The Sui Dynasty (A.D. 581-618) was the seventh major dynasty in Chinese history. Though very powerful, it lasted less than 40 years across the reign of just two emperors: Yang Jian (楊堅) and his son Yang Guang (楊廣).
Yang Jian was a Chinese bureaucrat who served the Northern Zhou Dynasty, an empire whose rulers were descended from foreign tribes. For 200 years, China had been divided into the barbarian-controlled north and southern kingdoms ruled by ethnic Han Chinese nobles who had fled across the Yangtze River.
When Yang Jian launched a coup against the Northern Zhou, Chinese were finally back in control of north China. The new Sui Dynasty beat back Turkic nomads north of the Great Wall, then turned its attention to the Chen empire that ruled the south.
The Chen Dynasty was well-defended, but under the generalship of Yang Guang, Sui armies prevailed using a famous stratagem called “cross the sea under camouflage” (瞞天過海). After eight years of Sui feints, the corrupt and decadent leaders of the Chen let down their guard. In 589, Sui troops crossed the Yangtze River and defeated the enemy in just 10 days.
The frugal father
China was finally unified after over 200 years of fragmentation. The Sui Dynasty experienced tremendous economic growth that surpassed the last golden age of Chinese history in the Han Dynasty.
Amid all this burgeoning wealth, however, Yang Jian always remembered the difficult conditions he experienced while taking power and unifying the country. He and his wife, Empress Dugu, refused to enjoy the normal luxuries befitting of their status.
The emperor lowered taxes to the bare minimum needed to maintain government; it was said that his palace was so dilapidated that flocks of crows roosted in its decrepit rafters. The cawing noises they made were so loud that sometimes ministers holding court had to pause until they died down.
Yang Jian made important reforms to the imperial government, such as introducing the system of imperial examinations. This institution would serve as the metric for choosing government officials until the 20th century. For this and other contributions, Yang Jian was honored by historians with the title Emperor Wen of Sui (隋文帝) — wen means “cultured.”
Empress Dugu was a very strong-willed woman from an ethnic minority family. She did not approve of the polygamous relationships that were a part of life in ancient China, so Yang Jian was one of the only Chinese rulers who did not father children by other women.
The imperial marriage produced five sons, of whom the firstborn, Yang Yong, was designated crown prince.
But Yang Yong’s luxurious lifestyle displeased his father, and his decision to take concubines drew his mother’s anger. Some disloyal court officials, hungry for more power, noticed the growing rift between the generations. They convinced the emperor and empress that Yang Yong was not the right son to succeed his father as emperor.
The extravagant son
While Yang Jian and Empress Dugu were wary and disdainful of their first son, their attitude toward Yang Guang was the complete opposite. Handsome and intelligent, Yang Guang was a decorated war hero for his role in conquering the Chen Dynasty. He pleased his father by living in an unrenovated residence; his mother was happy to see that he led a chaste married life, and that the only female servants at his home were old and plain-looking women.
But it was all an act, as Yang Guang secretly resented his parents’ ways. He lusted for power and women with the same intensity that Yang Jian pursued frugal and efficient government.
When court officials accused Yang Yong of plotting conspiracy, Empress Dugu took the opportunity to have her favorite second son replace him as crown prince. Yang Yong was disowned and imprisoned.
Later, Empress Dugu died, and Yang Jian was ill. As his ailment worsened, Yang Guang began to reveal his true colors. Yang Jian began to regret his decision and tried to call Yang Yong back from house arrest. But it was too late. Most officials supported the treacherous Yang Guang, who, with their help, had Yang Yong quickly put to death.
Yang Jian soon died under mysterious circumstances, and Yang Guang became the infamous Emperor Yang of Sui (隋煬帝) — a posthumous title indicating moral corruption and tyrannical folly.
Yang Guang wanted to continue the greatness of the Sui, but he chose to do so by using the empire’s treasure “as though it were dirt,” a saying that has now become a Chinese idiom, “to wield gold like dirt.” (揮金如土)
The riches of the Sui, so painstakingly cultivated by Yang Jian’s minimalist government, were squandered on fine palaces requiring the largest and strongest of logs for their construction. Yang Guang ordered a Grand Canal, thousands of kilometers long running from north to south, to be dug by the labor of millions of slaves. Many did not survive.
To entertain foreign guests, the emperor spared no expense on brilliant performances. Trees were decorated with expensive silk flowers to keep them bright and beautiful even in the dead of winter. And when a Korean kingdom infringed on China’s northeast border, Yang Guang raised vast armies to punish their insolence.
In his arrogance, Yang Guang expected easy victories. Instead, the Koreans laid traps for his oversized and cumbersome army, which was defeated multiple times as it struggled to fight in unfamiliar territory and with poor supplies.
The foolhardy invasions of Korea were the last straw for the Sui people. North China exploded into rebellion, and Yang Guang escaped to his favorite resort town in the south. He shut himself off to reality for six years, until he was betrayed and murdered by his own guards.
A lesson in extremes
Confucius, the great Chinese philosopher and teacher, taught zhong yong (中庸), the “doctrine of the mean.” Viewed in light of this tradition, it may be said that both emperors of the short-lived Sui Dynasty suffered from the same fatal flaw.
While Yang Jian was a frugal and attentive emperor, frugality for its own sake came to define his and his empress’s life philosophy. This extreme mentality helped drive them to deny Yang Yong, their firstborn son, his traditional right to succeed to the throne and to be misled by the false appearances created by wicked subordinates.
And perhaps unintuitively, Yang Guang’s extreme love of opulence mirrored his father’s religious desire for frugality. Both father and son yearned for greatness; both sought it out unreservedly and dangerously.