The period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties came to an end in 589 when Sui armies conquered Jiankang, the capital of the southern Chen dynasty. The Sui thus became another unified empire that ruled a vast territory featuring distinct regional cultures and identities. To establish and justify its authority, the Sui government strove to represent its “unification” through a variety of legitimizing projects, including the codification of court rituals and the construction of capital cities. An important concern for the empire’s ruling elite, primarily northerners, was to redefine the “south”— previously a rival state but now a legitimate part of the empire.
This paper examines the conflicting portrayals of the South during the Sui dynasty as both morally depraved and politically crucial for the empire’s claim of legitimacy. On the one hand, the “sound of a perished state,” especially songs produced in the court of the last Chen ruler, was used to essentialize a “decadent” southern culture and as a powerful explanatory tool to account for the dynasty’s fall. On the other hand, Emperor Yang of the Sui composed poems with courtiers on his southward excursions to mark his royal presence and deliberately appropriated southern yuefu tunes to elevate Jiangdu as the new southern “capital,” thus reshaping the image of the South. This paper further considers the functions that poems and songs performed in creating and disseminating the image of unification and articulating imperial power.