Reunification of China in the Tang Dynasty

Reunification of China in the Tang Dynasty
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  • 0:02 Dynasty Transitions in China
  • 0:40 The End of the Sui Dynasty
  • 2:18 Re-Uniting China Under…
  • 4:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you'll explore the complex period of reunification between two powerful dynasties in Chinese history as warlords fought each other for power. You'll discover exactly how the Tang Dynasty put China back together again. Test your understanding afterward with a brief quiz.

Dynasty Transitions in China

Transitions of power are never easy. Even here in the United States, where the process is pretty elegant, a new presidential election can be met with recounts and political backstabbing. When the transition involves the fall of an entire dynasty, a line of rulers from the same family, then even massive empires can fall apart. That's what happened in China in the early 600s. The Sui Dynasty fell out of power, and then the empire dissolved into smaller kingdoms controlled by warlords fighting for power. This gave the next rulers, the Tang Dynasty, the incredible chore of putting China back together again. With all the king's horses and all the king's men.

The End of the Sui Dynasty

In the early 600s, China was in an age of peace and prosperity. Nobody expected the empire to fall apart, let alone the emperor of the Sui Dynasty, Emperor Yang. In 610, China was expanding its borders, and Emperor Yang demanded that the King of Goguryeo (modern-day Korea) pay homage to him. This would not mean that China controlled Goguryeo, but it did mean the Goguryeo recognized China as the superior power. The King of Goguryeo refused, and Emperor Yang decided to go to war in 612 and teach the smaller kingdom a lesson.

Nobody thought the war would last long. Goguryeo was much smaller than China, but by the end of 612, China had lost over 300,000 soldiers and withdrew. Emperor Yang attacked again in 613 and 614, both times without success. He was planning another invasion in 615, but never got the chance.

China was weak from wars, and local warlords started amassing their own armies and taking control of their own territories. By 617, the little rebellions had grown to control major portions of Northern China, with roughly ten major warlords fighting for power. Emperor Yang took his armies and moved south. His highly trained army was almost entirely from the north, and after months away from their homes and families, they began to desert. Those who were caught were violently punished, which lead the army to completely turn against the emperor.

Emperor Yang was killed in a coup by the army in 618. His supporters proclaimed his grandson the new emperor of the Sui Dynasty, but at this point, China had fallen apart. The Sui had to take refuge with one of the warlords, and in 619, the young emperor officially gave up his power, formally ending the Sui Dynasty.

Re-Uniting China Under the Tang

One of the warlords who built their own army as the Sui Dynasty collapsed was Li Yuan, governor of the state of Tang. Li Yuan's cousin was the general who killed Emperor Yang in 618, prompting Li Yuan to declare himself Emperor Gaozu of the Tang Dynasty. He set up his capital in the Tang city Chang'an and set about unifying China under his leadership.

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