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Emperor Yang of Sui — Controversial Monarch with Achievements and Destruction

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

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

As a very talented monarch who had implemented many advanced policies, with his smartness in both military and strategy, the Sui Dynasty’s perdition sounds unreasonable.

But Yang Guang buried the prosperous empire and was assassinated by one of his generals within 14 years.  

His achievements were as exceptional as the destruction. 

Restored Main Building Complex of the Ziwei Palace Constructed under Command of Yang Guang

Restored Main Building Complex of the Ziwei Palace Constructed under Command of Yang Guang, Photo from the Official site of Luoyang.

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, served there as the general and then regent, and his mother was the famous and noble Dugu Jialuo (or Qieluo).

Years later, his father snatched the throne and established the Sui Dynasty


Afterward, Guang’s older brother Yong became crown prince, while Guang was nominated as the marshal, who then made significant contributions in defeating kingdoms in southern China and the Turkic Khaganate. 

Unearthed Copper Mirror of the Sui Dynasty

Copper Mirror of the Sui Dynasty — Shaoxing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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

After Prince Yang Guang led Sui’s army and 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, the descendant of King Xiao Yan, and made many friends with other powerful local clans. 

Soon, people in the south stopped rebelling and 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 Yong, represented the powerful aristocracies from the north. 

Unearthed Crown of Yang Guang’s Queen in Yangzhou Museum

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

Framing His Big Brother and Seizing the Throne

Moreover, Yang Guang possessed the intelligence to understand precisely how to please his exceptional parents.


His father, Yang Jian, also known as Emperor Wen of Sui, advocated frugality and led a very simple life.


So Yang Guang, unlike his older brother, the crown prince, refrained from wearing fancy clothes or jewelry and consistently exhibited politeness and modesty, adhering to his father's principles of frugality.

Yang Guang's mother, Queen Dugu, was a sincere worshiper of monogamous, so Guang only spent time with his wife.


However, the crown prince made many concubines pregnant, while his wife was desolated and died suddenly.  

Unearthed Silver Lotus Glass Bottle of the Sui Dynasty

Silver Lotus Glass Bottle of the Sui Dynasty  — Dingzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Furthermore, Yang Guang excelled in political matters, achieved remarkable military successes, and consistently portrayed his older brother in a negative light in front of their parents.

All of these reasons combined, his parents finally banished their first son and nominated Yang Guang as the new crown prince of the Sui Dynasty.

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

Other brothers and nephews of Guang, who posed a threat to his throne, were either murdered or executed.

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

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

Imperial Examination: Challenging the Aristocracy

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

The System of Dominant Families had been established during the centuries of chaos preceding the Sui Empire.


Those aristocrats still obtained paramount power that could flourish or perish a kingdom, and Yang Guang’s father snatching the throne from the former king was a successful example.

Therefore, Yang Guang made concerted efforts to reclaim power from the aristocratic clans.

Unearthed Gilding Handle of the Sui Dynasty — Shaanxi Archeology Institute

Gilding Handle of Sui — Shaanxi Archeology Institute (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Consequently, Emperor Yang of Sui, Yang Guang, introduced the renowned Imperial Examination System, designed to select officials based on merit and ability through impartial tests, rather than their family background.

It was not perfect initially; however, it still strongly challenged the System of the Dominant Family that had lasted for hundreds of years.

Moreover, Emperor Yang of Sui restored many colleges to ensure that more people could get educated.


The project he started when he was still a prince continued regarding collecting and protecting 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

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

Construction of Large Scale Projects


Within a decade, except for those systematical innovations, Yang Guang also constructed massive projects involving millions of laborers.

He commanded the construction and relocation of Sui's capital to Luoyang City, a decision that proved to be advantageous for political, economic, and military purposes.


The Grand Canal (2700km) was built, which connected many important places from the north to the south of China.

He made significant contributions to the development of the economy, transportation, and communication infrastructure.

Meanwhile, he published a new law that refined political systems and abolished some harsh penalties applied in his father's later 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

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

The Suffering of Civilians and Nationwide Rebellions

However, many impetuous policies were implemented simultaneously, ultimately bringing chaos and destruction to the wealthy and prosperous Sui Dynasty.

Emperor Yang of Sui initiated several wars during his reign, displaying strategic insight, but many were launched hastily before the empire was adequately prepared.

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

Unearthed Clay Warrior of Sui — Shaanxi History Museum

Unearthed Clay Warrior of Sui — Shaanxi History Museum

Moreover, he constructed many large-scale projects that benefitted the following generations. Still, for people living in his time, the massive works were a complete 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 of years of work could not be finished within a decade.

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

Consequently, many peasant-revolting armies appeared and were widespread within a 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

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)

The Assassination of Emperor Yang of Sui and the End of the Sui Empire

In the end, Yang Guang, the former Emperor Yang of Sui, was not allowed to suicide with dignity.


Instead, he and his only living son were assassinated by a betrayer from his army and were buried poorly in a crude coffin by his poor queen. 


Those rebellions captured his queen, their only grandson, and her daughters, who eventually escaped to Tujue, a regime that had previously cooperated with the Sui Empire.

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, Emperor Li Shimin of the new Tang Dynasty, reburied Yang Guang using an emperor's ceremony. ​

Unearthed Gilding Copper Knocker (Fu Shou) From Mausoleum of Emperor Yang of Sui — Capital Museum

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

A Glorious Persona and a Failed Monarch

As a favorite child of his brilliant and powerful parents, Yang Guang was intelligent, 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 significant contributions to Chinese literature by collecting and preserving books, providing ample opportunities for intelligent individuals to receive education and advancement. Additionally, he left behind a collection of beautiful poems for the world to appreciate.

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

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

Emperor Yang of Sui and His Officials and Queen

The Revenge of the Big Brother: A Legacy Spanning Millennia

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

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

It feels like his big brother finally finished the "vengeance" thousands of years later.

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

Relief Sculpture of Emperor Yang Guang of Sui Dynasty

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