Sui Wen-ti

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Sui Wen-ti

Sui Wen-ti (541-604) is the formal posthumous name of the Chinese emperor Yang Chien, founder of the Sui dynasty. He brought about the unification of China after more than 3 centuries of political division.

The ancestry of Sui Wen-ti, born Yang Chien, is not certain, but it is likely that his antecedents served as officials under several of the non-Chinese states in North China. His father, Yang Chung, was a soldier and was given a title of nobility and a fief by the last ruler of the Northern Wei and again earned a noble title and fief by his distinguished military service to Yü-wen T'ai, the founder of the Western Wei dynasty. Yü-wen T'ai gave him the title of Duke of Sui, a title which Yang Chien inherited.

Yang Chien was born in a Buddhist monastery in North China and grew up in the care of a nun. When he was 13 he entered the imperial college in the capital, a school dedicated to teaching the Confucian classics to the children of officials and nobles. At the school he was said to have been reserved and distant in manner.

Civil Service

The classical curriculum of the imperial college held little appeal for Yang Chien, and a year after entering the college he withdrew. He was given a military appointment, for which he was well qualified, having been trained in the martial art when he was young. He rose in the military under the Northern Chou and also held several civil posts, both in the capital and in the provinces. He held a high military command in the successful war against the state of Northern Ch'i (550-577), a war in which the Northern Chou united North China.

Yang Chien married into the Tu-ku family, one of the most powerful non-Chinese families in the state. His wife, a very able person, became his lifelong adviser and confidante. His marriage brought him closer to the inner circles of power. His connections were further strengthened when their daughter married the Northern Chou crown prince in 573.

After the Northern Chou reunited North China in 578, there was every indication that they would go on to conquer the rest of China. All that stood in their way was the weak Chinese state of Ch'en in the South. Yang Chien presumably looked forward to a promising career under the Northern Chou, but unexpected events placed him in a far more fateful and consequential position.

In 578 Yü-wen Yung, the emperor of the Northern Chou, died. The crown prince, Yang Chien's son-in-law, succeeded to the throne. This man, who was clearly pathological, proceeded to destroy in a short time the dynasty built by his father. Although he formally abdicated the throne to his young son in 579, he continued to dominate the government from behind the scenes. The fact that Yang Chien's daughter was his consort momentarily posed a great threat to the Yang family when the capricious tyrant, planning to elevate someone else to her place, decided to execute her and her family. But he fell ill and died before he could carry out his intentions.

Before the mad ruler died, Yang Chien had received from friends a forged order instructing him to appear at the bedside of the dying man. The friends wanted him to seize the opportunity that would be offered by the father's death to become regent for the child emperor. Yang Chien was reluctant to make any dramatic move, but his friends finally persuaded him that he could succeed. He soon found himself, as the apt proverb had it, "riding a tiger, " with no way to get off.

After taking over the regency, Yang Chien moved swiftly and ruthlessly against the princes of the royal family and all others who might confound his bid for power. Yang Chien was fortunate to have able adherents, and by spring of the following year, helped along by a variety of ruses and several military campaigns, he had eliminated all his important enemies.

Consolidation of Power

In 581, when Yang Chien came to the throne, he must have realized that his dynasty might be just one more short-lived effort to establish a viable and lasting regime. His generally cautious temperament—which permitted bold action when necessary—was well suited to the tasks before him, tasks that would require patience and perseverance. It was one thing to proclaim a dynasty; it was quite another to make it endure.

Wen-ti's personality deeply influenced the court and the government during his reign. He was cautious and parsimonious, never fully confident of his power, and reluctant to indulge in conspicuous display and extravagance. He was fearful and suspicious, afraid that he had offended the gods with his sudden rise to power and worried that those around him, including his own sons, might turn against him. The insecurity that always hounded him sometimes provoked him to violent and uncontrollable rage. He never got over these deep-rooted emotions and engaged in extensive efforts to build up ideological sanctions which would buttress his legitimacy.

The creation of an aura of legitimacy is, of course, important for any regime. What was significant about Emperor Wen's measures was the effective way he utilized all the major religions and ideologies of China—Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism—to support his regime. He was rather perfunctory in his patronage of the popular native Taoist tradition. Buddhism received his more active and enthusiastic support, which was probably inspired, if not prompted, by his genuine devotion to the religion. Finally, he followed and affirmed basic Confucian ritual and doctrines; this, we might assume, was particularly directed at the official class, whose support was essential.

Wen-ti established a uniform system of state-supported Buddhist and Taoist temples that were put under the general direction of the great, imperially controlled head temples in the capital. He allied himself with the major faiths in order to get the support of their faithful, but at the same time he was determined to control the size, strength, and autonomy of the religious establishments.

The measures of Emperor Wen to establish a wide base of support from the people did not, however, provide the means for running the state. He had to forge a united state responsive to imperial direction. This required that the state not be dependent on the innumerable pockets of local hereditary power that had been permitted to exist during the period of disunion. Emperor Wen enforced the "rule of avoidance, " by which officials were not permitted to serve in their home provinces. This policy was intended to prevent local elite from maintaining political and financial independence. This rule set the tone for the centralizing efforts of the Sui regime. It must be noted that Sui achievements in political and economic institutions and administration did not come to an end when the dynasty fell in 618, but they were adopted and preserved by the T'ang dynasty (618-907), which followed and, in a very real sense, grew out of the Sui.

Unification of China

Beginning in 317, when they were driven from their homeland, six Chinese regimes, all with their capital in the area of modern Nanking, had successfully withstood conquest from the North. When Emperor Wen came to the throne, the "legitimate" Chinese state of Ch'en (557-589) was reigning in the South. Emperor Wen gave his most trusted and able minister the task of preparing the strategy for conquest of the South.

An important part of the Sui plan was an extensive program of propaganda designed to undermine the Southerners' support of their government and prepare the people psychologically for assimilation into a united empire with its capital in the North. In 588 Emperor Wen issued an edict which explained and justified the imminent conquest of the South and ordered 300, 000 copies of the edict to be distributed throughout the area below the Yangtze River. We cannot estimate the effectiveness of this strategy, but when Sui armies swept south in 588-589, they met only limited resistance.

The Ch'en dynasty was overthrown in 589, but the work of fully pacifying the South and of bringing the area into the Sui regime remained. During the 590s Emperor Wen devoted himself to this task of political unification. His success in finally bringing the South into the institutional structure of the Sui dynasty was the most important achievement of his career and was certainly a feat of great consequence. When it was accomplished, Sui Wen-ti was ruler of the largest and most populous empire in the world.

Last Years

In 601 Emperor Wen celebrated his sixtieth birthday, an event of great significance in China as it marked the end of a 60-year cycle. He was old for a man of that time and had not expected to live so long.

Emperor Wen remained active during the last years of his life, but he became less concerned with the administration of the government and more concerned with the cultural and spiritual unification of China. He undertook an elaborate effort to build a united society based on the tenets of Buddhism; he simultaneously proscribed the teaching of Confucian values. He had already assumed the roles of the Cakravartin king, the ruler who governs well through his devotion to Buddhism, and the Mahadanapati, the munificent patron of Buddhism whose pious acts transform him into a kind of living bodhisattva. In these acts of his last years we can perhaps also detect his final efforts to overcome his lifelong insecurity.

Like every successful ruler, Wen-ti had to confront the problems of succession. He had four sons and was always fearful that they had usurpative designs on the throne. One of his sons was poisoned in 600, and Wen-ti managed to displace his eldest son, the crown prince, later that year. Wen-ti probably felt little sorrow that these two were gone, and Yang Kuang, his second son and the Empress's favorite, became crown prince.

Sui Wen-ti fell ill in the summer of 604. He died shortly thereafter, in circumstances which suggested that the new crown prince may have been at least partly responsible for his death. Yang Kuang ascended the throne in August 604 as Sui Yang-ti. His extravagant and ambitious undertakings brought the empire that his father had worked so hard to build to a dramatic collapse in 618.

Further Reading

For a fine essay on Sui Wen-ti see Arthur F. Wright's "The Formation of Sui Ideology" in John K. Fairbank, ed., Chinese Thought and Institutions (1957). See also Wright's "Sui Yangti: Personality and Stereotype" in Arthur F. Wright, ed., The Confucian Persuasion (1960), for an excellent study of the second, and last, Sui emperor. □