10 Major Achievements of the Sui Dynasty of China


Reigning for a period of only thirty-eight years from 581 to 619, Sui dynasty was one of the shortest lived dynasties in the history of China but it made several important contributions, most prominently their reunification of China after a lengthy period of fragmentation and internal warfare. The reign of Emperor Wen of Sui is considered a golden period in Chinese history with vast agricultural surplus and huge population growth. Several construction projects were carried out during the reign of Sui including the famous Grand Canal. The Sui also contributed greatly in governance and administration with their reforms being continued during the reign of the succeeding Tang dynasty. Here are the 10 major achievements of the Sui dynasty of China.


#1 The Sui reunified China under the rule of a single dynasty after around 300 years

After the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 AD, China entered an age of fragmentation which saw several centuries of warfare among rival kingdoms. Sui Dynasty was preceded by the Northern and Southern dynasties period (420 to 589) which was marked by civil war and political chaos. During the latter part of this period, Northern Zhou reunified Northern China. Yang Jian overthrew the Northern Zhou dynasty establishing the Sui dynasty in 581 and taking the title of Emperor Wen. He initiated a campaign to re-unify China which materialized after his conquest in 589 of Chen dynasty, which reigned over Southern China. Sui dynasty thus became the first dynasty to rule over entire China proper after around three centuries since the fall of Western Jin Dynasty in 316.

Northern and Southern dynasties Map
Northern and Southern dynasties Map in 560 AD


#2 Re-unification of China by Sui led to major developments

There were many developments which were initiated by the Sui dynasty but were consolidated and became more prominent during the succeeding Tang dynasty, which had a much longer reign. These include the political system which was adopted with little change by the Tang. Re-unification of north and south China by the Sui led to the standardization and re-unification of the coinage. It also led to a whole new poetic era during the Tang, considered the Golden Age of Chinese poetry. Major developments in porcelain production and its widespread manufacture can also be traced to the reigns of Sui and Tang dynasties.

Map of Sui dynasty
Map of reunified China under Sui dynasty


#3 The reign of Emperor Wen of Sui is considered a golden period in Chinese history

Emperor Wen of Sui
Yang Jian or, Emperor Wen of Sui

Emperor Wen of Sui dynasty carried out several reforms, which among other things aimed at reducing economic inequality and improving agricultural productivity. The middle period of the Sui dynasty is considered a golden age of prosperity with vast agricultural surplus which supported rapid growth of population to historical peak. This population peak was surpassed more than a century later at the zenith of Tang Dynasty. The Reign of Kaihuang (era name of Emperor Wen) is considered by historians as one of the apexes in the two millennium imperial period of Chinese history.

#4 The influential Kaihuang legal code was formulated

One of the most important legal codes in the history of traditional Chinese law, the Kaihuang Code, was formulated during the rule of Emperor Wen of Sui dynasty. It consisted of 12 chapters with 500 provisions and served as a basis for the legal codes of succeeding dynasties. It was far simpler than earlier laws and considerable effort was put in making sure that local officials studied and enforced the new laws. The Kaihuang code was succeeded by the more famous Tang code, which is considered as the most influential body of law in the history of East Asia.


#5 The system of 3 Departments and 6 Ministries was established

The Three Departments and Six Ministries system was the main central administrative structure in China during much of its imperial period. Though the system first took shape during the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), it was during the reign of Wen Emperor of Sui that it was developed into a more complete form. The three departments were the Chancellery, whose function was to advice the emperor and review edicts; the Central Secretariat, which was the main policy-formulating agency; and the Department of State Affairs, which was the highest executive institution and controlled the six ministries. Sui dynasty’s system was adopted in some form by all succeeding Chinese dynasties.

Grand Canal in China
Photograph of a section of the Grand Canal in China


#6 Major reforms were carried out to improve local governance

Apart from reforming the central government, Emperor Wen of Sui carried out a sweeping reform in the functioning of the local governments. He created a simplified structure in which a much reduced number of counties were directly subordinated to prefectures. The chief offices in counties and prefectures were appointed by the central government rather than being filled by members of local influential families, as was the case earlier. This ensured that these officials were loyal to the central government. It also integrated them into a pattern of bureaucratic promotion leading to a more homogeneous civil service.

Stroll About in Spring - Zhan Ziqian
Stroll About in Spring – A Sui Dynasty Chinese landscape painting by Zhan Ziqian


#7 The imperial examination system was established

The imperial examination was a civil service examination system in China to select candidates for the state bureaucracy. It helped to shape China’s intellectual, cultural and political life for centuries; and influenced several neighboring countries as well as some European nations. Though there were imperial exams as early as the Han dynasty, an open modern examination system was first established in 605, during the reign of the Sui dynasty. There were standardized tests and recruitment to the imperial civil service bureaucracy began to be considered a privilege rather than a duty to be performed at the lower levels. The imperial examinations became the major path to office by the mid-Tang dynasty.

Imperial Examination depiction
A depiction of the Imperial Examination in China


#8 The famous architect Yuwen Kai designed Daxing and Luoyang

Yuwen Kai, one of the most influential architects in Chinese history, was active during the reign of the Sui dynasty. In 583, during the reign of Emperor Wen, he was tasked with designing the Sui capital, Daxing or Chang’an (now Xi’an). The city was six times the size of present-day Xi’an and was built on a grid plan which was later followed in the Ming dynasty rebuilding of Beijing. In 605-606, during the reign of Emperor Yang, Yuwen Kai led the project to build the city of Luoyang, which became the eastern capital of Sui dynasty. Though Luoyang was only around half the size of Daxing, it became well known for its innovative planning and extravagant palace structures.

Luoyang Museum of Capital
Luoyang Museum of Capital, which was founded in late Sui era


#9 The Great Canal was constructed

Great constructions projects were carried out during the Sui era. The most prominent among them was the Great Canal, which remains the longest canal or artificial river in the world. Though its oldest parts were constructed as early as 5th century BC, it was majorly built during the reign of the Sui dynasty. The Great Canal linked the west lying capital of the dynasty to the economic and agricultural centers of the east towards Hangzhou, and to the northern border near modern Beijing. It facilitated trade and enhanced cultural exchange for centuries. The relative ease of travel due to its construction benefited succeeding dynasties and proved to be a crucial factor in China remaining a unified empire.

Map of the Grand Canal
Map of the Grand Canal, under Sui and Tang dynasties


#10 Block printing was invented during the Sui era

A form of printing had developed in China as early as the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – 25 AD). During the Sui dynasty, block printing was invented in which text was carved on a wooden board; the board was then covered in ink and then it was printed page by page onto sheets of paper. This technology produced the first ever known book with a verifiable printing date in 868 during the Tang era. This was nearly 600 years ahead of the first printed book in Europe. Block printing remained the dominant printing type in China till the printing press from Europe overtook many centuries later.

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