Sui Dynasty

Sui Dynasty
Sui Dynasty

This short-lived dynasty (581–618) is enormously important in Chinese history because it restored unity to a country that had been divided since the fall of the Han dynasty in 220.

For 300 years before its creation China had moreover been divided between the Turkic tribal people called the Toba (T’o-pa) and Xianbi (Hsien-pi) who ruled the north and Chinese, many descended from refugees who had fled the nomadic invaders, who ruled the south.

As the short-lived Qin (Chin) dynasty (220–206 b.c.e.) that it has been compared to, the Sui heralded China’s second great imperial age under its successor, the Tang (T’ang) dynasty. The last of a succession of mostly short-lived states of northern China ruled by Turkic tribal people was called the Northern Zhou (Chou).

The second Northern Zhou ruler was married to the daughter of a powerful nobleman named Yang Jian (Yang Chien), the duke of Sui. When he died leaving a six-year-old son as successor, grandfather Yang became regent and soon seized power and founded a new dynasty named the Sui, in 581.

Sui Wendi

Yang Jian (r. 581–603) is known by his reign title Sui Wendi (Wen-ti), meaning “literary emperor of the Sui.” Of mixed Chinese and Turkic descent, he was a prudent, hardworking, and wise ruler and was assisted by his capable Turkic wife, Empress Wenxian (Wen-hsian).

Sui Wendi
Sui Wendi

He established his capital in Chang’an (Ch’ang-an), which had been capital city of the Han dynasty, symbolizing his goal of restoring its institutions and glories.

Between 587 and 589 he subdued southern China, reunifying the country. Though a devout Buddhist, he used Buddhism, Daoism (Taoism), and Confucianism to win support and to establish a common cultural base for the country.

Wendi curtailed the power of the great landed families by vesting in the central government the power to appoint all officials throughout the land and laid the foundations for personnel recruitment through a nationwide examination for which the successor Tang (T’ang) dynasty is usually given credit.

Wendi also began a nationwide land allocation system for farmers and a militia system in which all male farmers who had been given land were obliged to serve. These policies were also fully realized under the succeeding Tang dynasty.

Wendi waged inconclusive campaigns against the northern Turkic tribes and the newly formed state that occupied northern Korea and southern Manchuria called Koguryo. He also rebuilt sections of the Great Wall.

Wendi was frugal in private life and worked to improve the economy by rebuilding old canals to link Chang’an with the Yellow River and expanding the waterways to link up with the waterways of central China and the Yangzi (Yangtze) River.

His son and successor later expanded on the waterways, known as the Grand Canal, in the north to Luoyang (Loyang) with a branch to present day Beijing, and in the south to Hangzhou (Hangchou) on the coast, via Yangzhou (Yangchou) on the Yangzi River. Its total length was 1,250 miles, the longest canal system in the world and a huge engineering feat.

This grand project was completed by corvee labor and at great human cost, which generated popular discontent against the dynasty. Its completion was of immense importance because the system linked the rich and growing economy of the south to the heart of the empire in the north to support the needs of defending the empire. The Grand Canal also aided in the reintegration of the long divided empire.

Wendi and his empress had five sons. The second son, Yang Guang (Kuang), known to history as Yangdi (Yang-Ti), was born in 569. Talented and well educated, Yang Guang was married to a woman from the royal family of the former Liang dynasty of southern China and appointed viceroy of the newly pacified southern provinces in 589, where he remained for 10 years.

He ruled from Yangzhou, which flourished as the junction that connected the Yangzi River with prosperous Hangzhou on the coast. In a series of murky events that might have implicated Yang Guang, his elder brother the crown prince was demoted, he was elevated to that position, followed shortly by Wendi’s death.

Yangdi (Yang-Ti)

Sui Yangdi
Sui Yangdi

Yang Guang reigned as Yangdi (Emperor Yang) from 604 to 617. Historians have accused him of megalomania and extravagance that brought down the Sui dynasty. His grand vision led to the simultaneous launching of huge projects that include the building of a second capital in the east, at the site of the former Han capital of Luoyang that had been sacked by the Xiongnu (Hsiungnu) 300 years before.

He further expanded the Grand Canal begun by his father, building an eastern branch to modern Beijing. Yangdi also lived extravagantly and traveled extensively along the canals and rivers in a grand flotilla of pleasure boats and held elaborate entertainments in his lavish palaces. His downfall was however triggered by his ambitious foreign policy and disastrous wars.

In the south Wendi had restored Chinese power in present-day northern Vietnam, which had been annexed under the Han dynasty but had broken away from the control of the weak southern dynasties in the era of division.

dragon boat of sui dynasty
dragon boat of sui dynasty

Yangdi invaded the Champa kingdom in presentday central and southern Vietnam, which won acknowledgment of Sui overlordship by the local ruler after a costly campaign.

A naval expedition was sent in 610 to pacify islands in the East China Sea, generally assumed to be Taiwan, but formed no permanent settlements there. Chinese ships had sailed to Japan since the Han dynasty, where Chinese cultural influence, brought via Korea, had been growing.

The first Japanese embassy arrived in Yangdi’s court in 607 and addressed him as “the Bodhisattva Son of Heaven who gives the full weight of his support of Buddhist teachings.” It included Japanese Buddhist monks, who sought permission to study Buddhism in China.

Yangdi sent an emissary to Japan in 608 that brought back more information about that country. Thus opened a two-century-long era when 17 Japanese embassies, each with hundreds of students, arrived to study in China, with great significance for Japan’s development.

In the north Yangdi, too, had to deal with the Turks. To keep them in check he rebuilt and extended sections of the Great Wall. He also resorted to traditional stratagems such as keeping sons of the Turkish khans in the Sui capitals to ensure their fathers’ good behavior, conferring Sui princesses in marriages with the khans, trade and gifts (Chinese silks for Turkish horses), and Chinese titles for Turkish rulers.

His diplomats also fomented dissension among the Turkish tribes to prevent them from coalescing or forming coalitions against China. When necessary Chinese armies overawed and defeated hostile tribes. The Sui maintained dominance over the Turkic tribes and kept open trade routes between China and the west.

In the northeast in lands where the Han had established several commanderies, a state called Koguryo had formed early in the seventh century, with its capital at modern Pyongyang and that incorporated lands of modern northern Korea and Manchuria east of the Liao River.

sui soldiers
sui soldiers
Koguryo was militarily strong and could menace China, especially if it acted in concert with Tungustic tribal people farther north and Turkic people to the west. Wendi had attempted to subdue Koguryo, without success. In 612, 613, and 614 Yangdi launched three major campaigns against Koguryo with crippling losses of life and at huge economic costs.

The Korean campaigns and natural disasters added to the economic distress and widespread revolts broke out. Ultimately the Sui were defeated by the difficult terrain and the climate, which favored the defenders; the great distance of the campaign from the heartland of China (about a thousand miles); and the weak coordination between the Sui army and navy.

With the empire collapsing Yangdi left his capital for the south via the Grand Canal. Two years later he was murdered in his bath and the Sui dynasty ended.

Influence of the Sui Dynasty

Historians have judged Yangdi harshly for his personal debauchery and as a tyrant who brought down the dynasty his father founded.

However the debacle his policies brought and the civil war that ensued did not last long and China would enter its second imperial age under the successor Tang dynasty. The glories of the Tang dynasty have overshadowed the contributions of the Sui. They include:
  1. The sweeping away of the regional regimes and their institutions that had divided China in the preceding three centuries. It built new institutions that would ensure future political and cultural unity in a subcontinental sized nation that stretched from Beijing to Hanoi and from the East China Sea to the gates of Central Asia. At the height of Yangdi’s reign the Chinese empire governed about 50 million people.
  2. The modeling of a reunified China on the Han by reviving and expanding institutions such as the examination system based on the Confucian classics and the Han tradition of codified laws (the Sui code became the bases of the Tang and later codes).
  3. A land tenure and militia system that would be maintained by the Tang for a century and half, which was key to its success and was copied by Japan and has inspired later Chinese governments because they were just and equitable.

The Sui succeeded in reunifying China because of the wise policies of its founder but also because despite partition, the Chinese shared a common written language, common ideology and moral values in Confucianism, and by now a religion that was deeply embedded throughout the land: Buddhism.



The Sukhothai was an early kingdom in the area around the city of Sukhothai, in north central Thailand. It existed from 1238 to 1438.

Thailand was under the Funan and Srivijaya Kingdoms before the migration of Thai people because of pressure from the Mongols. They were compelled to leave Nan Chao in Yunan. The formative stage of Thailand’s history began with powerful monarchs operating from Sukhothai on the banks of the Mae Nam Yom River.

The kingdom of Sukhothai’s predominance was due to the fact that it had tremendous potential for agricultural production. It controlled water resources for the entire Menam Basin as it was situated at top of the main flood basin. A surplus of food made it possible to have a large army.

Sukhothai was one of the early kingdoms that emerged in Thailand and Laos integrating the traditional muang administration with the Indian mandala concept of a centralized state. It borrowed art forms and administrative structure from the Khmers. Mongol influence was evident in military units. Legal traditions came from the Mons.

In spite of influences from India, Sri Lanka, and neighboring regions, Sukhothai evolved its own cultural pattern, maintaining its identity. The legacy of Sukhothai was their language, script, and religion, which became an essential part of Thai culture.

The local Thai princes Pho Khun Bang Klang and Pho Khun Pha Muang revolted against Khmer rule, establishing independent regimes. Klang became the king of Sukhothai with title of Sri Indraditya (r. 1238– 70) and was succeeded by his son Pho Khun Ban Muang (r. 1270–77).

The regime expanded under the younger brother of Rama Khamheng (1239–1298), who ruled from 1277 until 1298. Rama Khamheng or Rama the Great was one of the greatest monarchs of Thailand and at the time of his death left a vast kingdom.

He adopted both diplomacy and warfare to expand Sukhothai’s domain. Their stability was assured by a friendship with China. Many important facets of Thai culture developed under his reign. The Mons, Khmers, Indians, and Sri Lankans had close cultural contact with Sukhothai.

The Sri Lankan variety of Buddhism (Theravada Buddhism, also known as Lankavong) became predominant in Thailand. In continuity with the indigenous tradition of worshipping spirits, Rama Khamheng continued to make offerings to Phra Khaphung, the spirit deity located on a hill south of Sukhothai, even after adopting Theravada Buddhism. Thus two religious traditions were merged.

Rama Khamheng was the originator of Thai script. The Thai alphabets invented by him are basically still in use, with modifications. The reign of Rama Khamheng, the warrior and benevolent monarch, is rightly called the golden period in Thai history.

After the death of Rama Khamheng, his son Lao Thai (r. 1298–1346) ascended the throne. The kingdom of Sukhothai faced challenges from rising Thai states and Lao Thai was not very successful.

Decline of the kingdom began and later rulers could not check the process of disintegration. There was a struggle for power after the death of Lao Thai and Nguanamthom ruled for some months.

Lao Thai’s son Luthai ultimately became the ruler with title of Mahathammaracha I (r. 1346–68). A great scholar and patron of Theravada Buddhism, he was more involved in religious affairs. He did not pay much attention to the affairs of the state.

The emergence of the powerful Lan Xang kingdom in Laos and Ayutthaya in southern Thailand resulted in loss of sizable territory of Sukhothai. Fa Nagum established the first unified state of Lan Xang in 1353.

The kingdom of Ayutthaya, founded by Rama Tibodi in 1350, dominated Thai power and culture for four centuries. Neither Mahathammaracha I nor his successor Mahathammaracha II (r. 1368–98) could check acquisition of Sukhothai territory by Lan Xang and Ayutthaya.

In 1371 Borommaracha I (r. 1370–88) of Ayutthaya, bent upon a policy of doing away with his Thai rivals, invaded Sukhothai and captured several towns. Four years afterward, the important town of Phitsanulok fell to the Ayutthaya king’s army.

Sukhothai became a vassal state of Audhya in 1378 after 140 years of independent existence. In 1400 there was a flicker of hope for Sukhothai, when Mahathammaracha III (r. 1398–1419) declared independence from Ayutthaya’s subjugation.

It was suppressed and Ayutthaya installed a new king, Mahathammaracha IV (r. 1419–38). Phitsanulok was the new capital of a much smaller Sukhothai. It became a province of Ayutthaya after the king’s death. The princes of royal families generally became the administrators of the Sukhothai region.

Sundiata - King of Mali

Sundiata - King of Mali
Sundiata - King of Mali

Sundiata is remembered as the first of the kings of Mali. A mythic figure in West African history, he is known as the Lion King. He was born to a Mandingo chief, Nara Fe Maghan, and his second wife, Sogolon.

After the death of his father, he and his mother had to flee because his 11 other brothers were jealous of the love his father had shown him and were a threat to his life.

The death of Nara Fe Maghan came at a bad time for the Malinke people, for at this time Sumanguru was trying to revive the kingdom of Ghana. Sumanguru killed Sundiata’s 11 brothers but either did not find Sundiata or dismissed him as a threat because the boy was lame.

Sundiata gradually built up his own state of Kangaba, without attracting much notice from his father’s killer. In 1235 Sundiata challenged Sumanguru at Kirina, in a largely cavalry battle, with both armies mounted on horses and camels.

The warriors would have worn heavily padded cloth coats of armor, although perhaps the more wealthy ones like Sundiata would have had chain mail and helmets imported from North Africa by the Arabs.

Sundiata won by a decisive cavalry charge, which left Sumanguru dead, either killed in the fighting or executed after. With the death of Sumanguru, Sundiata became the mansa, or chief, of a federation in western Niger, with his new capital at Niani. Sundiata carefully organized his new realm.

According to Ancient African Civilizations, Sundiata’s “division of the world assigned specific occupations—warrior, ironsmith, djeli (storyteller), and so on—to designated kin groups, reserving the office of mansa for Sundiata’s own dynasty, that of the Keita.

Mali empire map
Mali empire map

Sundiata also set up an administrative system based on provinces, which accommodated regional desires for a degree of self-government while allowing the mansa to retain ultimate control over what was fast becoming the empire of Mali.”

Sundiata himself converted to Islam but did not compel his people to become Muslims. His conversion was a pragmatic act of statecraft, in order to gain a better position with the Arabs, who held much of the trade of western Africa, as they would until the coming of the Europeans in the 15th century with the advent of the Portuguese.

Following the death of Sundiata, the kingdom that would be known as Mali continued to expand during the reign of his son Uli (1250–70). There was a period of strife when a general named Sakura seized power. Sakura decided to fulfill the Islamic vow of the hajj and make a pilgrimage from Mali to Mecca.

On the return journey he died, and power reverted to the family of Sundiata, and “the title of mansa returned to the Keita family, passing in 1307 to Kankan Musa, a son of Sundiata’s brother Manding Bory.”

Under Kankan Musa, also known as Mansa Musa, Mali reached its apex. Kankan Musa (reigned 1307–37) also made the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, in 1324 and returned safely. But with him on his return, Kankan also brought Islamic scholars from Mecca.

With them he established centers of learning in Timbuktu, Jenne (or Djenne), and Gao. A huge mud brick mosque in Jenne would later be restored in 1907, when Moulay Hafid ruled as sultan of Morocco.

Ibn Batuta, the great Arab traveler, came to Mansa Musa’s kingdom on his tour of Islamic Africa. Mansa Musa also introduced Islamic architecture to West Africa with the arrival of Ishak as-Sahili, who built a series of mosques.

His development of Mali was made possible by the great wealth in gold at his disposal. According to Joseph E. Harris in Africans and Their History, a European atlas would chronicle that “this Negro Lord is called Mansa Musa, Lord of the Negros of Guinea.

So abundant is the gold which is found in his country that he is the richest and most noble king in all the land.” Under Mansa Musa, the kingdom of Mali, the creation of Sundiata, enjoyed—in all senses of the word—a true golden age.

Sviatoslav - King of Russia

Sviatoslav - King of Russia
Sviatoslav - King of Russia

Sviatoslav ruled over the Rus with the capital in Kiev c. 969–972. He was the son of Kiev’s Prince Igor (r. 912–945) and Princess Olga (who ruled as Sviatoslav’s regent in 945–969 after Igor’s death), known in history as the fi rst Christian princess of Rus.

In historical literature Sviatoslav is often called the last Viking, the main goal of whose rule was the permanent and sometimes senseless war campaigns against the neighbors of Rus.

Olga’s 25-year rule resulted in Sviatoslav’s disinterest in internal state affairs, so he found a new field of activity—war campaigns in remote territories. The formal beginning of Sviatoslav’s rule is dated at 964 (his first war campaign), but in fact he only minimally influenced Kievan life until Olga’s death in 969.

In spite of the influence of his tutor Asmoud and the military governor (voyevoda) Sveneld, he neglected Kiev and felt himself free from any obligations toward its population. He even announced his desire to live in another city, founded by him in Pereyaslav-on-Danube.

As prominent Ukrainian historians Olexiy and Petro Tolochko state, Sviatoslav’s mode of life was motivated exclusively by searches for battle and by mercantile gains from the campaigns often financed by Byzantine diplomacy. Sviatoslav’s campaigns reached into the east. In 964–966 Sviatoslav was at war with the Khazars for power of the Vyatichi Slavonic tribe.

Sviatoslav campaign
Sviatoslav campaign

This campaign resulted in the crushing defeat of the Khazar kaganat (princedom) and destruction of its capital Itil and the fortresses of Sarkel and Semender. At the same time he defeated the Volga Bolgars and took their capital Bolgar.

In the northern Caucasus he displayed himself in his victory over tribes of Yasy and Kasogi. Soon Volyn and the Carpathian regions had entered into the sphere of Sviatoslav’s attention, and his first squads were sent there, marking the beginnings of this region’s exploration, finished by his sons.

The most striking trend of Sviatoslav’s wars is connected with the Danubian or Balkan region. In 967 Byzantine emperor Nikephoros II promised Sviatoslav 455 kilos of gold for his campaign.

Most researchers believe that Sviatoslav also had his own interests there, so in August 968, his fleet with 60,000 troops gained victory over Bulgarian king Peter and gained control over 80 settlements on the Danube.

This campaign was interrupted by the Pecheneg siege of Kiev (968). Destruction of the Khazar princedom by Sviatoslav eliminated obstacles for their penetration into the inner Rus lands. The consequences of his war campaign caused the deep dissatisfaction of the local population.

This did not worry the prince, since he was planning to transfer his capital to Bulgarian lands, and soon after Olga’s death Sviatoslav started the second Balkan campaign (autumn 969), having sectioned control over major Rus lands among his three sons.

Sviatoslav statue
Sviatoslav statue

His successes in 970 and tendency to conduct independent policy in the Danubian region forced the Byzantine emperor to start his expulsion, and the spring of 971 was marked by the taking of the Bulgarian capital of Preslav (the contemporary location is unknown).

Sviatoslav was in a two-month siege in Dorostol (modern Silistra), which resulted in a bloody battle and subsequent treaty with Byzantium (972), which Sviatoslav refused because of his claims on Crimea.

He went home with his army. On his way near the Dnipro Rapids he was met by Pechenegs, informed by the Byzantines about his trip, which weakened his forces in numerous battles. Trying to break through the nomads, Sviatoslav died in the early spring of 972.

Pope Sylvester II

Pope Sylvester II
Pope Sylvester II
As a young man, Gerbert of Aurellac became a monk in Gaul and later studied in Spain at Barcelona, and under Islamic teachers at Seville and Córdoba. He was particularly skilled in the natural sciences and arithmetic.

After completing his education under Bishop Hatto of Vichy, he traveled with the bishop to Rome and won the support of Pope John XIII. Upon a recommendation of the pope, Emperor Otto I sent Gerbert to Reims, where he was given a position as an instructor in the cathedral school under Archdeacon Gerannus.

He was highly skilled in oratory and debated Ortricus of Magdeburg before Emperor Otto II on many theological matters. He was bestowed the abbey of Bobbio by the emperor but returned instead to Reims. He was partially responsible for the rise of Hugh Capet.

Gerbert was elected archbishop of Reims in 991 by a synod of bishops. This elevation to the See of Reims was later declared invalid. Gerbert argued against the primacy of the pope in settling disputes of ecclesiastical office.

Not being able to counteract this decision Gerbert chose another path and went to the court of Otto II, where he became the emperor’s teacher. Gerbert accompanied Otto to Italy and in 998 Pope Gregory V appointed him archbishop of Ravenna.

Shortly thereafter, the pope died and Gerbert was elected to the Chair of Peter on February 18, 999, and took the name of Sylvester, becoming the first pope from France. He reigned until his death in 1003.

Sylvester II statue
Sylvester II statue

Sylvester’s greatest accomplishment as pope was to fight the abuses of the bishops in regard to simony and concubinage. He argued vehemently that all men who rose to the episcopate should be innocent of sin.

He became friends with Emperor Otto III and was exiled with the emperor after a Roman revolt against the politics of the emperor. He remained in exile for years.

Abandoning his previous beliefs that the pope could not settle ecclesiastical disputes, Sylvester declared his former opponent for the See at Reims, Arnulph, as the rightful archbishop. His reputation suffered some criticism from historians for this change in policy.

After the death of Emperor Otto III, Sylvester returned to Rome, though he gained no temporal power from the competing factions of the city. He established metropolitanates in Poland and Hungary and declared the ruler of Hungary to be a king and papal representative.

Sylvester wrote many works on mathematics and the physical sciences. The people of Rome held him in high esteem as an exorcisor of the devil and a miracle worker. Some historians claim he introduced Arabic numbers into the West and was the inventor of the pendulum clock.

Taizong (T’ang-tsung) - Chinese Emperor

Taizong (T’ang-tsung) - Chinese Emperor
Taizong (T’ang-tsung) - Chinese Emperor

Tang Taizong (T’ang T’ai-tsung), meaning “Grand Ancestor of the Tang,” is the title of the second ruler and real founder of the Tang (T’ang) dynasty in China (618–909). Born Li Shimin (Li Shih-min), he was the second son of Li Yuan, the duke of Tang, who was an important governor under the Sui dynasty.

Taizong’s achievements and the policies that he laid down would make the dynasty the most powerful, successful, and prosperous since the Han dynasty. The Li family was descended from Li Guangli (Li Kuang-li), a famous general under Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty.

As most aristocratic families in northern China, it had intermarried with nomads who had settled in the region; Taizong’s mother, the empress Dou (Tou), came from a powerful Turkic clan.

In 617 the Sui dynasty was collapsing and revolts were widespread. Eighteen-year-old Li Shimin maneuvered his father to revolt and played a leading part in defeating numerous other contenders to establish him on the throne of the new Tang dynasty in 618.

Li Yuan is known in history as Tang Gaozu (T’ang Kao-tsu), meaning “High Ancestor of the Tang.” As second son, Shimin was the object of jealousy of his older brother, the crown prince, who planned to murder him.

In a final showdown in 624 the crown prince was killed, Shimin became crown prince and de facto ruler, and two years later Gaozu retired and Shimin ascended the throne.

Brilliant and precocious, he had by his late teens mastered the Confucian Classics and literature, had gained experience in administration and martial skills, and had led men into battle.

A dashing and fearless leader who placed himself at the forefront of cavalry charges and who excelled in hand-to-hand combat, he boasted that he had personally killed over 1,000 enemies before taking the throne. Taizong was immediately confronted with a crisis along the northern frontier.

Taking advantage of China’s internal chaos the Eastern Turks had launched massive annual expeditions along the borders beginning in 623, to plunder and also to instigate revolts against the new dynasty.

The one in 626 reached within a few miles of the capital Chang’an (Ch’ang-an). Only three weeks on the throne Taizong, who was a man of imperial and intimidating bearing, led his men to confront the enemy and secured their retreat with a combination of bravado and bribes.

His long-term response was to train and bolster his army, which allowed him to launch a massive six-pronged offensive with 720 miles separating the easternmost and westernmost columns in 629.

A combination of superior Tang tactics and internal disaffection among the Turkic tribes resulted in a one-sided Tang victory at the battle at Iron Mountain in which some 10,000 nomads were killed and more than 100,000 surrendered.

This campaign ended the Eastern Turkish Khanate and established Chinese dominion over the Mongolian steppes. Taizong was acknowledged “Heavenly Khan” by the Turks, the first Chinese ruler to hold that title.

The surrendered Turks were treated with kindness; many were settled along the Ordos region of the Yellow River and other borderland areas. Thousands of others settled in Chang’an and served the dynasty. Peace would reign in the northern borders for 100 years.

Other campaigns broke the power of the Western Turks; established Chinese power throughout Chinese Turkistan, across the Pamirs into Afghanistan to the border of Persia; and also brought Tibet under Chinese suzerainty. The marriage of a Tang princess to the Tibetan ruler, the first of several throughout the dynasty, would bring Chinese culture to that land.

In 648 a Chinese force, with Tibetan assistance, crossed into India and brought an Indian rebel who had assassinated King Harsha Vardhana of India (Taizong and Harsha had diplomatic exchanges thanks to the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s [Hsuan-tsang’s] journey to India) to Chang’an for punishment.

Taizong also sent two expeditions to Korea in the 640s but failed to bring the king of Koguryo to heel. Taizong rode six horses to battle. Relief carvings of all six, with accompanying inscriptions detailing their names and deeds, decorate the entrance to his mausoleum.

Taizong was a rationalist and believed that men, not heaven, determined the course of history. He was conscientious and hardworking, was concerned with the welfare of the people, and respected the opinion and sought the criticism of his advisers.

He surrounded himself with able ministers. Wei Cheng was the most fearless of his critics, yet never suffered from his blunt rebukes of the emperor.

Taizong called Wei his mirror for showing up all his blemishes and mourned Wei’s death as a great loss to good government. Because the basic institutions of the Tang were already in place when he ascended the throne, Taizong’s task was to consolidate, rationalize, and improve where necessary.

He halted the growth of the bureaucracy, redrew the empire’s administrative units, and continued the codification of the laws but lightened many punishments. His economic policies led to recovery and prosperity after the wars that marked the end of the Sui dynasty and led to surpluses that financed his military expansion.

He established a network of granaries that provided against natural disasters and stabilized the prices. He also extended and improved the militia system begun by his father.

Taizong’s last years were marred by poor health; the death of his wife, the Empress Zhangsun (Chang-sun), who had been his wise and able adviser; the demotion of his heir for plotting against him; and rivalry among his other sons for the succession. He finally settled on a younger son by the empress, who would be known as Emperor Gaozong (Kao-tsung).

But in death his reputation would grow and he would be acknowledged one of the greatest rulers of all Chinese history. His reign came to represent exemplary civil government, unrivaled military might, and unmatched cultural brilliance.

Taizu (T’ai-Tsu) - Chinese Emperor

Taizu (T’ai-Tsu) - Chinese Emperor
Taizu (T’ai-Tsu) - Chinese Emperor

Ming Taizu means “Grand Progenitor of the Ming”; this was the posthumous title for Zhu Yuanzhang (Chu Yuan-chang), who founded the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) in China. He was the second commoner to found a Chinese dynasty, the first being Liu Bang (Liu Pang), founder of the Han dynasty (220 b.c.e.–220 c.e.).

The Ming founder drove out the Mongols who had ruled China oppressively for a century and restored Chinese self-confidence, economic prosperity, and international prestige that equaled that of the previous great Han dynasty and Tang (T’ang) dynasty (618–909).

Zhu Yuanzhang was the son of poor tenant farmers from Anhui province in southern China. Mongol misrule and natural disasters reduced the area to penury and a plague killed most of his family.

Left an orphan he joined a Buddhist monastery, and when the monastery ran out of food, he went out begging, then joined a rebel movement called the Red Turbans, one of many that emerged in southern China as Mongol power disintegrated. His ability led to quick promotions and marriage to the leader’s daughter (née Ma). She became his key adviser and mother to his successors.

While other rebels looted, Zhu captured Nanjing (Nanking), a key city south of the Yangzi (Yangtze) River in 1356; set up a rudimentary government; and then subdued the entire Yangzi valley by 1367.

Marching north he captured the Yuan capital Dadu (T’a-tu) in 1368, ending the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). Zhu assumed the reign name of Emperor Hongwu (Hung-wu), which means “bounteous martial emperor” (r. 1368–98).

By 1388 Ming forces had conquered all southern and southwestern China, Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, and Xinjiang (Sinkiang). Remnant Mongols were driven beyond Karakorum to the shores of Lake Baikal. Korea, many oasis states in Central Asia, and some Southeast Asian states submitted as vassals.

Taizu built up a new centralized government on the Tang model, reestablished the examination system to recruit officials, and encouraged and subsidized local education to nurture talented young men for government service. He also proscribed eunuchs’ gaining political influence.

He earned popular gratitude by freeing millions of Chinese enslaved by Mongols, confiscating large estates belonging to Mongols and their collaborators, and granting land to the landless. The people were also given free tools and seeds and tax remission to rebuild a neglected rural economy, especially in devastated northern China.

Taizu was also suspicious and insecure, and after Empress Ma’s death in 1382, increasingly paranoid and cruel. He ruthlessly persecuted and purged many officials who had helped him gain power.

Taizu was predeceased by his eldest son and crown prince, and according to Chinese practice, passed the throne to a youth, the son of the crown prince. This action would trigger a war of succession.

Battle of Talas River

Battle of Talas River

In 751 a Tang (T’ang) dynasty army commanded by Gao Xianzhi (Kao Hsien-chih), military governor of Anxi (An-hsi) in the Western Regions, met an Arab army in battle at Talas River near Samarkand. The Chinese were defeated. Although this was not a major military confrontation, it had great consequences.

Tang power and prestige stood at their zenith up to 750. Tang military forces had scored major successes and secured the frontiers from Tibet to Central Asia; the northern steppes were under a friendly semisedentary people called Uighurs, while the Khitans in the northeast and the Xixia (Hsi Hsia) in the southwest were contained.

International trade flourished by land along the Silk Road, and by sea routes. However soon all would change. The aging Emperor Xuanzong (Hsuan-tsung), infatuated with a young concubine, the Lady Yang (Yang Guifei), had been neglecting his duties while her corrupt family and favorites dominated the government.

The military system that had made the empire strong during the previous 100 years was deteriorating. Many of the frontier garrisons were manned by nomadic mercenaries and commanded by non-Chinese generals. Meanwhile Muslim Arab power had been expanding eastward.

The conflict began as one between two local states, Ferghana, a Chinese client state, and Tashkent. It led to battle between Ziyad bin Salih, governor of Samarkand under the Ummayyad Caliphate, assisting Tashkent, and General Gao Xianzhi and his Chinese forces. Gao was badly defeated when his ally the Western Turks defected to the Arabs and retreated across the Pamir Mountains.

The fierce battle of Talas river
The fierce battle of Talas river

The battle was not significant in the short term, because the Arabs did not press eastward to threaten China, but because of what followed in the long term. In the same year, nearer to home, the aborigines in Yunnan in southwestern China revolted and declared independence, creating a state called Nanzhao (Nan-chao).

Finally in 755 the Turkic general and once imperial favorite An Lushan (An Lu-Shan) began a rebellion that captured both Tang capital cities and threatened the throne.

The immediate result of events in 755 was the recall of Chinese forces from Central Asia, creating a political vacuum. That left the Arabs in a strong position. Likewise the power vacuum enabled the Tibetans and the Xixia people to expand their power at China’s expense.

Even as an ally the Uighurs expanded their power at the Tang’s expense. Without Chinese military protection the Buddhist states in Central Asia would fall to the rising power of Islam. Chinese power would not return to the region for another 600 years.