stopped rebelling, and sincerely respected the Sui Empire as their new country. 

Hence, Yang Guang became the representative of the new landlord class of the south, while his older brother, the crown prince, represented the powerful aristocracies from the north. 

Unearthed Crown of Yang Guang’s Queen — Yangzhou Museum (Photo by Xin Shui Ling)

Framing Up of His Big Brother and Gaining of the Throne

What's more, Yang Guang was smart enough to know exactly how to please his exceptional parents.

His father Yang Jian, the Emperor Wen of Sui, advocated frugality, and has always lived a very simple life; so Yang Guang never wore fancy clothes or jewelries, and was always polite and modest. While his older brother, the crown prince, was enjoying a luxury lifestyle.

Yang Guang’s mother, the Queen Dugu, was a sincere worshiper of monogamous; so Guang only spent time with his wife. The crown prince, however, made many concubines pregnant, while his wife was desolated and died out of sudden. 

Moreover, Yang Guang did quite a good job on political works, as well as achieved excellent military successes, and consistently framing up his big brother in front of their parents.

All of the reasons combined, Yang Guang finally replaced his older brother as the crown prince of the Sui Dynasty, commanded by his exceptional parents.

His big brother Yang Yong, the former crown prince, was banished and put under restraint.

After his father passed away, Yang Guang ascended to the throne and forced his big brother to commit suicide.

Guang's other brothers and nephews who may threaten his throne were either murdered or grounded to death. 

Portrait of Emperor Yang of Sui, by Artist Yan Liben (601 — 673) — Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Imperial Examination and Great Challenge to Aristocracy

Yang Guang’s father left him a huge and prosperous kingdom with stable borders, however, as well as many powerful clans, especially those used to support his late older brother Yong.

The former hundreds years of chaos formed the System of Dominant Family in the history of China. Those aristocrats still obtained enough power that could flourish or perish a kingdom, Yang Guang’s father snatched the throne from the former king was an obvious example.

Therefore, Yang Guang tried his best to take power back from those clans. 

Consequently, Yang Guang, the Emperor Yang of Sui, invented the famous Imperial Examination System, which was aimed at selecting officials based on their talent and ability through fair tests, instead of their family origins.

It was not quite perfect in the beginning, however, it still strongly challenged the System of Dominant Family that had been lasting for hundreds of years in the history.

Moreover, the Emperor Yang of Sui restored many colleges to make sure that more people could get educated. The project that he started when he was still a prince was continued, which was in regard to collect and protect valuable books. 

Yang Guang’s continuous and great passion for books and education, along with his masterpieces, showed his genuine love of literature.

Ink Stone Unearthed from Mausoleum of Emperor Yang of Sui 
 — Capital Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Large Scale Projects Constructed by Emperor Yang of Sui

Within a decade, except those systematical innovations, Yang Guang also constructed a series of huge projects that involved millions of labors.

He commanded to construct and move his capital to Luoyang city, which was proven to be a right decision for political, economic and military reasons. The Grand Canal (2700km) was built, which connected many important places from the north to the south of China.

Great contributions to the development of economy, transportation and communication were made under his ruling.

Meanwhile, a new law was published, in which refined political systems and abolished some harsh penalties that were applied in his father’s late years. 

Emperor Yang Guang's achievements were outstanding and extraordinary.

Part of the Grand Canal that was Built under Emperor Yang of Sui’s Governance

Miserable Lives of Civilians and Nationwide Rebellions 

However, many impetuous policies were implemented at the same time, which in the end brought the wealthy and prosperous Sui Dynasty with huge chaos and destruction.

Emperor Yang of Sui initiated some wars during his ruling period, which were insightful in strategy, but had started rashly, long before the empire was well prepared. 

Therefore, some wars extended the territory of his empire, while others caused severe loss of soldiers and money.

Moreover, he had constructed many large scale projects that were indeed beneficial to the following generations; but for people living in his time, the massive works were completely waste of money and a total disaster.

Tens of thousands of people died in those endless heavy works and wars.

It proved that everything has a certain pace and shouldn’t be rushed, just like hundreds years of works could not be finished within a limited decade.

Ordinary civilians were impossible to understand nor have the will to sacrifice for an emperor’s fancy political dream; they could only see their pain and miserable lives.

Consequently, many peasant-revolting armies appeared and widespread within a very short period, as well as troops of some powerful aristocratic clans that Yang Guang had spent his entire life fighting against.

13-Block Golden Jade Belt (Die Xie Jin Yu Dai) Unearthed From Mausoleum of Yang Guang, the Highest Format of Jade Belt for Emperor — Yangzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Assassination of Emperor Yang of Sui and End of His Empire

In the end, Yang Guang, the former Emperor Yang of Sui, was not allowed to suicide with dignity; instead, he and his only alive son were assassinated by a betrayer from his own army, and was buried poorly in a crude coffin by his poor queen.

 

His queen, their only grandson and her daughters were captured by those rebellions, soon they escaped to Tujue, the regime that had complied to Sui Empire before. 

Years later, the next dynasty defeated Tujue and took Yang Guang's queen and other family members back to the capital city; one of Yang Guang’s beautiful daughters was selected as an imperial concubine.

 

Her husband, the Emperor Li Shimin of the new Tang Dynasty, then reburied her father Yang Guang, using an emperor’s ceremony. ​

Unearthed Gilding Copper Knockers (Fu Shou) From Mausoleum of Emperor Yang of Sui — Capital Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

A Glorious Person and A Failed Monarch

As a favorite child of his brilliant and powerful parents, Yang Guang was smart, caring, handsome and polite. 

As a crown prince of a glorious empire, he achieved outstanding military and political accomplishments.

As a talented scholar, he made great contributions to Chinese literature, by having collected and preserved books, and provided intelligent people a great deal of opportunities to be educated and get promoted. Many excellent and beautiful poems of his were left to the world as well.

As a politician, he implemented many insightful and beneficial political dreams, and gained outstanding achievements; honestly, most of his important decisions were brilliant, though with very wrong timing and pace.

As a monarch, the Emperor Yang of Sui, who should have taken people’s well being into serious consideration, however, he failed tragically. 

"Vengeance" of His Big Brother after Thousands of Years

Recently, Emperor Yang of Sui, the Yang Guang’s grave was excavated by a labor contractor.

Surprisingly, the name of this contractor was Yang Yong, exactly the same with Yang Guang’s big brother, whose throne and life was taken away by Guang’s conspiracy.

It feels like his big brother finally finished the “vengeance”, after thousands of years later. 

Relief Sculpture of Emperor Yang Guang of Sui Dynasty in History of China