Innovations of the Sui, Tang & Song Dynasties of China

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  • 0:01 Three Dynasties
  • 0:36 Sui
  • 2:08 Tang
  • 4:15 Song
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Many of the most famous innovations of Chinese history occurred during the years preceding the Mongol Conquest. Three dynasties, the Sui, Tang, and Song, ruled supreme during this period.

Three Dynasties

Following the breakup of the Han Dynasty during the third century AD, China would again enter a period of upheaval. While the Jin Dynasty was briefly able to restore rule, it soon fell into a period of political chaos, known as the Southern and Northern Dynasties. Finally, by 589, a dynasty emerged that was able to once again unite all of China. The Sui Dynasty would be the first of three dynasties that would rule the Middle Kingdom during a Golden Age of Chinese culture, and create many of the innovations that stick out in the consciousness of China.


The Sui first united China in 589, and almost immediately went to work correcting the problems associated with decades of disunity. In this regard, historians often compare the Sui Dynasty to the Qin Dynasty that ruled more than 800 years prior. In fact, one of the first goals of the Sui was to renovate the most enduring monument of the Qin Dynasty, the Great Wall of China. Additionally, the Sui fought to expand China, incorporating what is now Xinjiang and Vietnam into the new empire. Most notably, the Sui built the Grand Canal, which allowed rice shipments from south China to reach the drought-prone population centers of the north. This cemented rice's place in the cuisine of all Chinese people, as before this northern China had been focused heavily on wheat. Like the Qin before them, the Sui were great builders.

Unfortunately, for the Sui, that is not where the comparisons with the Qin end. Also like the Qin, it seemed that the Sui would stop at little to make their plans come alive. Fixing the Great Wall was a great feat, but came at the same price in lives as before, with more than one million men dying in its renovation. Additionally, the new conquests of Vietnam and Xinjiang had left the army exhausted and broken. It revolted against the Sui in 618 AD.


One of the leaders that revolted against the Sui would go on to found the Tang Dynasty, which lasted almost 300 years until 907 AD. Under the Tang, China would reach a highpoint unseen since the Han period. The Tang were not unaware of their similarities with the Han, and indeed, tried to emulate the earlier dynasty to a great degree, including making the old Han capital of Chang'an the Tang capital as well. Under the Tang, Chang'an became one of the most important cities in the world, with well over 1.5 million residents.

Yet it wasn't just a few big cities that made the Tang one of the most important Chinese dynasties. This was also a period of great innovation in China. For the first time ever, and at about the same time as in Korea, moveable type printing was invented. This innovation allowed the Tang to produce texts on a massive scale. However, the most enduring aspect of Tang culture can be found in cupboards around the world. For the first time, tea became an important crop for the Chinese. Starting off as a medicine, it soon became the drink of choice for millions throughout Asia before spreading around the world. The Tang cultivated it to a great degree.

Finally, of note is the fact that the Tang had, to date, China's only woman ruler. The concubine of two earlier emperors, Wu Zetian had herself declared empress, and later emperor in her own right, through use of the same term as every other Chinese emperor, even declaring herself to be the founder of a new Zhou Dynasty. Not surprisingly, she was heavily opposed to Confucian ideals about women being subservient to men, and pressed to limit the influence of that philosophy both in her court and in China as a whole. Instead, she opted for Buddhism. However, the powerful Confucian bureaucracy blocked her attempts, and soon she was removed from power and the Tang was restored.

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