Political Reforms of the Sui Dynasty

The Sui Dynasty may have been short-lived, but it was arguably one of the most important political periods in Chinese history. The reforms that were made under the Sui emperors would provide a model for almost all future dynasties, right up until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). They helped reduce economic inequality, improved the country’s productivity, brought the country’s population back up from an all-time low, promoted education, streamlined several governmental processes, and revolutionised the way officials were selected. Not too bad when you consider they were only in power for 37 years!

When Emperor Wen first took power, he struggled with the chaos and devastation that had been caused by the previous Northern Zhou Dynasty (557–581). The most worrying thing of all was that he had no solid estimate for how many citizens he ruled over, since the Northern Zhou hadn’t carried out a census in several years. During the 580s, he commissioned a new census, which carefully recorded the age, status, and landed possessions of all the members of each household in his empire.

Based on the information gathered, Wen employed what came to be known as the Juntian or Equal Field System and the Zutiao or Tax Moderation System. The former ensured that all citizens were allocated an area of land depending on their status and family situation, while the latter meant that taxes were levied in grain and silk at a uniform rate. The taxable age was also raised and the annual period of conscripted labour for all taxpayers was reduced. If only the taxman was so forgiving nowadays!

To complement these tax reforms, Emperor Wen decided to restructure the way his territory was partitioned. Before he took power, the administrative system was in disarray due to excessive subdivision. Territories had been split into innumerable local districts, some of which were almost entirely controlled by rich aristocratic families, and appointments to positions of political power were invariably bestowed on members of these influential families.

A man in Sui Dynasty
A man in the Sui Dynasty

He simplified this structure by reducing the number of counties in each prefecture and by creating one uniform administrative unit for rural areas, known as townships. Positions of political power were no longer given to wealthy aristocrats, but were reserved for scholars who had gained their official position by taking examinations and who could earn promotions over time. These two simple changes helped to homogenize both the land administration and the civil service.

Another brainchild of Emperor Wen was the New Code, which was later revised by his ministers under the name the Kaihuang Code. It was a penal code that was designed to be simple, fair, and lenient, although application of the laws was quite strict. Unfortunately no remnants of the Kaihuang Code have survived, but it became the basis for the Tang Code, which is considered one of the most influential bodies of law in the history of East Asia.

In order to take full advantage of the aforementioned reforms, the political system had to be completely reorganised. The Three Departments and Six Ministries system was something that had been developed during the later Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), but wasn’t officially implemented until the Sui Dynasty. Under this system, the division of labour in the imperial court was far more detailed and allowed the Emperor to distribute responsibility amongst his officials without ever giving one individual too much power.

Unsurprisingly, the imperial court was separated into three departments and six ministries. It may not have had the most imaginative name, but it definitely worked! The three departments were known as the Central Secretariat, the Chancellery, and the Department of State Affairs, while the six ministries were entitled the Ministry of Personnel, the Ministry of Revenue, the Ministry of Rites, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Works.

The Central Secretariat was a policy-forming agency, meaning it was mainly charged with proposing, drafting, and issuing imperial decrees. The Chancellery was responsible for advising the Emperor and the Central Secretariat, reviewing imperial edicts and commands, and potentially disputing or banning imperial orders as it saw fit. The Department of State Affairs was arguably the most influential of the three and held the most executive power, since it controlled the six ministries. Its primary purpose was to execute orders that had been written by the Central Secretariat, checked by the Chancellery, and approved by the Emperor. These three departments would carry on in some form right up until the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), although their functions would frequently change. After all, variety is the spice of life!

When it came to the six ministries, the Ministry of Personnel was charged with bestowing appointments, merits, promotions, demotions, and honorific titles on government officials. The Ministry of Revenue gathered census data, collected the taxes, and handled the empire’s income. The Ministry of Rites organised state ceremonies, rituals, sacrifices, foreign affairs, and the imperial examinations, as well as dealing with members of the Buddhist and Taoist clergy.

The Ministry of Defence, much like today, was involved in the appointment, promotion, and demotion of military officers, the maintenance of military equipment and weapons, and the arrangement of military strategies during wartime. The Ministry of Justice, also known rather ominously as the Board of Punishments, investigated crimes across the country and oversaw the judicial and penal processes. Finally, the Ministry of Works arranged government construction projects, maintained the roads and canals, gathered natural resources, and hired artisans and labourers for appropriate projects.

By distributing labour in such an efficient way, the Emperor was able to create an administration that worked while still ensuring that he could easily hold on to power, since no government official could ever hope to amass the kind of political influence that he had. Bear in mind that, although the government was separated into these departments and ministries, the Emperor sat firmly at the top of this hierarchy! In fact, this system proved to be so effective that it became the foundation for the Tang Dynasty’s (618-907) government, which in turn helped the Tang hold onto power for so many years. It’s just a shame that it wasn’t able to truly benefit the dynasty that had invented it!