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Wendi (family name Yang Jian) founded the Sui dynasty in 581 CE. His greatest achievement as emperor was the reunification of north and south China. An able administrator, he built a new capital city, reduced taxes, and created granaries to guard against famine. A devout Buddhist, he expanded the number of monasteries and monks throughout the country.
Emperor Sui Wendi oversaw the reunification of China for the first time since the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 CE. During the brief Sui era (581–618 CE) and the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) that followed, China emerged as the cultural and political model for much of East Asia. A cautious but effective administrator, Sui Wendi initiated a number of governing reforms that were the precursors of both the civil-service examinations and state bureaucracy that were utilized by subsequent dynasties until the early twentieth century. Under the reign of Sui Wendi, Buddhism, a religion imported from South Asia, flourished in China and came to play an important role in the shaping of Chinese culture alongside the native philosophies of Confucianism and Daoism. In an effort to cement the union of northern and southern China and to improve internal transportation and communications within the empire, Sui Wendi initiated the building of a series of canals and waterways commonly referred to as the Grand Canal, a project that linked his kingdom’s two major rivers, the Huang (Yellow) and the Yangzi (Chang). The stability and prosperity that were ushered in during Sui Wendi’s reign were disrupted when his son, Sui Yangdi (569– 617), succeeded the throne in 605, but the cultural, economic, and institutional foundations upon which the Tang dynasty would later build were laid by the first emperor of the Sui.
Sui Wendi was the reign title of Yang Jian, who was born into an aristocratic family from the region west of the ancient capital of Chang’an in northwest China. Yang Jian’s family had for six generations not only served as officials to the region’s Turko-Mongol rulers, but also intermarried with the local non-Chinese elites. As a youth, Yang Jian received his education first at a Buddhist temple and later at an imperial academy in the Western Wei capital, where he was taught the basic tenets of Confucian philosophy. Through the influence of his father, Yang Jian received his first minor official post at the age of thirteen. He was quickly promoted over the next few years, and when his father died in 568, Yang Jiang inherited his title, becoming the Duke of Sui and an important figure in the Northern Zhou court.
In addition to performing well in his administrative positions, Yang Jian was also a gifted military commander who proved himself during the wars between the competing Chinese states of the sixth century. In return for his loyalty and service in the campaign against the Northern Qi kingdom, he was given the title of “Pillar of the State” by Emperor Wu, the Northern Zhou emperor, and appointed military commander and administrative governor first over the Great Plain in northern China, and then over the newly conquered southern regions. When Emperor Wu died in 578, he was succeeded by the Crown Prince Yuwen Bin, who was also Yang Jian’s son-inlaw. The new ruler quickly proved to be an unstable tyrant who dismissed many of the kingdom’s most able officials. Fortunately, Yang Jian, as the emperor’s father-in-law, was spared during these purges, but when Yuwen Bin abdicated after only eight months in power and transferred the throne to his six-year-old son, Yang Jian’s position became less tenable. The situation at the court deteriorated in the spring of 580, when the retired emperor threatened his wife and father-in-law with death. At that point, Yang Jian organized a coup against the ruling house.
In the late summer of 580, the Zhou forces were defeated. This military victory was followed by a massive purge of the royal family, during which almost sixty persons were murdered at the court, including the young emperor, Yang Jian’s grandson. The Sui dynasty was founded in 581 in northern China, although all of the southern regions were not pacified until 589.
Once in power, Yang Jian, now the emperor Sui Wendi, began to consolidate his power and to persuade his subjects that he had not usurped the throne. Claiming that he was restoring the glory and stability of the Han dynasty, Sui Wendi had court scholars write works praising his leadership, as well as edicts that improved his genealogy by conferring honors and titles on his father, grandfather, and even great-grandfather. Sui Wendi also secured the support of religious leaders by granting land and making donations to both Daoist and Buddhist temples and monasteries. Nor was Confucianism ignored during Sui Wendi’s reign; the emperor fostered the development of imperial Confucianism by supporting a state-sponsored school in the capital.
One of the most pressing challenges that Sui Wendi faced was recruiting officials to govern his growing empire. During his reign, Sui Wendi introduced a system of official selection that involved a personal interview and examination by high officials for a limited number of candidates who demonstrated promise but who were not from aristocratic families. Not only did Sui Wendi believe that talent and merit should be rewarded, but he was also aware of the dangers of corruption within his bureaucracy. To limit this problem, he introduced the rule of avoidance, which dictated that an official could not serve in his place of origin, as there was a danger that an official could favor his family or friends if posted to his home town. To prevent officials from forming new friendships and bonds of obligation, all officials were rotated to new postings every three years. These administrative reforms formed the basis of the Chinese bureaucracy for the next fourteen hundred years.
With support from many sectors of the population Sui Wendi was able to solidify his position and to subdue the last independent Chinese kingdoms, Liang (587) and Chen (589). In addition to waging military campaigns, supporting the development of Buddhism, and reforming the bureaucracy, Sui Wendi also undertook a massive construction project aimed at solidifying his union of northern and southern China. In order to transport the economic and agricultural wealth of the south northward to his capital, and to facilitate the movement of troops and communications, Sui Wendi initiated the construction of a series of canals to link his capital to the Huang River and to link this northern river to the Chang in the center of his kingdom. Begun in 584 and completed during the reign of his son in 605, the Grand Canal was a massive engineering project that symbolized China’s new confidence and prosperity.
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