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Sui Dynasty: Achievements, Inventions & Technology

Instructor: Jeffery Keller

Jeff has taught US and World History at the high school and college levels for nearly ten years and has a master's degree in history.

Learn about the dynasty that helped reunify China after a 300 year period of disunity after the fall of the Han Dynasty, and see how this short-lived dynasty made innovations and achievements that helped pave the way for the long-ruling Tang Dynasty.

Paving the Way

Imagine creating an idea that would change the world, but dying before the idea became truly viable. This is similar to what happened to the Sui Dynasty of China.

In the late 500s CE, China was a politically fragmented collection of states engaged in almost constant warfare. Led by the Yang Jian, later to be known as Emperor Wendi (sometimes spelled Wen), the Sui Dynasty reunified the country and paved the way for some of China's greatest accomplishments. However, many of these accomplishments would not come to fruition until the succeeding Tang Dynasty, which replaced the Sui after just two generations.

The Sui Dynasty created a unified China for the first time in 300 years
Sui Dynasty Map

Origins of the Sui

The Sui Dynasty had its origins in the northern Chinese province of Zhou. There, Yang Jian served as a high ranking official in the court of the non-Chinese clans that ruled the territory. Upon the leader of the clan's death, Yang Jian seized power and used his connections with other Chinese officials to swiftly bring all of China under his control, reestablishing a unified China for the first time since the Han Dynasty.

The Emperor Wendi

Upon becoming emperor, Yang Jian rebranded himself as Emperor Wendi. Just as other emperors had done, this renaming was meant to demonstrate a new period in the Emperor's life. Wendi became singularly focused on understanding the causes of the collapse of the Han Dynasty and taking concrete steps to ensure his dynasty would not suffer a similar fall. In the process, Wendi rebuilt infrastructure, reformed landholdings, rebuilt central governmental administration, reinvigorated the economy, and created a powerful military.

Upon claiming the throne, Yang Jian renamed himself Emperor Wendi
Emperor Wendi

Innovations in Landholdings

One thing Wendi concluded was that the collapse of a unified China had been partly to blame on the power of large landholders, who limited the power of the emperor and inspired anger amongst the peasantry. To avoid a similar fate, Wendi made an important change to the ways land was managed. He reorganized all of the lands of China into two categories: distributed lands and inheritable lands.

Distributed lands were lands that were owned by the government. The government would then divide the land and give it to individuals aged 17 to 59 to be farmed and lived upon during the individual's lifetime. When that individual died or could no longer manage the land, it was returned to the government to be reassigned. This meant that peasants could be guaranteed access to farmland and land would not become too concentrated in the hands of a few aristocrats.

On the other hand, inheritable land was land controlled by elite aristocrats to produce staple crops for the empire. These elites had a right to a certain proportion of land, but the lands could be shifted from one aristocrat to another at the will of the emperor.

Yangdi's Reforms

Over the years, Wendi became increasingly hostile to those who opposed him. His subjects viewed him as a ruthless tyrant, and his son, Yangdi, felt that his time at passed. In 604 CE, Yangdi murdered his father and ascended to the throne. Yangdi sought to tie his new empire together through a series of reforms.

First, he modernized the law code by reducing the number of harsh crimes and punishments. Second, he made key changes to Confucian education and revitalized the civil service exam. This exam was a requirement for all who hoped to serve as government officials. It established China's government as a meritocracy, in which skill, not family connection, enabled advancement.

Scholars also helped pave the way for woodblock printing, a style of writing in which characters were carved into wood and then dipped in ink to stamp a uniform size and shape of characters. Most evidence we have today of woodblock printing dates from the Tang Dynasty, but historians generally agree that the technology dates from Sui times. However, Yangdi's greatest achievements were in the realm of construction.

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