Buddhism in China: The History of Development

Buddhism in China traversed through a long, eventful history dating back to the second century BC before cementing its position as the dominant religion.

Mahayana Buddhism reached northwest China via the Silk Road and from there it spread through the Han Chinese heartland, 500 years after its illustrious founder walked on this earth. Interactions with Confucianism and Taoism allowed Buddhism developed a distinct character in China and created a deep-rooted influence on its national culture.

Entry of Buddhism

Buddhism originated in India during the sixth century BC and reached Central Asia when Emperor Ashoka sent missionaries to Syria, Parthia, Turkey and other tribes of the time. According to Indian Buddhist sources, Massim Sthavira went to China and Mongolia around 250 BC. Fayuan Zhulin, the Chinese Buddhist encyclopedia, mentions that a team of seven Buddhist missionaries led by monk Li Fang arrived at Qin capital Xi’an in 217 BC.

The Kushanas, an offshoot of Yuezhi tribe of Tarim Basin and who ruled over north India, northwest China, and Central Asia, during the first and second century AD, were followers of Buddhism. This attests the existence of Buddhism in China before the first century AD.

The Han Period: Footstep of Buddhism in China

Buddhism in China

According to popular beliefs, Buddhism in China extended its sway during the Han Dynasty. The religion had foothold in the north and northwest China well before the Hans conquered the area. A fresco at Gansu’s Mogao Caves depicts Emperor Wu paying obeisance to statues of a golden man believed to be Buddha.

According to local traditions, Buddhism in China had its first imperial recognition in 67 AD during the rule of Han Emperor Ming. Legends say the king sent his envoy to south India to explore about Buddhist thoughts following a divine dream. The envoy returned on a white horse along with Buddhist scriptures and two monks Dharmaraksa and Kasyapa Matanga. The White Horse Temple at former Han capital Luoyang was constructed based on this story.

Historical records also show that when the Han army overran Khotan, a Buddhist center in northwest China, a number of Buddhist monks came under the Chinese suzerainty. They extended the reach of their religion to central China in the due course.

Historical Phase of Buddhism in China

Historical records attest that arrival of An Shigao, a Parthian prince-turned-Buddhist master, in China in 148 AD led to increase in translation of Mahayana scriptures into local languages. He also established Buddhist monasteries in capital Loyang. Lokaksema, an Indian monk who came to China during the second century, expanded the reach of Buddhism in China. The migration of Hans to the south of Yangtze River carried the religion to south and southwest China. It created a unified culture that prevailed over political chaos and war during the Six Dynasties period.

Chinese Buddhism: The Era of Prosperity

Chinese Buddhism saw its golden period during the dominance of Sui and Tang rulers. Sui Emperor Wen adopted the faith as his state religion and circulated religious relics among Buddhist temples across China. His also created edicts throughout the country highlighting principles that govern lives of Buddhists. The Tang era offered a religious tolerant ambience that helped Buddhism to continue its rapid development.

Renowned Chinese Buddhist philosopher Hiuen Tsang returned home in 645 following 17-year extensive tour of India. His writings provided an impetuous to the development of Buddhism in China. Hiuen Tsang extensively studied Buddhism in India and visited all important religious places. He brought Buddhist relics, scriptures and other important items loaded on 22 horses. The school and translation center he opened at Xi’an played a key role in popularizing Buddhism in China. He led to establishment of the Faxiang school of Buddhism.

The Buddhist novel "Journey to the West or Adventures of the Monkey God" was written during the Ming Dynasty based on the fictional travels of Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, Sha Wujing and the monk xuanzang. This story was written based on Buddhist influence during this period in China’s history. In real life, Xuanzang a monk at Jingtu Temple in late-Sui Dynasty and early-Tang Dynasty Chang'an. He was unsatisfied by the poor quality of the Chinese translations of Buddhist scriptures at that time and travelled from China to India to obtain the scriptures. He returned back to the Tang dynasty to a grand reception by Emperor Taizong.

Chinese Buddhism: The Suppression

Tang Emperor Wuzong (840-846 AD) declared a nationwide crackdown on Buddhist followers during his rule on the pretext that it was non-Chinese in nature and origin. In 845 AD, he imposed stern taxes on Buddhist monks forcing them to adopt economic practices. About 45,000 Buddhist monasteries and temples were demolished on his orders. The prosecution was so ruthless that Buddhism in China could not fully recover from its impacts.

Chinese Buddhism: Revival and Restoration

During the Song rule, a new philosophy called Neo-Confucianism emerged. It was a synthesis of Confucian materialism and Buddhist spiritualism. There were as many 458,855 Buddhist monks in Song China. The Mongol Yuan Dynasty favored Esoteric Buddhism of Tibetan lamas and declared it their state religion. When the Ming rulers occupied the throne, they discarded Esoteric Buddhism and revived Chan Buddhism, a form of Mahayana Buddhism giving credence to mediation. The Zen tradition is an offshoot of this Buddhist school. The Qing Dynasty endorsed both Tibetan and Chinese versions. During the Taiping rebels under heterodox Christian leader Hong Xiuquan massacred thousands of monks following the 1853 Nanjing battle.

Chinese Buddhism: The Modern Era

More than 13,000 Buddhist religious sites and 200,000 monks continue to hoist the flag of Chinese Buddhism at present. It has become the most prominent religion in the country and basks with a liberal religious policy followed by the communists. China holds the World Buddhist Forum once in two years to showcase its Buddhist heritage.

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