Dirty Secrets of Emperor Sui Yang Di 隋炀帝

Founded by the Yang family in 581 AD, the Sui Dynasty briefly united China under Han Chinese rule – that was after a long period of fragmentation and domination by various minorities. The first emperor, Yang Jian or Sui Wen Di 隋文帝 and was widely described as relatively monogamous, workaholic and a controlling micro-manager. He discouraged the teachings of Confucius and adopted Buddhist principles instead. Under Sui Wen Di, lust, unnecessary extravagance and wastefulness were serious crimes. He woke early, worked late, imposed very little tax on the people and lived frugally.

Sui Wen Di’s reign saw China achieve almost unprecedented prosperity and technical expertise. The empire boasted that it had enough stocks to last 50 years. The Sui military also held its ground very well against the Tibetans in the west, the Koreans in the east and Vietnamese in the south. However, the emperor’s eldest son Yang Yong 杨勇 was not as ambitious as his second son Yang Guang 杨广. The latter was also more handsome and more intelligent (crafty). Determined to take the throne, he manufactured lies and fabricated crimes attributable to his brother and somehow managed to fool Sui Wen Di into putting the crown prince under house arrest. Then, two of the Emperor’s concubines (the Empress had passed away) reported that Yang Guang had tried to rape them. Sui Wen Di saw his second son’s true colours, but before he could restore Yang Yong’s title, he was assassinated. All circumstantial evidence pointed to Yang Guang, but there was no proof.

Yang Guang then forced his elder brother to commit suicide and ascended the throne in 304 AD as Sui Yang Di 隋炀帝. His father’s two concubines became his, but he wanted many more. Like his father, Sui Yang Di was a man of great ambition. He ordered the construction of the Grand Canal with the eastern capital of Luoyang at the centre of the network. It also linked the western capital of Chang An to the economic and agricultural centres of the east towards Hangzhou, and to the northern border near modern Beijing. The project sacrificed 6 million conscripted workers. Supervisors at the construction sites used whips to ensure that the construction continued round the clock. Armed guards were posted everywhere to put down minor strikes or major rebellions that occurred every now and then. While the original purposes of the canal were for the shipment of grains to the capital, and for transporting troops and military logistics, the reliable inland waterway would also facilitate domestic trade and flow of people and cultural exchange for centuries. In spite of the tragic circumstances, the Grand Canal is the greatest legacy of the Sui Dynasty which still stands today. According to some sources, it was Empress Xiao and her brother Xiao Huai Jing who were behind all this. The Xiaos were said to have gotten the Emperor addicted to sex in order to call the shots from behind the throne. I’ll come to that in a moment.

The Grand Canal

The tragedy and inhumanity that went into the construction of the Grand Canal were soon forgotten when surviving citizens of Sui saw a boom in the economy. Despite his accomplishments, Sui Yang Di was generally considered by traditional historians to be one of the worst tyrants in Chinese history. To see how bad this emperor really was, we would need to take a peek inside his palace. According to unofficial records, Sui Yang Di had no qualms about taxing the people to pay for his sensual pleasures. He loved to travel and there being no hotels fit for a king during those days, the Emperor ordered the construction of grand outposts 行宫 that provided the best food and accommodation before his arrival at these destinations. An estimated 49 of such grand outposts have been built to support Sui Yang Di’s travels. Extravagant to extremes, he was everything that he frugal father wasn’t.

Sui Yang Di had only one official wife – Empress Xiao, but he was nowhere as monogamous as his father. Palace records had it that he was particularly interested in girls who were just starting to blossom. His libido reached a peak when he was with 14-year-old girls. However, these girls were almost always shy and fearful and would inevitably struggle or run away when he tried to seduce them into their first sexual encounter. Sui Yang Di shared his problem with a eunuch who then summoned the very talented builder and inventor He Chou 何稠. Within days, He Chou came up with a beautiful chariot. Unlike most chariots, this special Do As You Please chariot 任意车 probably looked something like a giant wheelchair. It was not drawn by horses but pushed by humans.


He Chou showed Sui Yang Di how the chair could help him with little girls. The seat on the chariot was collapsible. The girl would sit on the chair, holding a bar with her hands and resting her feet on another bar. When the chariot was pushed from behind, a lever would be activated and the seat would fall into a compartment beneath. At the same time, one bar would flip to lock the girl’s feet at the ankles while the other bar would flip to lock her at the wrists. The emperor could then do as he pleased. Sui Yang Di was elated and immediately gave He Chou a promotion. He tested the chariot on a girl who served him tea that morning. Seeing how interesting the chariot looked, the little girl was only too eager to sit on it. She realised too late that she was about to be raped. The chariot worked without a hitch, with the violated girl crying and screaming notwithstanding. For the rest of his reign, Sui Yang Di was believed to have deflowered 3,000 girls on that chariot.

Towards the end of his reign, the Sui economy was in shambles and signs of uprisings were everywhere. Instead of tackling these problems, Sui Yang Di was in denial and promptly executed messengers who brought fake news that allegedly shook the morale of his ministers. He also recalled and demoted talented generals who demonstrated extraordinary leadership, remembering how his father usurped the throne as a regent. Provincial governor Li Yuan, for instance, was recalled to serve in a dormant post in Chang An. To save his own life, Li started drinking and womanising to show that he had no designs on the throne.

Finally in 618 AD, a palace coup staged by General Yuwen Hua Ji forced Emperor Sui Yang Di to commit suicide. His close relatives were all killed with the exception of his son Yang Hao. General Yuwen declared Yang Hao the new emperor, but killed him less than one year later and declared himself emperor. He was later killed by another rebel leader. Just 4 years after the coup in 622 AD, marked man Li Yuan emerged the clear winner in the chaotic power struggle and declared himself emperor of the Tang Dynasty. The magnanimous Li Yuan, now Emperor Tang Gao Zu, located the remains of the hastily buried Sui Yang Di and conducted a proper funeral for him. Legend had it that the tomb was moved several times because it had been repeatedly struck by lightning.


Dewdrop Books – Fiction and non-fiction with a focus on the colourful and exotic Asian realm. Check out our titles.

Evil Schemes and Dirty Secrets of Tang Emperors 2


Emperor Tang Xuan Zong 唐玄宗 was beaming with pride as the last bricks at Xing Qing Palace were laid. Just before he moved in, he decided to consult his geomancer for an auspicious date to move into his new palace. After surveying the palace, the geomancer shook his head.

“What is wrong, master?” Emperor Tang Xuan Zong asked anxiously.

“Something is missing in this palace.” replied the geomancer.

“My new palace has every feature and amenity that an emperor could ask for. What could be missing?”

“A dragon pool.” replied the geomancer.

The geomancer laid out the specifications for the “pool”. It was more like a circular lake, surrounded by willow trees and measuring some 18,000 square metres in area. It sat right in the centre of the garden at the southern end of the palace. In the lake were lotus blossoms. On the southern shore of the lake, a special herb that could treat hangovers was planted. According to legend, the drunk person only had to smell the herb to get detoxicated. Whether the herb smelled exceptionally good or exceptionally bad, this had to be an exaggeration by some privileged poet recounting his experience to an awed-struck audience.

Addicted to sensual pleasures, Tang Xuan Zong would sail on Dragon Pool with a bevy of beauties whenever he had time to kill. Sometimes, he would invite his mandarins to wine and dine there. Some of these parties lasted for days. Drunk poets came up with surreal descriptions of the pool, making it a heavenly mystery for the commoners out there.


On the eastern shore of the pool, is a pavilion which Tang Xuan Zong had specially built for a woman he fell madly in love with. It was no Taj Mahal, but the structure was embedded in a sea of her favourite flowers. The lucky girl was none other than Yang Yu Huan 杨玉环, his daughter-in-law! In 733, fourteen-year-old Yang Yuhuan married Li Mao, the Prince of Shou and the son of Emperor Xuan Zong. To bypass various moral issues, the Emperor made Yang Yu Huan a nun, separating her from his son. He then bestowed a new wife upon his son before he took Yang out of the nunnery, effectively giving her a brand new identity. She became Yang Gui Fei – his concubine.

One day, as Tang Xuan Zong was enjoying the scenery at Dragon Pool with Yang Gui Fei in his bosom and a goblet of wine in his hand, he called his guards to summon the great poet Li Bai. Li Bai was brought into the palace, so drunk that he could hardly stand on his own feet. The emperor asked Li Bai to compose a poem that captured that beautiful moment at Dragon Pool. Li Bai wrote:


More intriguing tales of palace drama and ancient Chinese military tactics in the Three Kingdoms saga

Dewdrop Books – Fiction and non-fiction with a focus on the colourful and exotic Asian realm. Check out our titles.

Remembering Li Ao 李敖

Taiwanese author and political campaigner Li Ao dies, aged 82
25 April 1935 – 18 March 2018

Branded as an intellectual narcissist and exhibitionist by his rivals and even his admirers, recently deceased Taiwanese writer Li Ao 李敖embraced controversy almost like no other writer in the world. Able to send out lawyer’s letters at the drop of a hat, Li Ao was incredibly eloquent, knowledgeable, arrogant, highly opinionated, anti-KMT, pro-reunification (with the mainland) and extremely open about his libido and carnal preferences.

Li was born in Harbin on the mainland. His parents were academics. The family moved to Beijing was he was young and Li spent most of his formative years in the Chinese capital. Civil war soon broke out between the Communists and the Nationalists. The entire Li family, except for two children, moved to Taiwan at the end of the war in 1949. Interestingly, he refused to join the KMT – the Nationalist party that occupied and ruled Taiwan. Li continued his education in Taiwan and received his bachelor’s degree from National Taiwan University’s Department of History in 1959.

It is believed that Li Ao’s hatred for the KMT stemmed from its early authoritarian and heavy-handed approach. A prominent dissident who ran publications promoting the democratic movement, he was jailed by the KMT government from 1971 to 1976. He was jailed for a second time from 1981 to 1982. This time, he was accused of helping a pro-Independence scholar escape to Japan. Like the KMT, he was pro-reunification, but the seeds of enmity were sown early in his writing career and Li Ao never looked back from his endless criticism of the party. He was also anti-US, having written a book Make America Impotent. He lashed out that the Western superpower with his usual harsh, witty yet sophisticated style. Li Ao’s private life is equally colourful.

Below is an interview with author Li Ang. As a personal friend of Li Ao, this interview is warm, friendly, frank, revealing and such a pleasure to watch.

They talked about Terry Hu 胡茵梦, an actress turned writer. Raised with the poise and confidence of an American, Terry is said to be the most beautiful woman in Taiwan during her time. She was a diehard fan of Li Ao’s and it seemed like a marriage made in heaven. But after marrying Li Ao, the KMT government deprived Terry Hu of many opportunities. For all intents and purposes, her career on the silver screen was over. She decided to focus on writing – a career which Li Ao felt was unsuitable for her. The couple divorced on 28 August 1980, just 115 days after they tied the knot. Terry wrote a book to complain about Li Ao and in retaliation, Li Ao went on TV to present his point of view. Suffice to say that Li Ao had absolutely no kind words for Terry and her mother. For his actions against his ex-wife, many found him ungentlemanly.

Li Ao’s writings were undoubtedly popular. Even his haters bought his books and watched his shows. He became a very wealthy writer. In person and on TV, he also exuded an awe-inspiring aura. Having appeared in 2000 TV episodes, he was a celebrity and even a superstar in his own right. He was a most powerful influencer, drawing in fans and followers with great wit, wisdom and substance. In talk shows and interviews like this, Li Ao could be so open about his innermost thoughts, feelings and private (sex) life. And in spite of his age and lack of aesthetic charms, people were interested to learn something from this literary playboy.

“With any woman, my problem is always under the bed and not on the bed.” Can we have a cooler guy than that? Watching these Li Ao videos, I kept wondering. We can’t handle an Amos Yee. We can’t even handle a Chua Lam. How can we handle a Li Ao? No wonder the literary scene is so pallid and bloodless compared to that in Taiwan.

December 2002. A still-married Li Ao turned up on a TV talk show with his personal assistant to confirm rumours instead of dispelling them. Li Ao’s annoying charm was incredible and unmistakable (even though many Singaporean aunties would love to have him fried). A show like this not only demonstrates Li Ao’s brazen nature but also the open-mindedness of Taiwanese society. Imagine 18-year-old Miss Zhou’s difficulty in confessing her love for Li Ao on national TV! Imagine that happening without the TV station receiving thousands of complaints from moralists and a subsequent backlash that would get the author exiled if he were Singaporean.

Instead of being inundated by complaints, young ladies faxed in to the show to declare their love for this man who could be older than their fathers! Singaporean moralists would have been so disgusted and insistent on getting his books banned. Only healthy and boring themes singing the right tunes and promoting the right values are allowed. No wonder the reading habit here died out so quickly.

And Ms Zhou was not even 18 then! How is a society that jails accomplished men for sleeping with a technically “underage” (albeit with all the features of an adult) prostitute going to accommodate a guy like Li Ao? No way. We won’t see protests on the streets here, but we would definitely see demands for his annihilation. Not surprisingly, Li Ao had strong words for Singapore’s government and the governed as well. Li Ao had many fans and supporters in Taiwan, Hongkong and even the mainland. He also had quite a number of enemies, many of whom are probably Jay Chou 周杰伦, Ma Ying Jiu 马英九, Long Ying Tai 龙应台 fans.

April 2016. This is one of the latest videos shot before he died. Hosted by 吴宗宪 Jacky Wu’s daughter Sandy Wu who had not had a good night’s sleep since she found out that she was going to interview Li Ao, it takes a more light-hearted, apolitical approach towards understanding Li Ao. The main topic – women. Just a few steps from his grave after this show, he was still so awesome. I wrote on Facebook:

What’s the use of being a gentleman or moralist if you can’t be yourself and must die with regret?

Dewdrop Books – Fiction and non-fiction with a focus on the colourful and exotic Asian realm. Check out our titles.