The Fall of the Sui Dynasty

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Not every dynasty in Chinese history lasted for centuries. In this lesson, we are going to check out the Sui Dynasty and see what brought this short dynasty to an abrupt end.

The Sui Dynasty

When we're talking about some of the most influential dynasties in the lengthy history of imperial China, you might assume that we're discussing dynasties that lasted for centuries. In fact, some did last for hundreds of years. However, some only lasted for about forty.

The Sui Dynasty at its greatest extent
Sui dynasty map

The Sui Dynasty ruled China from 581-618 CE. It wasn't a long reign, but it was a very influential one. China had been divided for nearly 400 years, and the Sui were the first to finally reunify it. This laid the groundwork for major growth in years to come. However, rebuilding a unified China was no easy task, and it ultimately led the Sui Dynasty to an early end.

Trends of the Sui Dynasty

To understand why the Sui Dynasty fell in 618 CE, we need to spend a little time exploring the major events of the previous 37 years. The dynasty's first emperor, Sui Wen-ti, was ambitious and bold. He oversaw civil service reforms, drafted new law codes, banned weapons from the cities, and restored law and order. He also implemented massive building projects meant to strengthen China's infrastructure.

Wen-ti died in 604 CE and passed the throne to his son, Yang-ti. Emperor Yang-ti expanded even further upon his father's building projects, even completing the rebuilding of the Great Wall. His biggest project, however, was the completion of the Grand Canal, the largest artificial river in the world.

Emperor Yang-ti of Sui
Sui Yang-ti


It didn't take long for discontent to grow against Emperor Yang-ti. Yes, China's infrastructure was greatly improved, but at what cost? Yang-ti had nearly bankrupted the nation with his ambitious projects, most of which were financed by heavily taxing the people. These projects also demanded a massive labor force. Roughly 5 million Chinese people are estimated to have been conscripted to build the Grand Canal alone. That's five million people who could not contribute to family farms. On top of all of this, Yang-ti quickly developed a reputation for being iron-fisted and cruel. In short, he was seen as a tyrant and some even believed that he had killed his father in order to gain the throne.

The Grand Canal stretches for hundreds of miles across China
China Grand Canal

War with Goguryeo

In addition to domestic issues, the Chinese people under Yang-ti had to worry about war as well. The Korean kingdom of Goguryeo refused to pay tribute to the new emperor, so Yang-ti decided to expand his empire and bring the Koreans back under his authority. Yang-ti launched a massive invasion of Goguryeo, but it was defeated. He sent another invasion, and another. All three Chinese invasions of Goguryeo failed miserably, resulting in massive loss of life, and further bankrupting the royal treasury.

The End of the Sui Dynasty

By the time that Emperor Yang-ti was celebrating ten years on the throne, the Chinese people were furious with excessive taxation, forced labor on massive projects, and failed military campaigns. Then, the rivers flooded. There is an ancient tradition in Chinese society known as the Mandate of Heaven, which is the emperor's divine right to rule. The people must obey the emperor...unless he has lost the mandate. There were signs that the people could watch for that may indicate the Mandate of Heaven had passed to someone else. Flooding was one of them.

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