Sui Dynasty: Religion, Art & Culture

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

The Sui Dynasty was one of the shortest in Chinese history, but has a rich history that still influences China in the modern day. If you would like to learn more about the Sui Dynasty, then this lesson is for you.

The Sui Dynasty

In the late 500s CE the storied Zhou Dynasty was in decline, and presiding over a fractured kingdom in chaos. Feudalism still ruled the social, political, and economic facets of China allowing powerful lords from powerful families to rival the emperor for influence and dominance creating a void of leadership and a power vacuum.

Power vacuums allow for charismatic and bold individuals to steal power for themselves…seemingly out of nowhere. In this environment, one powerful lord named Yang Jian claimed the empire of China for himself, and established a short-lived but dynamic dynasty that changed China forever.

Emperor Wendi of the Sui Dynasty

Yang Jian

Yang Jian came from a family that had connections to the Zhou Dynasty through the family's fiefdom or lands granted to them from their emperor. Jian was a popular general with a large supporting army headquartered in Guanzhong. With military conquests and a strong fiefdom called Sui, Jian was able to marry his daughter to the heir of the Zhou Dynasty.

The Zhou only held the northern part of China, and needed a general with Jian's record and popularity to unite the country. However, Jian had other ideas. When his daughter's husband died in 580 CE, Jian saw his chance and made himself chief adviser. Nevertheless, Jian was a calculating individual who didn't leave much to chance and pulled off a masterful coup by assassinating 59 members of the Zhou family.

With no remaining Zhou opposition, In 588 CE Jian placed himself on the throne and named his new dynasty Sui after his family's fiefdom. With his army of over 500,000, Jian, now named Emperor Wendi, moved through the southern provinces with a fury. In three months time, Wendi captured the south and the city of Nanjing and unified all of China. From 589 CE till the death of his son Yangdi in 618 CE, the Sui Dynasty accomplished remarkable feats.

Emperor Yangdi of the Sui Dynasty

Sui Culture and Society

The Sui Dynasty's culture and society was one of warfare and expansion. Emperor Wendi was after all a military leader so naturally his reign was filled with warring against rival powers like the Vietnamese, Koreans, and Turkish forces who all had empires of their own.

After Wendi's successful conquests in Manchuria and Vietnam, his son Yangdi tried to finish his father's work in Korea by conquering the kingdom of Goguryeo. Several failed attempts at taking over Goguryeo not only dampened the mood of China but worked to end the Sui Dynasty as well and led to the assassination of Yangdi.

The Sui emperors also worked to reform the society of China and instituted land reforms that worked to increase the lands farmed by peasants. Under the Equal Field System, land was granted to peasants for their lifetime to farm that had previously belonged to strong feudal lords.

After accusations of immorality and military ineptitude (defeat at Goguryeo) rebellions plagued Yangdi until his assassination in 618 CE. Li Yuan, became the leader of the next dynasty--another Tang Dynasty. Nonetheless, the Sui Dynasty and its culture of warfare and expansion set the Tang Dynasty up for a new golden age in Chinese history as a unified imperial nation.

Art and Architecture

Many building projects were undertaken by both Sui emperors as well while they reigned like extending the Great Wall of China. A new canal system was built along the Yellow and the Yangtze Rivers meant to connect the north to the south. However, Yangdi was criticized for the infrastructure improvement.

Three capital cities were created under Emperor Wendi at Louyang, Daxing, and Jiangdu that were built with palaces for the Sui. These palaces also came to hinder the dynasty's continuation under Yangdi as he was accused of keeping concubines in many of them. Most of the building projects and palaces were designed by Yuwen Kai who was one of China's most respected architects.

Guardian Figurine of the Sui Dynasty

While building projects sprang up under the Sui, Chinese artists experienced a heyday as their talents were in high demand. Emperors Wendi and Yangdi were both known for their generous employment of Chinese artists who provided palaces and temples with porcelain pottery and jade ornaments. Although Wendi was careful to remain loyal to both Confucianism and Taoism, he did convert to Buddhism while emperor.

Guardian Figurine of the Sui Dynasty

This also meant that Buddhist art was in high demand as temples were created across his unified China. Buddhism lends itself greatly to sculptures that adorn Buddhist temples, and the explosion of sculptures in China under the Sui was directly related to the patronage of Buddhism by Wendi and his son.

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