The Sui, 589-618


The Three Kingdoms 220-589 AD

   The decline and fall of the Later Han dynasty produced a long period of independent states each contending for hegemony over neighboring states; this period, in fact, lasted so long that the more or less uniform Chinese culture almost died out completely. Starting in 384 AD, however, the Northern Wei kingdom began the long, arduous process of reuniting the kingdoms into a single empire. They moved their capital to the ancient site of Loyang, adopted Chinese as their language, as well as Chinese culture. Although they failed to unify the kingdom, they had managed to preserve Chinese culture during the fractious centuries of the Three Kingdoms. By 534, the Northern Wei faded from view, and China fell into a brief period of short-lived kingdoms. In 589, however, a Turkic-Chinese general, Sui Wen-ti, would found a new dynasty over a restored empire.

   During the period of The Three Kingdoms, Chinese scholarship and thought slowly faded into insignificance. In its place arose a widespread growth of two religions, Neo-Taoism, a native religion forged from philosophical Taoism, and Buddhism, a foreign import from India.

   Neo-Taoism, which was called "the mysterious learning" in early China, had grown during the waning years of the Later Han, had both a scholarly and a popular form. The scholarly form concentrated on discussing the Taoist classics, as well as general conversations and a search for immortality. It was the popular form, however, that spread like wildfire and changed Chinese history. The folk Neo-Taoism was a pantheistic, moral and salvation religion; all human acts, both good and evil, would be punished or rewarded in an afterlife. The Neo-Taoist religions had priests, curing shamans, and even churches. These religions also inspired secret societies; two of these societies, the Yello Turbans and the Five Pecks of Rice, were mainly responsible for overthrowing the Wang Mang and the remnants of the Later Han dynasty.

   Buddhism entered China in the first century AD; a Indian religion that was initially a radical form of Hinduism, the dominant religion in ancient India, it was accepted with open arms in China. This is largely due to the fact that the early Chinese initially thought that Buddhism was another form of Taoism, particularly since the translators used Taoist terms to translate Buddhist doctrines. The early Chinese, in fact, believed that Lao Tzu had travelled to India and that the Buddha was his disciple. Despite this, Buddhism never really took off during the Later Han period. However, when the Han government collapsed and China fell into chaos, Buddhism caught fire all over the former empire, primarily among the common population. Like folk Neo-Taoism, it offered salvation and was a moral religion. By the time of the rise of the Northern Wei in 384, Buddhism had spread over the whole of China. Although Buddhists were occassionally persecuted, on the whole they were tolerated. Some emperors even converted to Buddhism.

The Sui, 589-618 AD

   The chaos of the Three Kingdoms finally came to an end under the hand of Sui Wen-ti, a general of mixed blood. He reunified the northern kingdoms, centralized the government, reformed the taxation structure, and conquered the south all in a single lifetime. The government he established was remarkably stable during his lifetime, and he began ambitious building and economic projects. However, unlike the founders of the Han dynasties, Sui Wen-ti did not adopt Confucianism as the state philosophy, but rather embraced Buddhism and Taoism, both of which had spread so rapidly during the Three Kingdoms period. Sui Wen-ti employed a cadre of Buddhist advisors in his program to unify the country, and Buddhism would become the government philosophy until the founding the Sung dynasty several centuries later.

   But his son, Sui Yang-ti, who rose to be emperor on the death of his father, soon overextended himself, meddling first in the politics of the northern tribes and then leading military expeditions against Korea. Eventually, these wars with Korea, in combination with a series of unlucky natural disasters, bankrupted the government, which soon suffered under the weight of widespread rebellion. In the fight for power which followed the assassination of Sui-Yang-ti, the control of the new, centralized government fell to Li Yuan, one of Sui Yang-ti's generals. Li Yuan began a new dynasty, the T'ang, which lasted for another three hundred years.

The T'ang, 618-970

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 5-29-97