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Sui Dynasty — Transient Empire with Inaugurator of Prosperity

The Sui Dynasty (581–618) was a short-lived yet important era that brought an end to the chaotic and separate Northern and Southern Dynasties (420–589).


It established an advanced political structure that left a lasting impact on the next millennium of ancient Chinese history.


During the 37 years of Sui's reign, two emperors ruled the empire.

Restored Main Building Complex of the Ziwei Palace

Restored Main Building Complex of the Ziwei Palace Constructed in the Sui, Photo from Official site of Luoyang.

Sui Dynasty Facts


  • The Sui Dynasty witnessed four emperors, yet only the first two ruled the empire, while the last two were puppet sovereigns.


  • The first emperor, Yang Jian, was one of the most extraordinary sovereigns, ushering in a period of notable achievements and reforms in the Sui Dynasty.


  • The second emperor Yang Guang was one of the most controversial ones in the history of China.


He established many massive projects, such as building the big city Luoyang and the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, while initiating many large-scale wars. 


Emperor Yang Guang was an excellent poet too. 

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 Imperial Examination System was introduced in the Sui Empire to select civil servants, providing an opportunity for talented individuals to participate in politics. Once again, ability triumphed over family origin.


But this system also weakened strong clans that had obtained power in the Three Kingdoms, Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties (220 — 589).


  • Many big granaries were established in major cities to adjust food prices and deal with famine.


This then became an important system that all dynasties implemented. 

Unearthed Granaries of the Sui Dynasty

Unearthed Granaries of the Sui Empire

Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the Sui Dynasty


Establishment of Sui by Emperor Yang Jian and Queen Dugu

At the age of eight, a young king ascended to the throne of the extensive Northern Zhou Dynasty. One year later, his powerful regent, Yang Jian, compelled him to abdicate the throne and established a new kingdom named Sui.


Over the next eight years, the Sui Empire achieved significant victories, defeating the Turkic Khaganate in the north and the Kingdom of Chen in southern China.

Finally, in the year 589, Sui's unification of China marked the end of the chaotic and divided era of the Three Kingdoms, Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties (220—589).


Yang Jian, revered as Emperor Wen of Sui, and his esteemed Queen Dugu, implemented a series of innovative and advanced political and economic systems, bringing prosperity and peace to their people.

Unearthed Artifacts from Mausoleum of Great Granddaughter of Emperor Yang Jian — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Innovations and Large-Scale Constructions of Emperor Yang of Sui


Yang Guang was the second son of Emperor Yang Jian and Queen Dugu. He drew the most powerful officials to his side and deceived his intelligent parents.

Through years of conspiracies, Yang Guang was nominated as the legit heir, while his big brother, the former crown prince, was dethroned and then forced to suicide. 


After Yang Guang, one of the most controversial monarchs in the history of China, ascended to the throne, he started his radical governance and became the sovereign with outstanding achievements and destruction.

He migrated Sui's capital city from Daxing to Luoyang.


Meanwhile, he also implemented many other grand construction projects, including the 2700 km long Great Canal, large-scale royal roads, and the lengthening of the Great Wall.

Moreover, many big wars and some aggressive reforms were initiated during his reign.

Stone Lion Unearthed from the Ruins of Palace in City Luoyang of the Sui Dynasty

Stone Lion Unearthed from the Ruins of Palace in City Luoyang of Sui — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

End of the Short-Lived Sui Empire


Consequently, Emperor Yang Guang’s excessive consumption of resources and radical reforms resulted in many uprisings and rebellions nationwide, though some of his ideologies were quite advanced. 


In 618, this controversial emperor was assassinated in chaos and poorly buried, and his empire was officially ended. 


One of the many uprising armies was led by Emperor Yang Guang’s cousin Li Yuan from northern China. 


This army defeated other forces and established a new, unified empire, the Tang Dynasty.

Ink Stone Unearthed from Mausoleum of Emperor Yang of Sui   — Capital Museum

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

Political Structure and Social Systems of the Sui Empire




The population of the Sui Dynasty reached its peak at around 46 million, with some estimates suggesting a figure of 55 million.


Political System: Three Departments and Six Ministries 


The Three Departments operated independently and reported directly to the Sui emperors: 


  • Department of Imperial Secretariats: Responsible for drafting and publishing decrees.


  • Department of Chancellors: Tasked with reviewing decrees by Imperial Censors.


  • Department of Imperial Affairs: The highest authority in state administration, responsible for executing decrees.

Subordinate to the Department of Imperial Affairs are the Six Ministries:


  • Ministry of Personnel: Responsible for the appointment, assessment, and removal of officers.

  • Ministry of Revenue: Manages household registration, finance, and taxation.

  • Ministry of Rites: Oversees ceremony and education.

  • Ministry of National Defense: Handles military affairs. 

  • Ministry of Justice: Manages law, judiciary, and punishment.

  • Ministry of Constructions: Responsible for the design and implementation of national constructions.

Unearthed Copper Mirror of the Sui Dynasty

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

 Official Selection System


In the Sui Dynasty, in addition to officials' recommendations, the Imperial Examination system gained increasing prominence for the selection of officials.


This system facilitated the recruitment of individuals based on their talent rather than social class origin, allowing them to ascend to the ruling class through examinations and civil service.

Unearthed Gilding Handle of the Sui Dynasty — Shaanxi Archeology Institute

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

Tax System

  • Upon reaching adulthood, typically at the age of 15, every citizen would be allocated a specific amount of farmland.


  • Civilians were required to pay fixed quantities of farm and textile products annually as taxes and contribute to free labor services for the government, usually amounting to 20 to 30 days each year.


  • Individuals aged 50 and above were exempted from specific types of labor and taxes.

  • Occasionally, individuals had the option to pay money or provide products to gain exemption from certain taxes or services.


  • The number of labor days and tax amounts varied each year based on factors such as the harvest situation, natural weather conditions, wars, and other events.

Unearthed Green Glass Bottle of the Sui Dynasty

Green Glass Bottle of Sui Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Military Service

  • Soldiers and their families were assigned farmland and allowed to reside together.


  • They were exempt from taxes and free labor services but were required to provide their own weapons and food.


  • They cultivated their land during periods of peace and fought on the battlefield during wars.


Even in times of peace, they were required to fulfill a month of military service each year, with the duration varying at different times. 


Land System


  • People were allocated specific amounts of farmland based on their social status, typically upon reaching the age of 21.


  • They could cultivate the land while fulfilling certain tax and labor service obligations.


  • Civilians were expected to return the majority of the land, typically upon their passing or upon reaching the age of 60.

Unearthed Silver Lotus Glass Bottle of the Sui Dynasty

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

Sui Dynasty Achievements

  • Construction of the Grand Canal, the most ancient and longest artificial great canal in the world.


It improved the capacity of transportation and further connected North and South China.

  • Inventing integral block printing.


  • The earliest case of diabetes and related symptoms was described and documented.

  • Construction of the earliest stone arch bridge in the world, the Zhao Zhou Qiao.

Zhao Zhou Qiao of the Sui Dynasty, the Earliest Stone Arch Bridge in the World

Zhao Zhou Qiao Constructed in Sui

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