Charles D. BENN

Emperor Sui Wendi. Detail from the painting Portraits of the Emperors by Yan Liben. Ink and color on silk. Wendi’s greatest accomplishment as emperor was the reunification of north and south China. He was a legalist at heart, insisting on the rigid, strict, and uniform enforcement of the law, the imposition of harsh punishments on malefactors, and the bestowal of liberal rewards on the meritorious.

Wendi (family name Yang Jian) founded the Sui dynasty. 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.

Yang Jian (541–604 CE), Wendi, was the founder of the Sui dynasty in 581 and the unifier of China in 589. He was born in a convent at Fengxiang west of modern Xi’an on 21 August 541. A nun told his mother that the child should not dwell among the laity because he was quite extraordinary, a sign that he would rise to a high position. The nun then took responsibility for raising the boy in a lodge set aside for him.

Jian was the son of a powerful general whom the first emperor of the Zhou period of the Northern dynasty (557–581 CE) ennobled as the Duke of Sui for his meritorious service in founding that dynasty. After his father’s death Jian succeeded to the dukedom and later adopted the title as the name for his dynasty.

After attending the imperial college for the sons of nobles and high-ranking officials in Chang’an, Yang Jian received his first official appointment by virtue of hereditary privilege at the age of fourteen. Subsequently he rose through the bureaucracy and held three posts as Grand General.

On 16 August 575 Emperor Wudi (543–578) ordered Yang Jian and another officer to lead a navy of thirty thousand men east as part of Wudi’s plan to conquer the neighboring Northern Qi Dynasty (550–578). This campaign failed, and the admirals were forced to burn their ships. Wudi renewed his campaign to subjugate the Qi in 576 and appointed Jian and seven other generals to take command of the Zhou armies and strike eastward. Those forces vanquished the Qi on 8 March 577. The victory united virtually all of China north of the Yangzi (Chang) River, and the emperor bestowed the title Pillar of State on Jian as a reward for his meritorious service during the war.

Fortune smiled on Yang Jian in 578 when Emperor Xuandi (669–580) elevated Yang’s eldest daughter Lihua (560–609) to the dignity of empress on 29 July. After the emperor’s death in 580, Jian was installed as regent for his grandson, the eight-year-old boy who succeeded to the throne. Yang soon acquired total control over the government and its military forces. He ruthlessly dealt with the threat to his growing power by the royal house. By the end of the year he had sixteen Zhou princes—one of whom actually attempted to assassinate him—as well as forty-one of their sons and brothers killed. After annihilating the entire royal family, he suppressed a number of rebellions instigated by Zhou loyalists in the provinces.

On 4 March 581 CE, Yang Jian assumed the throne and received the imperial seals. To commemorate the occasion he bestowed a Great Act of Grace granting amnesties to criminals throughout northern China. Two days later he raised his wife, Madam Dugu (552–602 CE), to the dignity of empress, and on 9 July he had the last Zhou emperor murdered.

The Empress

Madam Dugu, who possessed the independent character of northern steppe women from whom she was descended, controlled the dealings of her household and also exercised influence over affairs of state. When her husband conducted official business, she rode to the audience chamber in a litter next to his. After he entered she waited outside and sent a eunuch in to report on what was transpiring. When she discovered some fault in Wendi’s decisions, she sent in her counsel advising him to set a new course. The emperor usually yielded to her suggestions. Her clout was so great that palace attendants thought of her as a second emperor.

The empress was staunchly monogamous. When she married Yang Jian at the age of fourteen, she exacted a promise from him to have no children by any other woman. She was also extremely jealous, so much so that palace ladies dared not approach him. Among the children of Wendi and his empress were Yang Yong, the eldest, who was deposed as crown prince; Yang Guang, an army leader during battles against Chen who succeeded his father as emperor; and Yang Jun, a naval leader during battles against Chen who was removed from office for wastefulness.

Madam Dugu shared her husband’s concern for placing public interests over private. Once when an official suggested that she purchase a casket of pearls worth eight million yuan, she rejected the proposal. The empress argued that the money should be spent on rewarding the armies battling the Turks and Tuyuhun on the northern and western frontiers.

Conquest of South Dynasty and Unification of China

The victory against the Qi leaders of the North dynasty while Wendi was a general of the Northern Zhou rulers united all China north of the Yangzi River. Sui Wendi’s successful campaign against the Southern Chen, who ruled the area south of the Yangzi, achieved the reunification of all China after nearly three centuries of division.

The Chen relied on the natural barrier of the Yangzi and their fleets along the river for defense against attacks from the north. To overcome this obstacle, Wendi appointed Yang Su (c. 561–606 CE) to the post of Governor-General for Xinzhou (on the Yangzi in southwestern Sichuan Province) and gave him many resources to construct a fleet. Among the naval craft that Yang Su had constructed were large warships with spiked booms that dropped vertically onto opposing vessels and large numbers of troop transports. Two other fleets were created, one under the command of Wendi’s son Yang Jun. Other preparations for war included expansion of armies (one under the command of son Yang Guang), procurement of horses as mounts for cavalry, and teams for supply wagons, and construction of a canal linking the Huai River to the Yangzi for fast transportation of men and materiel to the front. By the time the war began in late 588 CE, the Sui forces numbered 518,000 men compared with 100,000 men under arms for the Chen forces.

Thanks in part to superior warships, Sui forces achieved naval victories, including the removal of three chains across the Yangzi that had prevented their progress down river. Sui army forces crossed the Yangzi on the night of 22 January 589, the lunar New Year, and established a foothold in Chen territory. Sui forces then poured across the river and crushed Chen armies in several battles. On 2 February they seized the Chen capital of Jiankang and overcame the Chen emperor. Wendi had Jiankang razed to the ground and converted into farmland so that it could not serve as a focus for resistance by Chen loyalists.

The conquest of Chen extended the borders of the Sui empires to the South China Sea. Wendi supported military victory with administrative moves: he forced Chen nobles to move to Daxing, bringing southern cultural traditions to the north; reduced taxes in the south; and used Buddhism as unifying religion.


Among Wendi’s greates
t accomplishments was the construction of a new capital, Daxing, to replace the seven-hundred-year-old Chang’an, which was too cramped, and its water was brackish. Work commenced in 582 at a site about 10 kilometers southeast of Chang’an. An outer wall enclosed an area that was 84 square kilometers. The city, built in a grid pattern, included a palace compound at the center of the city, a compound for the offices of the central government, and two vast, self-contained markets. The remainder of the city, 89 percent of its area, consisted of 109 walled wards for the dwellings of its citizens. Broad streets, up to 152 meters wide, ran the length and breadth of the city. Daxing was the largest capital ever built in Chinese history: Beijing of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1912) was 25 percent smaller at 62 square kilometers.

Emperor Wendi and his government moved into their new quarters on 15 April 583. The emperor then ordered the flooding of the palaces at Chang’an so that, it was said, the ghosts of the men that he had murdered would have no place to return. After the Tang took Daxing over and renamed it Chang’an, the city became the grandest metropolis in the world and served as a model for capitals built in Japan and elsewhere. Unhappily, a warlord razed it to the ground in 904, and Chang’an never again served as the seat of China’s central government.


Wendi was a legalist at heart. He insisted on the rigid, strict, and uniform enforcement of the law, the imposition of harsh punishments on malefactors, and the bestowal of liberal rewards on the meritorious. In his view justice had to replace mercy, and all subjects were equal before the law, even his kin. When his third son built a flamboyant palace embellished with jade and jewels, the emperor stripped the prince of all his offices and confined him to a mansion in the capital. Despite appeals for clemency from several of his mandarins, he did not relent. But Wendi sometimes bent the law when a valued friend committed a crime. He once commuted the death sentence imposed on a provincial official who had sold cereals to reduce the price of grain during a famine.

The emperor could be harsh and cruel. He would not tolerate corruption among officials and had venal offenders beaten for as many as four days in his audience hall. Wendi once had a man flogged to death with a horse whip for complaining that his favor for a certain minister was excessive. He had an official beheaded for not beating an offender with enough force. The emperor himself often beat people on the palace grounds. Wendi also went to extremes in his legislation. In early 596 he imposed the death penalty on thieves who stole cereals from a granary and enslaved their families. On another occasion the emperor prescribed capital punishment for thieves in the capital who stole property that was worth as little as one yuan. He later had to rescind the decree because of widespread protests against it.

Wendi was essentially pragmatic and had little or no regard for the frivolous, the extravagant, or the exotic. In the summer of 581, he dismissed all the government’s entertainers—acrobats, jugglers, wrestlers, dwarf, magicians, and the like—and sent them back to the people. In the same year the emperor forbade tribute of choice dogs, horses, vessel, toys, and delectable foodstuffs that were customary gifts sent by the prefectures to the throne. Like his wife, he was parsimonious. Rather than have new carriages built for him, he had the old ones repaired. He also insisted that only one dish of meat be served at his banquets.

The emperor had little esteem for Confucianism. The only one of its texts that he favored was the Classic of Filial Devotion because it bolstered his authoritarianism by stressing absolute submission of inferior to superior. It is not surprising, then, that in the summer of 601 Wendi abolished all schools—the bastions of Confucianism—in the empire save a single college in the capital that had seats for only seventy students. He reasoned that there were too many students (nearly one thousand in Daxing at the time), that they were slothful, and that they had neither virtues nor talents that were useful to the state.

Wendi took the traditional paternalism of the monarchy very seriously: He was the father and his subjects were his children. Fourteen days after ascending the throne he distributed five thousand government cattle to the poor. In 585 Wendi ordered the civilians and soldiers in all prefectures to dig underground pits for the storage of grain. Annually farmers deposited a small portion of their harvests in them for relief in times of famine. After the completion of Daxing in 583, Wendi reduced the corvée—the annual labor obligation of adult males—from thirty to twenty days and reduced the tax paid in cloth by half. In 586 the emperor sent commissioners out to the provinces with orders to dispense relief to all families of warriors slain in battle. (In 593 he granted a year’s remission of taxes for the same.) After the conquest of Chen in 589, the emperor granted the south a tax remission for ten years and excused the other areas of his realm from paying their levy in grain for one year.


Wendi, his empress, and their sons were devout Buddhists, attending services held in the palace every evening. In 580, while he was regent, Yang Jian had a decree issued in the name of the emperor that rescinded the proscription of Buddhism. That act, promulgated in 574, had defrocked the clergy, destroyed monasteries along with their images, and confiscated monastic lands. As emperor, Wendi ordered the restoration of all cloisters destroyed during the proscription, donated silk for repair of damaged monasteries, and called for the reinstallation of images in the temples, making their destruction a capital offense. His promise of free charters to anyone who constructed a monastery in the new city of Daxing resulted in a total of 120 Buddhist cloisters in the capital (in contrast to the ten Daoist abbeys). Outside in the provinces the growth of Buddhism was equally spectacular. In 585 the emperor founded forty-five government monasteries in the prefectures of north China. Between 601 and 604 he had 111 stupas (mounded tombs) built throughout the empire to enshrine Buddha’s relics—hair, nail clippings, teeth, bones, and the like. Wendi also created Assemblies of Twenty-Five whose monks scattered throughout the empire to spread the Buddhist doctrine (dharma). By the end of the Sui dynasty, China had 3,792 Buddhist monasteries with a clergy of 230,000.

The emperor took the vows of a Buddhist layman in 585 and came to be known among the faithful as the bodhisattva Son of Heaven. In 586, in a very rare surrender of imperial prerogatives and dignity to a clergyman, Wendi invited a prelate to lecture on the dharma in order to dispel a drought. The monk ascended the throne and faced south while Wendi and his court sat on the ground facing him. Wendi cast himself in the role of the universal Buddhist monarch, claiming that he owed his rise to dharma, predestined fate. He employed Buddhism among his subjects as an ideology to unify China by spreading a single faith yoked to the state. His patronage laid the foundation for Buddhism’s golden age in the Tang dynasty.

Last Years

In the summer of 604 Wendi contracted an illness, reputedly brought on by his debauchery with two consorts who occupied his affections after the death of his wife. On 13 August, he died under suspicious circumstances at the age of sixty-four. There are strong indications that his son Yangdi committed patricide. When called to attend his father during his last days, he made sexual advances to one of the old man’s consorts. The woman informed Wendi, who decided to remove him as heir-apparent and to install his eldest son in his place. Fearing that he would
lose his chances for the throne, Yangdi arranged the murder of Wendi before he could change the order of succession.

Wendi was ruthless, brutal, harsh, capricious, and autocratic. While those were not admirable traits in a man, they may have been exactly the qualities that the establishment of a new dynasty and the unification of China required. By and large the emperor was a diligent and effective ruler who was responsible for most of the Sui dynasty’s achievements.

Further Reading

Balazs, E. (1955). Le traité économique du “Souei-chou.” Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill.

Balazs, E. (1954). Le traité juridique du”Souei-chou.” Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill.

Ch’en Kenneth. (1964). Buddhism in China, a historical survey. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Chih-p’an Shih. (1966). A chronicle of Buddhism in China, 581–900 A.D. (Jan Yü-hua, Trans.). Santiniketan, India: Visva-Bharati. (Original work published in the thirteenth century)

Graff, D. (2002). Medieval Chinese warfare, 300–900. New York: Routledge.

Heng Chye Kiang. (1999). Cities of aristocrats and bureaucrats: The development of medieval Chinese cityscapes. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Steinhardt, N. (1990). Chinese imperial city planning. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Wright, A. (1957). The formation of Sui ideology, 581–604. In J. K. Fairbank (Ed.), Chinese thought and institutions (pp. 71–104). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wright, A. (1978). The Sui Dynasty. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Wright, A. (1979). The Sui dynasty. In D. Twitchett (Ed.), The Cambridge History of China: Vol. 3. Sui and T’ang China, 589–906 (Part 1, pp. 48–149). London: Cambridge University Press.

Xiong, Victor. (1988). The planning of Daxingcheng. Papers on Far Eastern History, 37, 43–80.

Xiong, Victor. (2000). Sui-Tang Chang’an. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan.

Source: Benn, Charles D.. (2009). Sui Wendi. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2119–2123. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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