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Buddhism in China

Buddhism has profoundly affected Chinese culture, politics, literature and philosophy. This article explores how the religion impacted upon the country.

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History of Buddhism in China


Buddhism was introduced into China in the 1st century from Central Asia. Most of the Buddhist works were translating Buddhist texts from Indian originals; this trend continued until the 5th century when the maelstrom after the collapse of the "Western" Jin Dynasty helped the Buddhism propagation among peasants and lower gentry.

Buddhist monks were actively involved within the elite and ruling entity as well as in the populace. By the start of the 6th century, number of its followers were comparable to those of Taoism. Granted lands and properties, some monks had fallen to extravagance and prompted confiscations by Emperor Wu[?] of the Northern Zhou[?] dynasty and Wu Zong[?] of the Tang Dynasty.

Xuan Zang in Tang dynasty sought to expand influence of Mahayana over Theravada, though the Yogacara[?] school he preferred differs significantly from popular modern Chinese Mahayana schools, such as Pure Land. Buddhism spread to Korea, and Japanese embassies of Kentoshi helped gain footholds in Japan. Buddhist ideology began to merge with Confucianism and Daoism, due in part to the use of existing Chinese philosophical terms in the translation of Buddhist scriptures. Various Confucian scholars of the Sung dynasty[?], including Chu Hsi[?], sought to redefine Confucianism as Neo-Confucianism[?].

Propagation of Buddhism

The Silk Road opened up mercantile routes into China. Along with the merchants, Moton[?] and Chufarlan[?] were probably the first monks arrived at China. They enjoyed imperial favour and were granted a place to build the Bai Ma Temple[?] (zh. 白馬寺, pinyin bai2ma3si4, lit. meaning 'Temple of the White Horse') in the capital Luoyang in AD 67. Various translated Buddhist texts survived until today, one of which, the Sutra of Forty-two Sections (四十二章經) continues to be popular. An Shih Kao, a Buddhist Parthian prince, arrived capital in 148 and continued the work of previous monks.

Nevertheless the most of Chinese gentry were indifferent to these Central Asian travelers simply because their religion was unknown. Buddhism was incomparable to Confucianism, which was well rooted in Chinese culture and politics of the time. The ruling entity propagated it for social stability. Understanding of the philosophical concepts determined the post and career of a future bureaucrat.

Like other religions, social upheaval and political unrest during the era of Three Kingdoms might have helped the spread of Buddhism; however number of Buddhism protagonists were still widely outweighed by those of Daoism, who had at least attempted to topple the dynasty in the Yellow Turban Rebellion (黃巾之亂). The Daoist Zhang[?] family self-governed the Hanzhong Commandry[?] for nearly 20 years until invasion by the renowned Chinese warlord Cao Cao.

A reason for the lack of interest mostly stemmed from the ruling entity and gentry. All the rulers were Han Chinese and simply never heard of or knew too little of the religion. The Nine-grade controller system, by which prominent individuals in each local administrative area were given the authority to rank local families and individuals in nine grades according to their potential for government service, further consolidated the importance of Confucianism. Extravagant elite families passed their time in Daoist discussion and sought after longevity. The degree of support from peasants and lower gentry is unknown, due to lack of records.

As a side note, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms recorded stories of a Buddhist monk, who was a friend of the renowned general Guan Yu and informed him of an assassination attempt. The monk later helped Guan's reincarnation. These stories should be overlooked since the novel was written in the Ming dynasty, more than 1000 years after the era, when Buddhism had long been a significant ingredient of the mainstream culture. The author Luo Guanzhong[?] preserved these descriptions from earlier versions of the novel to support his portrait of Guan Yu as a faithful but sometimes arrogant man of virtue - he would be supported anywhere.

Subsequent chaotic periods of Wu Hu and Southern and Northern Dynasties had changed the picture completely. One major factor to this drastic reversal was the state support of Buddhism. Most rulers and population of the Wu Hu and the Northern dynasties comprised of more than ten distinct ethnic groups including either non-Han Chinese 'barbarians', or Han Chinese after generations of 'barbarian' influence. They did not propagate nor trust the combined philosophical concept of Confucianism and Daoism as zealously as their rivals in the south. Official support of Buddhism would eventually mould a new Chinese populace with a common ideology out of the diversely ethnic population, which would in turn consolidate these dynasties.

Government encouragement of Buddhism propagation in northern China took into effect smoothly and much easier than some Taoist protagonists at the time would believe. Social upheaval in northern China had destroyed to a significant extent, if not a little, the segregation of ruling gentry and elite families from the populace whereas several elite clans and royal families monopolized the politics in the south. Legitimacy of policies and power of ruler of the Northern Dynasties were more respected. On the other hand Daoist and Confucian political ideology had long consolidated the political status of elite clans in the south. Support of another religion would have unknown and possibly adverse effects, for which these clans would not risk their privileges. Furthermore pro-Buddhist policy would not be backed by the bureaucracy, which had been staffed by members of the clans. Southern rulers were in weaker positions to strive for their legitimacy - some were even installed by the clans. It was not until the reign of Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty that saw the official support of Buddhism. Rebellion of Hou Jing[?] near the end of Emperor Wu's reign racked havoc on the political privileges of the elite clans, which indirectly assisted the spread of Buddhism. On the contrary, Buddhism spread pretty well in the populace, both in the north and the south.

Arrivals of several prestigious monks also contributed to the religion propagation and were welcomed by these rulers. Fo T'u Teng[?] was entrusted by the tyrant Shih Hu[?] of Later Chao[?]. Kumarajiva was invited by Lu Guang[?], the founder of the Later Liang[?], and later by Yao Xing[?], second ruler of the Later Qin[?].

Popularization of buddhism of the period was evident, featured by many caves of scriptures and towers of worships. The Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, in Gansu province and the Longmen Caves[?] near Luoyang, in Henan province are the ones of the most renowned. As a side note, duplications of Buddhist texts were considered to bring meritorious karma. Printing from individually carved wooden blocks[1] (http://www.bl.uk/collections/treasures/diamond), from movable clay type and from movable metal type[2] (http://www.korea-np.co.jp/pk/070th_issue/98111805.htm), proved much more efficient and eventually eclipsed hand copying. The Diamond Sutra of AD 868, a Buddhist scripture discovered in AD 1907 inside the Mogao Caves, was the first dated example of block printing.

Modern Chinese Buddhism Today the most popular form of Buddhism in both mainland China and Taiwan is the Pure Land school. Its central scripture, the Amitābha Sūtra, was first brought to China by An Shigao, circa 147, however the school did not become popular until later.

Timeline of Chinese Buddhism (Excerpted from Timeline of Buddhism.)


  1. Wright, Arthur F.; Fo T'u Teng.... A Biography (佛圖澄), Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies (11) 1948, p.312-371

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See also Buddhism, Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Timeline of Buddhism.

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