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After the fall of the Han empire, the first great empire in Chinese history (202 BCE to 220 CE), China had experienced more than 350 years of disunity.
In northern China, these centuries had been characterized by barbarian invasions and other upheavals, followed by the establishment of various kingdoms ruled by barbarian dynasties. In southern China, a single, Chinese-ruled kingdom, had existed. It had experienced continual political weakness and instability, but the people of the south had generally known peace.
Conditions in both parts of China – sightly less so in the south – had favoured the rise of a class of great landowners, with peasants coming increasingly under their control. In the north in particular they had been reduced to the status of serfs, tied to the great landowners for whom they laboured.
At last, in 589, a Chinese general who had seized the throne of one of the northern kingdoms completed the conquest of the whole of China. He thus re-established Chinese unity under a single ruler, and founded the Sui dynasty. He is known to Chinese history as the emperor Wendi. He chose the city of Chang’an as his capital, renaming it Daxing.
The emperor Wendi tightened his control over the state administration by making sure that all appointments were made by the central administration, answerable directly to him. In doing this he overturned two practices which had arisen in previous centuries, that of provincial governors having the power to appoint their subordinates, and that of the heads of the leading families in an area recommending local men for a career in government.
Instead, Wendi instituted a new system for recruiting new officials, which was adapted from the old Han model. All provincial governors were required to send three candidates annually to the capital, where they were examined for their suitability for an official career. This was the start of an evolution which in later dynasties would see the emergence of a comprehensive and sophisticated examination system by which the majority of Chinese officials would be selected. In the immediate future it enabled the bureaucracy to expand to take on its new responsibilities of administering a unified China whilst not compromising the quality of its members; it also opened it to men from different parts of the country and from a broader social background.
Nevertheless, the imperial family itself was drawn from the hybrid barbarian-Chinese aristocracy which had grown up in northern China since Han times, and members of this group would continue to predominate in high office for a long time to come.
During the period of division, which had been accompanied at times by widespread chaos, both northern and southern China had come to be dominated, both politically and socially, by a small group of landowning families. These owned large estates worked by the peasantry, who had largely fallen into a state of serfdom.
Under a dynasty known as the Northern Wei, who ruled northern China between 386 to 534, the lot of the serfs had been improved considerably by the “equal-fields” system. The introduction of this system had weakened the aristocracy somewhat, at least economically. At the same time it had brought the whole population more directly under the authority of the emperor and his officials, and had given hitherto landless peasants access to land which they could farm for themselves.
Wendi vigorously enforced the “equal-fields” system which he had inherited from the Northern Wei, and extended it to south China. He also reintroduced the “ever-normal” granary system, a Han dynasty innovation which had fallen into disuse in the centuries of division. These two measures improved conditions for the peasantry.
A census taken under the Sui, in 606, showed the population of the empire to be just over 46 million people. This came after a period of population expansion, but even so was well down from Han levels (about 60 million). This shows how damaging the troubles of the past few centuries had been for the people of China.
Within China, there had been a major change in the distribution of the population during these centuries. In Han times (202 BCE to 220 CE) the vast majority of the people had lived in the north: the south was a thinly populated frontier region. The chaotic conditions which followed the Han’s fall in the north had caused a large-scale migration of peasants south, and as a result, by the end of the 6th century CE about a third of the population lived there.
The emperor Wendi built on the militia system of the Northern Wei (itself based on the Han system), which had made all males liable to military service for a short period of time. In the Sui system, not all men were liable; instead, selected men were chosen to serve on a full-time basis for a long period. Wendi established several hundred garrisons around China to bolster the regime, manned by the militiamen who served as farmer-soldiers, cultivating lands around the garrisons to grow their own food. These troops were sent on rotation to serve in the capital, on the frontiers or on campaign beyond the empire’s borders.
This system provided a huge reserve of well trained military manpower. In addition, the old tribal army inherited from preceding dynasties was maintained, now slimmed down and transformed into an imperial guard.
This military establishment enabled the emperor Wendi to expand the empire’s borders considerably, especially into central Asia.
The second emperor of the Sui dynasty, emperor Yang, seems to have been a megalomaniac with an insatiable appetite for grand public works.
The huge amount of forced labour required, particularly for the constructing the Grand Canal (see below) and many other major projects such as relocating the capital, refurbishing the Great Wall, and an extensive road-construction program, fell heavily on the peasantry. Long and very costly wars in Korea and elsewhere added to the peasants’ woes, and when these failed to achieve much of value, sentiment turned decisively against the Sui regime.
Rebellions started to break out in different parts of the country from 613 onwards. One of the Sui’s leading generals, Li Yuan, duke of Tang, announced that the Sui had lost the “Mandate of Heaven”, and renounced his allegiance to the dynasty. He defeated many other rebels, or won them to his cause, and gained control of northern China. Emperor Wang of Sui fled south, where he was assassinated in 618. Shortly afterwards, Li Yuan proclaimed a new dynasty, the Tang.
The emperor Wendi and his son, the emperor Yang, had great public work achievements to their credit. The most important of these was the construction of the Grand Canal, which was completed in its main section in 604. The idea of this was to allow shipping to sail from the Yangtze river up to the Yellow river, without having to complete the long and dangerous sea voyage around the Shandong peninsula. In 605 the canal was lengthened to link with Beijing in the north and Hangzhou in the south.
One of the main objectives of the Grand Canal was to contribute to the efficient supply of grain and other goods from the wealthy south to the northern frontiers. This it did, but it would also prove a huge boon to the internal commerce of China. It effectively turned the inland waterways of China into a single transport system, which meant that goods could be shipped by water (a much less expensive process than transporting by land) from any region to any other within China proper.
As well as stimulating trade within China, it allowed grain to be transported in bulk from an area of good harvest to one of poor harvest. This, coupled with a network of government granaries (the Ever Normal granaries) which kept stores of grain in reserve, meant that, while peace and sound government were in operation, keeping the canals and rivers open and allowing the long-distant transport of grain to take place, famine was a much reduced threat to the people of China.
Alongside this major project, the Sui overhauled the road system of China, which had become badly disrupted by centuries of division and unstable government. Many new roads were constructed, and many more were repaired.
These government initiatives laid the foundation for a major expansion of the Chinese economy in the medium term. Numerous new towns would appear, particularly along the course of the Grand Canal, as much improved access to distant markets stimulated agricultural and industrial production in these areas.
By the middle of the 6th century Buddhism was firmly established in China, from the royal courts down to the villages. Such was its popularity that the emperor Wendi went out of his way to present himself as an ideal Buddhist monarch, patronising Buddhist temples and monasteries and promoting Buddhism as the religion of the common people.
However, Confucianism retained its status as the medium of education and the ideology of government. Officials were expected to have a good grounding in Confucian philosophy, and remained broadly Confucian in their outlook even while practicing Buddhism in their private lives. To keep the loyalty of his administrators, Wendi therefore also ensured that he presented himself as an ideal Confucian ruler. For example, he made sure that knowledge of Confucian writings were tested in his new examinations.