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The Sui, Tang and Song Dynasties

Bloody road to the Sui Dynasty | The Sui and Tang Dynasties | Conceit and Military Weakness under the Song Dynasty

East Asia, 1200 CE

East Asia, 1200 CE

Bloody Road to the Sui Dynasty

As elsewhere, dynastic authoritarian rule had been a misfortune for China, with war and bloodshed often the means of working out successions to power. Often, competent rulers had been followed by the incompetent, with corruption of governmental processes, wealthy landholders maintaining privileges, and neglect for the interests of common peasants. Had those in power been dependent upon the votes of common people, they might have done more for them, including more storage of grain in years of good harvests to cover times of disaster.

Incompetent government and upheaval made China vulnerable to invasion. In the 400s China again was unable to defend its borders. Xiongnu armies came from the north, and Xiongnu chieftains divided northern China among themselves. By the year 500 one dynasty of Xiongnu kings, the Tuoba Wei, dominated the whole of northern China, and culturally they were becoming more Chinese. In the south, meanwhile, a recent string of Chinese families had risen and fallen from power while engaging in rampages of murder as a way of settling disputes over who was to rule.

In the north, power within the Tuoba Wei family passed to a dowager queen who was a devout Buddhist. This was Queen Hu. She executed lovers who had displeased her. She forced a rival into a convent and had her executed, and in 528 she executed her emperor son, who had been growing restless under the tutelage of her lovers. Outraged officials rebelled. Queen Hu cut her hair and sought refuge in a Buddhist nunnery, but the officials dragged her out and murdered her.

In 577 CE, another Xiongnu chieftain unified the north by force of arms, and in 580 this ruler died under suspicious circumstances. His son-in-law, the Duke of Sui, a tough Buddhist soldier from an aristocratic Chinese family, took power. He proclaimed that heaven and earthly signs indicated that those who had been ruling in the north had lost the mandate of heaven and that he, being virtuous and wise, had been designated by heaven as the rightful successor. He took the name Emperor Wen (Wen-di), and he had fifty-nine murdered to eliminate rivalry.

After consolidating his power in northern China, Emperor Wen conquered the southern half of China. China was united again. And with Emperor Wen having the family name of Sui, his dynasty became known as the Sui.


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