Wen-Ti, the posthumous name given to Yang Chien, was the emperor of China from 581 to 604. The founder of the Sui dynasty, he is credited with the reunification and reorganization if China after centuries of unrest. He was well trained in military strategy, which he used to overthrow the government and assume the title of emperor. While in office, Wen-Ti was responsible for many reforms and building projects that had a significant impact on Chinese culture.
Wen-Ti was a member of an extremely powerful and influential family that typically held high offices in the governments of non-Chinese clans. These clans broke up much of southern China at that time. Wen-Ti was raised primarily by a Buddhist nun, but when he reached age 13 he attended a government sponsored school for the upper class. In school, he seemed more concerned with horsemanship and military exercises than composition and history. He joined the military service of the Yu-Wen of the Chou dynasty at age 14. This group had a strong military and conquered much of northern China. During that campaign, Wen-Ti performed well in a command function and was rewarded with marriage to one of the daughters of the Chou crown prince.
The Chou dynasty experienced an unsettled period during which the emperor prematurely died and the new crown prince was ineffective. This convinced Wen-Ti that he should overthrow the Chou's and assume control. Although it was a difficult battle, Wen-Ti was eventually able to seize control by way of superior organization and military skill. He assumed the imperial title in 581, and the Sui dynasty was established.
As emperor, Wen-Ti picked the best possible men to support him. His ultimate goal was to reunify China. In order to do this, he needed to supplant the current capital. He built a new capital and set into motion his grand design of centralizing the government and unifying a disjointed China under one common rule. This required many types of reforms. One major reform involved dismantling a system of bureaucratic nepotism, whereby government posts were awarded by heredity rather than performance, testing, and recommendations. At the same time, Wen-Ti planned the conquest of southern China. He launched an overwhelming assault by both land and water to take this region.
Wen-Ti's achievements consisted of much more than strengthening and reunifying the Chinese empire. He provided a means by which the government could be successfully administered. His lasting success was in the form of political and institutional reforms. He revised laws and rewrote the penal code, built up a tremendous infrastructure, and set up a system of checks and balances within his government. When the newly written laws were introduced, they were more lenient than the statutes they replaced and much effort was given to local education and enforcement of the new laws. The infrastructure was strengthened through many public works projects, including the construction of the Grand Canal, for example. When finished, it joined northern China with the Yangtze River. The central government was setup as a multi-level organization, administered by the emperor with the help of three central ministers. Each level answered to one above it, so a system of checks and balances was established.
Despite his prosperity and success, Wen-Ti did not seem to be happy. Although he had fulfilled nearly every goal, his family life was miserable and he became disenchanted with religion. Because of this, in 601 he demanded a public ceremony in honor of himself. Three years later, he fell ill and died. One of the most influential reigns in China had come to an end.
JAMES J. HOFFMANN