Sui Dynasty: Social Structures & Economy

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 pulled off remarkable feats that still affect China today. If you would like to learn more about the Sui Dynasty, this lesson has what you are looking for.

Emperor Wendi

Yang Jian was a feudal lord with ancestral lands in China named for his family, Sui. Jian was also a general with a large army who had familial relations with the reigning Zhou Dynasty, which held northern China. For over three hundred years, China's feudal lords held sway over the other regions of China, and their dominance over their domains made them kings in their own right.

With his strong military acumen and a force that numbered in the thousands, Jian was positioned to take over China by the 580s CE. He was able to arrange a marriage of his daughter to the heir of the Zhou Dynasty, who died prematurely leaving Jian to claim the position of chief advisor in the absence of a crown prince.

Unwilling to relinquish power once he held it in his hands, Jian then arranged for the remaining members of the Zhou Dynasty to be assassinated, leaving him alone with the reins of power firmly in his grasp. In the year 581 Yang Jian became emperor of China, instituted his Sui Dynasty, and renamed himself Emperor Wendi.

Wendi, First Emperor of the Sui Dynasty

In a matter of just three months, Wendi and his army of 500,000 marched south and unified the whole of China. The Sui Dynasty was poised to last for centuries when it began, but due to a series of social and economic ills it would fade into history by 618 CE.

Social Structure

After unifying China, Wendi went about the daunting task of ruling over his vast empire. Conquests into Manchuria and Vietnam would prove successful as the Sui expanded China's grasp on Asia. However, a series of defeats that would continue into Wendi's son Emperor Yangdi's rule into the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo proved to be disastrous.

Yangdi, Last Emperor of the Sui Dynasty

When he unified China, Wendi also faced the task of connecting his mighty empire. To ensure that his grasp was felt throughout China, Wendi commissioned the building of imperial palaces in each corner of China at Louyang, Daxing, and Jiangdu.

Wendi also tried to unite his government and its bureaucracies by returning to the Three Departments and Six Ministries system, where each facet of the government had to cooperate and work together to make each sector uniform. Wendi also transformed the Chinese civil service system, which had grown to be very corrupt under the Zhou.

Advisors with important positions within the government were inept and easily bribed, but under Wendi avarice would not be tolerated. The Imperial Examination System required all government officials to pass an examination to ensure that important positions within the government went to the best and the brightest.

When Wendi died in 604 CE, his son Yangdi (the last emperor of the Sui) tried to build upon his father's success. Nevertheless, the troubles brimming underneath the surface of his father's reign haunted Yangdi throughout his.


Wendi's major feat was unifying China from north to south and east to west. Now Yangdi's task was to hold on to the vast empire his father had created and connect each corner of his empire so as to make China whole after centuries of isolation and warfare.

Yangdi continued with the construction of a massive canal system begun under his father that connected the Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers, called the Grand Canal. Yangdi conscripted the peasant farming class into forced labor to build the Grand Canal, which led to extreme hatred of the last Sui emperor. As more peasants were moved from their farm lands and impressed into labor on the canals, Yangdi fell farther out of favor with his people.

Repeated claims of corruption against Yangdi throughout his forced labor practices only multiplied as military failures in China's conquest of Goguryeo mounted. Yangdi was also accused of immorality as rumors of his many concubines hidden away in imperial palaces spread throughout China.

In 611 CE, a peasant uprising began that spread to the military that were also unhappy with Yangdi's failures in Korea. By 616 CE Yangdi was under so much pressure from the revolt that he left the capital city for the refuge of Jiangdu. Two years later, Yangdi was assassinated and replaced as emperor. In just 37 years the Sui Dynasty was over and under Li Yuan the new Tang Dynasty began.

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