Tag Archives: Sui

Caroline Sterling

Plaque: Caroline Sterling

Plaque Info
Time Period Late Sui Dynasty (604-617; Reign of Yang Guang)
Geographical Region Eastern China (modern day, from Beijing all
the way to modern day Hangzhou, some
maps even indicate territory as far south
as modern Guangdong)
List of Symbols
  1. Rivers and Grand Canal
  2. Boat and rice plant
  3. Death symbol
  4. Emperor Yang
    1. Reclining Buddha
  5. Canal workers
  6. Tally marks and time symbols

Carl Sagan attempted to depict through symbols a message about human life to aliens. The images he chose were not just to point to specific objects which exist on Earth, but to tell a story by putting the objects together in context. My plaque attempts to not simply depict some waterways, transportation, crops, death, and the passing of time, but to create a story by the fact that they only convey significant meaning when juxtaposed together.

The Sui Dynasty only lasted three short decades, the last thirteen years of which marked the reign of one of China’s most exorbitant emperor’s, Yang Guang. The plaque is meant to focus specifically on the achievements and consequences of Emperor Yang Guang’s reign. After going through each symbol, it should become apparent that each symbol only makes sense in relation to the rest.

Following the end of the Han dynasty, China was in disunity for roughly three and a half centuries before being reunified under the Sui. Thus, one of the great legacies under Yang Guang, who will hereon be referred to as Emperor Yang, was the commission to build the Grand Canal.   In the plaque, the Yellow River and Yangtze River are depicted, at the top and bottom to show their relative location. Connecting the two together, which is significant for trade routes, is the Grand Canal. The canal is depicted by two straight lines indicating its banks, and that it is man-made. So that we know it is a canal, and not a railway, there is a wavy line in the center depicting water. The Grand Canal was crucial for expediting the transportation of resources from the south to the north, because China’s largest natural rivers run only run from East to West. One of these resources was rice, which is symbolized by its plant at the bottom (or in the south) of the canal. Next to the rice symbol is a boat, which I put at the near the rice to indicate that the canal is often used for transportation of resources.

Emperor Yang took many trips along the canal on his own boats, which were typically several stories high, and enslaved thousands of people to tow it for him. To depict the hard labor of conscripted servants, there are two laborers digging on either side of the canal. Above the laborer on the right is the symbol for death, symbolizing that the laborer’s work was hard and resulted in the deaths of thousands. Despite its contribution to the economy, the Grand Canal itself is symbolic of what has been called genocide by Emperor Yang.

An important symbol at the top left is of Emperor Yang juxtaposed on top as a reclining Buddha. The emperor is relaxing while the peasant works painstakingly, and the emperor’s body is like a reclining Buddha. The first part is simply meant to signify Yang’s extravagance, because while he was consumed by hedonism, his regime extorted debilitating taxes from peasants to fund the Grand Canal project, as well as drafted thousands to perform the hard labor to make the canal possible. The reclining Buddha is a subliminal symbol, meant to give more context to the audience that Buddhism was prevalent during the Sui. Both Yang Jian, the first emperor of the Sui and Yang Guang’s brother, reinstated Buddhism as a state ideology, which is significant because Emperor Wu of Zhou had attempted to renew ancient Zhou ideals by banning Buddhism and Daoism (and refocusing on Confucianism). By putting the emperor’s head on the reclining Buddha, one should find their own interpretation, perhaps irony or a political message denouncing Yang. My attempt is to show that the emperor clearly supported and embodied the Buddhist teachings. Prominent Buddhist philosophers of the Sui, Jizang and Zhiyi, spearheaded the “Buddhism-renewal” during the Sui dynasty.

The final symbol, and perhaps most abstract, is meant to tie together the overall message of the plaque, which is ultimately a warning to future generations that selfish rulers’ time will be cut short. In order to symbolize time passing, there is the image of a sun on the horizon, followed by a setting sun, followed by a moon on the horizon. This shows the passing of time from day to evening. In order to show the quantifying of time, tally marks are used. Tally marks do not depict any one language’s numeric system, and are generally a universal sign of counting. This is meant to show that the days were being counted until Emperor Yang could be overthrown. Considered to be one of the most hedonistic, ludicrous, and lunatic Emperor’s in Chinese history, by the time Emperor Yang had enough time to stop enjoying himself, peasant rebellion was ubiquitous. In a meager attempt to expand Sui territory into modern Korea and Vietnam, as well as against Turks in the north, peasants were through with his cruel, irresponsible reign and Li Yuan was prepared to take office, becoming the first Emperor of the Tang.


Works Cited

Cotterell, Arthur. The Imperial Capitals of China: A Dynastic History of the Celestial Empire. Woodstock: Overlook, 2008. Print.

Cua, Antonio S. Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy. New York [u.a.]: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1800. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015. Print.

Lee, Lily Xiao Hong, and A. D. Stefanowska. “Xiao, Empress of Emperor Yang of Sui.” Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity through Sui, 1600 B.C.E.-618 C.E. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2007. 356-59. Print.

Owen, Stephen. An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. Print.

CAROLINE STERLING I’am an East Asian Studies major, focusing primarily on learning Mandarin. I participated in a language intensive program in Beijing during Spring 2015. I have been in After Hours co-ed a cappella for four years. Meliora! More by Caroline

Bonnie Nortz

Plaque: Bonnie Nortz

Plaque Info
Time Period Sui Dynasty
Geographical Region Eastern portion of modern-day China
List of Symbols
  1. Emperor
  2. Sun and clouds
  3. Broken and whole coin
  4. Meditating Buddha in 8-spoked wheel
  5. Rice and wheat workers, connected by canal

My plaque deals with the Sui Dynasty, which lasted from years 589-618 AD. Based on project description, I designed this plaque based on the hypothetical situation that it would have been made by someone in the Sui court wanting to leave a good impression of the Sui dynasty for posterity. Therefore, the plaque’s primary theme was that of unification, and the symbols in the plaque are gravitating around the symbol in the center, the emperor. Viewers of the plaque would presumably be able to find record of the traditional clothing worn at the time, so they would learn that the clothing worn by the central figure was worn by courtiers, and because of the placement of the figure directly in the center of the plaque, they could infer its importance and therefore deduce that it is probably a depiction of the emperor. The sun and clouds above the robed figure also lend significance to the emperor figure. The belief that the emperor was the son of heaven existed in China since antiquity, and it gives the emperor a powerful air of cultural and moral authority. In the plaque, this is represented by the sun shining down on the emperor, showing that heaven smiles upon him.

To the left of the emperor is a depiction of the geographical unification of the empire. In the top-most of the two diagrams is the region split into four kingdoms, and in the diagram below it, they have all been united into one dynasty. This is further symbolized by the image of the Sui coin. In the top diagram, the coin is broken up among the kingdoms, whereas it is shown as one whole coin in the bottom. This transformation from pieces to a whole helps symbolize geographic as well as cultural unification, which was the goal of the Sui. When the Sui united the empire, the culture of the north and the south were quite different from each other, primarily because of the heavy influence of Turko-Mongol people in the north. Therefore, the Sui took measures to unite the empire not only geographically, but also culturally. Many of these will be described below, and they are broadly symbolized in this section of the plaque by the image of a coin transforming from broken pieces into a unified whole.

Above the emperor is the figure of a meditating Buddha, sitting within an eight-spoked wheel. Both of these images are iconic symbols of Buddhism, which the Sui government patronized in order to try to gain the support of the people. Because of the donations of the emperor, Buddhist monasteries, and Buddhism itself, flourished in the empire during this time.

Below and to the right of the emperor is a depiction of the Grand Canal, built during the Sui Empire. Yet another means of unification, the Grand Canal connected the Yangzi River in the south to the Yellow River in the north. One primary reason for having the canal built was to transport rice from the south to the capital in the north. Therefore, the south is represented by the rice paddies, depicted to the bottom of the plaque, and the north is represented by the wheat fields at the top of the plaque. Because the Grand Canal is a man-made structure, its banks are represented by straight, linear walls contrasting with the rounded, natural banks of the rivers. The Grand Canal also served as another piece of political unification. As mentioned earlier, the culture of the north and the south of China had grown to be quite different from one another, and they had been ruled by different governments since the Han dynasty fell in 220 AD. Therefore, with the Grand Canal serving as a method of transportation between the north and the south, it also served as a political symbol that the two regions were now the same under the Sui.

Finally, I wanted to discuss a number of symbols not depicted in this plaque. Given the situation that a person within the Sui government created this plaque for the Sui dynasty to be remembered favorably, there were a number of actions of the Sui that were not as laudable or popular. The second emperor of Sui in particular, came to be infamous for his extravagance, especially with the way he had the capital at Luoyang rebuilt. Compounding this were the military campaigns he began against the people in modern Vietnam, modern Korea, and the Eastern Turks. These campaigns were unpopular and unsuccessful, and were the primary motivation for the rebellions that toppled the Sui dynasty. However, since these events do not cast the Sui in as favorable a light as its successes in unification, they are left out from this plaque.

The overall theme of this plaque is that of the unification of the Chinese empire, which was the main accomplishment of the Sui dynasty. The Sui unified the empire not only geographically, but also culturally and politically with the state promotion of Buddhism and the building of the Grand Canal. Although the Sui only ruled for three decades, the effects of their unification lasted for centuries.

Thumbnail: Bonnie NortzBONNIE NORTZ is a double major in Mathematics and Linguistics, with a minor in Computer Science. This year she is a Take Five student for Chinese Language and Art. She is also involved in SOCKS and Swing Dance Club. More by Bonnie