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Far East Kingdoms



Dynastic China

Modern China has not always existed in its present form since its first appearance as a state. In fact it has rarely been as large in terms of territory as it is today. At several times in its long history the country has fragmented into two or more warring kingdoms. In its early days there were many smaller independent states that were often at war with one another for domination, sometimes for several centuries. This was often followed by relatively short spells of unification under a single strong conqueror, followed again by a return to fragmentation. It was a long, slow climb towards the relatively unified state of the two millennia AD.

China's origins were long seen as being focussed along the Yellow River. Several of the early mythical or semi-historical dynasties of Ancient China were based in territory in this region, with these early confederate kingdoms having being regarded as having laid down the basis of later Chinese unity. That unity only really came with the Qin dynasty, once the old order had been swept away by the Warring States period. Following another fractious period - the 'Three Kingdoms' civil war period - a reunified China appeared again under the Jin.

Then the 'Sixteen Kingdoms of the Five Barbarians' period saw unity collapse entirely in the north. Even when it managed to return, that heralded another period of civil war known as the 'Northern & Southern Dynasties' period. It was only with the accession of the Sui emperor that unity was restored.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from The Cambridge History of Ancient China - From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC, Michael Loewe & Edward L Shaughnessy (1999).)

A Qin iron age sword

Sui Dynasty (China Reunited)
AD (581) 590 - 617

The Sui dynasty was, in effect, created by Yang Jian in AD 590 when he defeated the last of the other rival kingdoms, that of Southern Chen. The creation of a single controlling dynasty of all China had been set in motion by the Northern Zhou conquest of the Northern Qi in 577, with the result that northern China had been restored as a single political entity for the first time since the Northern Wei.

Yang Jian became regent to the Northern Zhou's infant emperor, his own grandson. A crushing military victory over the kingdom's opponents persuaded him to seize the Zhou throne and rename it after his former title as duke of Sui. He immediately had scores of Zhou princes murdered but still won popular support because he reversed the anti-Han policies of the Zhou and, in effect, sent China down a path of pro-Han integration and Sinicisation for all the various ethnically diverse inhabitants of China.

The general's capital had been at Chang'an since 581, and it remained the capital until shortly after his death. It was only changed in 605 when Luoyang was selected as its replacement. The process of Sinicisation would eventually integrate the peoples of the former semi-nomadic states of the 'Five Barbarians' into China proper, permanently expanding the state's population and its accepted borders. Yang Jian's seizing of the north and conquest of the south ended the 'Northern & Southern Dynasties' period of civil war between various petty Chinese kingdoms or dynasties. It did not immediate reconquer the now-independent Nam Viet state in the south, although its king did acknowledge Sui suzerainty.

FeatureThe new dynasty immediately undertook to pass a series of reforms, with an especial focus on reducing economic inequality and improving field-grown output. By the middle years of the dynasty the country was enjoying a period of plenty and prosperity. The first phases of the Grand Canal were constructed, linking Luoyang at its centre with the northern border, Chang'an, Jiangdu (now Yangzhou), and Yuhang (now Hangzhou - but see feature link for the cost this entailed). However, from 598 the general had launched the first of a series of campaigns in the Goguryeo-Sui War which eventually resulted in costly defeat for the Sui dynasty. That, along with ambitious building plans becoming too ambitious and a failure to rein in the rise of the Göktürks to the north-west meant the dynasty's eventual replacement by the Tang dynasty.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from The Origin of the Turks and the Turkish Khanate, Gao Yang (Tenth Türk Tarih Kongresi, Ankara 1986), from Türkiye halkının kültür kökenleri: Giriş, beslenme teknikleri, Burhan Oğuz (1976), from The Turks in World History, Carter Vaughin Findley (Oxford University Press 2005), from The Origins of Northern China's Ethnicities, Zhu Xueyuan (Beijing 2004), from Ethnogenesis in the tribal zone: The Shaping of the Turks, Peter Benjamin Golden (2005), and from External Links: Zizhi Tongjian: Comprehensive mirror to aid in government (ChinaKnowledge.de), and Capital Cities and Tombs of the Ancient Koguryo Kingdom (UNESCO).)

581 - 604

Yang Jian / Chien / Wen Ti

Usurper general. Seized Northern Zhou and renamed it.

583 - 603

Bilge Tardu of the Western Khagans denounces the sovereignty of Bagha İşbara of the Eastern khagans, despite his being elected by the high council. Tardu leads an army into the east to claim the seat of imperial power at Otukan. İşbara is forced to contact Yang of Sui for protection (seemingly before he has established his control over China in 590) which diverts Tardu.

Map of Central Asia AD 550-600
As was often the case with Central Asian states which had been created by horse-borne warriors on the sweeping steppelands, the Göktürk khaganate swiftly incorporated a vast stretch of territory in its westwards expansion, whilst being hemmed in by the powerful Chinese dynasties to the south-east and Siberia's uninviting tundra to the north (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Tardu attacks the Sui capital at Chang'an, around the year 600, and demands that the now-Emperor Yang end his interference in the civil war. In retaliation, Chinese diplomacy successfully incites a revolt of Tardu's Tiele vassals, which leads to the end of Tardu's reign in 603.

588 - 589

Emperor Wen has built up a force of over half a million troops along the northern bank of the Yangtze River, largely between recently-conquered Sichuan and the East China Sea. The Southern Chen are unable to fend off such an overwhelming force, and the last of their emperors admits defeat in 589.

The Sui forces enter Jiankang (Nanjing), burning the city to the ground and taking the nobility captive. The captives will bring their cultural and intellectual superiority to the northern court, enriching it and advancing China's overall progression


Sambhuvarman of Lâm Ấp is the most successful of the late kings here. However, the Sui see his neglect of tribute as the perfect excuse to launch an attack on the kingdom. The Sui easily take control of the northern part of the kingdom and turn it into a governorship.


The opening up of southern China to the Sui has renewed contact with the independent kings of the Early Li dynasty following the termination of the 'Second Chinese Domination of Vietnam'. Emperor Wen has demanded that the king accept vassal status and has been refused. Now he launches an invasion of the Nam Viet state, conquering it and integrating it under Chinese rule until 939.

604 - 617

Yangdi / Yang Kuang / Yang Guang

Son. Commanded fall of Southern Chen. Strangled.


The Korean state of Koguryo is invaded for the second time by the Sui (following the initial invasion of 598 which had served as the trigger for the Goguryeo-Sui War). Facing a determined and capable resistance and massive casualties, the Sui are defeated and are forced into ignominious flight.

Koguryo kingdom graves and cities
Now located in north-eastern China, the archaeological remains have been detected of three cities and forty tombs from the Koguryo kingdom which was extinguished in AD 668

613 - 614

Not at all put off by the virtual destruction of his army, Yang Kuang launches a third invasion of Koguryo in 613. His initial efforts prove fruitless and a threatened rebellion by the prime minister's son forces him to concentrate on internal matters.

The final invasion of Koguryo during the Goguryeo-Sui War takes place in 614. Again the resistance is determined and little headway is made before Yang Kuang reluctantly accepts the offer of a peace treaty.


Sambhuvarman of Lâm Ấp takes note of the weakening of the Sui, selecting this moment to launch a campaign to reclaim his lost northern territories. He succeeds, restoring full control, and kicking out the Sui.

615 - 617

Khagan Şipi of the Göktürks is the first of the great khagans to contemplate rebellion against his overlords, the Sui, since Bagha İşbara first submitted to them to outwit his rival, Bilge Tardu of the Western Khagans.

He employs Sogdian viziers to help him plot and plan so that, when the Sui ministers arrive at the Chinese town of Mai for peace negotiations in 615, they are all killed. During the last, turmoil-filled years of Emperor Yang Kuang's reign, Şipi fuels his troubles by supporting various warlords in north-western China who have claimed the throne.

One of these warlords is Li Yuan of the Tang who eventually secures the throne and replaces the Sui with his own dynasty. Şipi supplies him with two thousand horses and cavalry of five hundred so that the Tang are able to make good progress, especially at the Battle of Huo-i, which virtually finishes the Sui as a military force.

The emperor is murdered soon after during a coup and a grandson is briefly set up as his replacement before being removed entirely.

Gokturk burial figurines
In 2012 archaeologists were able to examine the previously-untouched tomb of a Göktürk khagan, whose people the Sui dynasty were never fully able to manipulate to its will

617 - 618

Kung Ti / Yang Tong

Grandson. Puppet. Assassinated by his minister.


The disastrous series of highly costly wars against Koguryo have severely dented the Sui reputation as a unifying force. This has been followed by another disaster in relation to failed peace negotiations with Khagan Şipi of the Göktürks and the resultant alliance between them and the warlord, Li Yuan. Now Li Yuan is able to defeat the Sui military while the emperor is killed by his own minister, paving the way for the accession of the Tang dynasty which has already, in effect, been in command since 617.

China's dynasties continues here.

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