A history of Chinese Buddhism by Greg Suffanti
Legends tell of Buddhism’s presence in ancient times. However, there is scholarly consensus that Buddhism’s introduction to China was facilitated through Indian missions during the Han dynasty in the first century CE. In fact, Chinese Buddhism was called Han Buddhism. The influence of Han Buddhism is seen throughout all aspects of Chinese culture, from literature and the arts to politics and philosophy.
It was the translation of Indian Buddhist texts to Chinese that lay the groundwork for Buddhism’s spread into Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Chinese Buddhism is characterized by its symbiotic relationship with other Chinese religions like Daoism.
“based on the existing historical texts and the archaeological iconographic material discovered since the 1980’s, particularly the first-century Buddhist manuscripts recently found in Afghanistan, the commentator believes that the most plausible theory is that Buddhism reached China from the Greater Yuezhi of Northwest India and took the land route to reach Han China.
The Parthian prince-turned monk An Shigao was responsible for establishing Buddhist temples in Luoyang, which lies in central China and was the Han capital. He is the earliest known translator of Indian Buddhist texts into the Chinese language. Parthia was a historical region located in what is now Northeast Iran. According to legend, An Shigao renounced his royal throne to become a Buddhist missionary monk in China.
Although little is actually known about An Shigao, not even if he was actually a monk, he was quite prolific and more than a dozen of his works are currently extant. In Erik Zurcher’s examinations of the more than two hundred works attributed to Shigao, he concludes that only sixteen are in fact by Shigao.  Shigao’s corpus does not contain any Mahayana sutras, however Shigao himself is referred to in early Chinese writings as a Mahayana Bodhisattva, or someone who strives solely for the benefit of others to reach enlightenment. It should be noted that there are other scholars who sharply contradict Zucher’s stringent criteria for determining authenticity and assert that Shigao’s oeuvre is much larger. There is no dispute that An Shigao’s translations are the earliest known examples of Buddhist texts in China.
The Kushan monk Lokasema was the first monk to translate Mahayana Buddhist texts into the Chinese language. In Sanskrit Lokasema means “welfare of the world”. He was born in Gandhara, a region where Greek and Buddhist cultures mixed and flourished. Gandhara was a mahajanapada or “great realm”, an area that included the Peshawar valley of Pakistan and extended into the Jalalabad district of modern-day Afghanistan.
“The Gandhara school drew upon the anthropomorphic traditions of the Roman religion and represented the Buddha with a youthful Apollo-like face, dressed in garments resembling those seen in Roman imperial statues. The Gandhara craftsmen made a lasting contribution to Buddhist art in their composition of the events of the Buddha’s life into set scenes.” 
There were several dynasties which ruled over this area during a period from the 1st millennium BCE until the beginning of the 2nd millennium CE and their common link was their adoption of Buddhism as their religion and their use of Indo-Greek imagery in their cultural artistic traditions.
Lokasema arrived in Luoying possibly around 150CE and he produced many translations of Mahayana texts and sutras, including the “Prajnaparamitra Sutra”, known as The Perfection of Wisdom sutra; from Sanskrit: prajna or wisdom and paramitra or perfection. Some Prajnaparamitra sutras are thought to be among the very earliest of the Mahayana sutras.
Pure Land Buddhism, which is one of the most widely practiced traditions in East Asia today, centers around the teachings of Amitabha Buddha and his Pure Land. The “Pratyatpanna Sutra”, translated by Lokasema, contains the first known mention of Amitabha and his Pure Land in the Chinese language.
The Six Dynasties (220-589)
In 220 the Han dynasty fell. The period from 220-589 is referred to as the Six Dynasties, representing the six dynasties that ruled from the early 3rd century to the late 6th century of the common era. During this period, Buddhism continued to evolve and to be integrated into Chinese life. “Buddhism was often associated with Daoism in its ascetic meditative tradition, and for this reason a concept-matching system was used by some Indian translators, to adapt native Buddhist ideas onto Daoist ideas and terminology.”
Daoism, also known as Taoism, is both a philosophical as well as a religious tradition. One of the key elements of this tradition is living in harmony with the Tao, or “the way”. This includes living in harmony with the changing cycles of nature. “Buddhism appealed to Chinese intellectuals and elites and the development of gentry Buddhism was sought as an alternative to Confucianism and Daoism since Buddhism’s emphasis on morality and ritual appealed to Confucianists and the desire to cultivate inner wisdom appealed to the Daoists. Gentry Buddhism was a medium of introduction for the beginning of Buddhism in China, it gained imperial and courtly support.
By the early 5th century Buddhism was established in South China. During this time, Indian monks continued to travel along the Silk Road to teach Buddhism, and translation work was primarily done by foreign monks rather than Chinese.” 
The Six Dynasties was a turbulent period in Chinese history. What would later be referred to as the “Chinese Age of Faith”, was founded upon the turmoil of the times as warlords fought over territory and the masses found refuge in Buddhism and Daoism. This was a period of wars, plagues and enormous political uncertainty. Ink rubbings and other early forms of printing started to appear during this period and this aided greatly in the spread of Buddhism to a mass audience.
However, it wasn’t until just before the 8th century and the Tang Dynasty that the use of woodblock printing on paper started in China. The result of this period of political disunity in China was unity in making Buddhism China’s most popular foreign religion.
Kumarajiva (343/344-413) was a highly influential Buddhist monk whose life story as a great scholar and political prisoner brought him renown in China even before he began his career as a translator. Kumarajiva’s father, Kumarayana, was a Brahmin from present day Kashmir. His mother was a princess from Kucha, a Buddhist Kingdom on the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert. At an early age Kunirvanamarajiva became interested in Buddhism. His father was already a monk and his mother became a nun when Kumarajuva was seven years old. By the time he fully ordained as a monk himself at the age of twenty, his fame was so great that he was already tutoring the king’s daughter. In 386 Kumarajiva was captured and imprisoned by a warlord who knew Kumarajiva’s great worth. It wasn’t until 401, when the armies of Emperor Yao Xing defeated the warlords of the Lu family, that Kumarajiva was finally freed and ceremoniously brought to the capital, Chang’an. Emperor Yao appointed Kumarajiva to the role of National Teacher and took him as his personal teacher as well. He honored him with the building of many temples and shrines and Kumarajiva honored Yao’s request to translate many sutras.
In fact, Kumarajive translated dozens of texts and his “translations in Chang’an were done as a communal effort. He presided over a team of Chinese specialists before an audience of hundreds of monks.”
This was a period when the wheelbarrow was invented and coal was first used as a mass market fuel. There was a Buddhist influence in the arts and literature and the building of Buddhist temples in the North helped even to stimulate the visual arts. Buddhism’s penetration of Chinese society was becoming complete. Over the next couple of hundred years, Buddhism’s growth and influence would only grow, until it would come to be regarded as a threat. For the time being, the Six Dynasties period would see Buddhism flourish.
“As a result of the disintegration of the society and the constant foreign incursions and alien reign throughout the North, many fundamental changes occurred in China during this period… Buddhism became a great popular religion, embraced by the northern invaders.”
China’s “Golden Age” It wasn’t until the emergence of the Sui (581-617) and Tang (618-906) dynasties, more than three hundred years after the fall of the Han Dynasty, that China was finally reunited. The Tang Dynasty would come to be known as China’s “Golden Age”, in which “China becomes the preeminent civilization in East Asia and the world.”
The Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang (602-664) plays an important role in the history of Buddhism in China. In 629 he defied authorities and spent four years journeying as a fugitive from China to India. Once in India, he spent a further thirteen years following in the footpath of the Buddha and studying at the renowned Nalanda University. Because Xuanzang was a fugitive, when it was time to return home, he wrote to the emperor asking permission to return as well as describing his travels and what he had learned. The emperor was so impressed that he welcomed Xuanzang back with open arms and appointed him as a court advisor.
Xuanzang’s disciple, Biangi, spent more than a year helping his master compose his documentation of his travels in his classic text “Great Tang Records on the Western Regions,” which was completed in 646. Xuanzang was the central figure in the Chinese epic “Journey to the West”, written more than nine centuries after his death.
Xuanzing translated more than six hundred Buddhist texts and his version of the ‘Heart Sutra’ “is the basis for all Chinese commentaries on the sutra, and recitations throughout China, Korea and Japan.”
Golden Age of Buddhism
China’s Golden Age was also the Golden Age of Buddhism. There was a great expansion in terms of the popularity of Buddhism, and many new temples and shrines were constructed. “Buddhism, religious Daoism, and Confucianism all coexisted as the “three teachings” under the Tang.
Compromise between the Confucian emphasis on family and filial responsibilities and the demands of Buddhist monastic life was maintained until 845, when the Tang emperors moved to limit the wealth and economic power of landed Buddhist monasteries. In 845, Emperor Wu-tsung began a major persecution of the Buddhist community. According to records, 4,600 temples and 40,000 shrines were destroyed. Additionally, 260,500 monks and nuns were forced to return to lay life.
After 845 what clearly remained were two schools of Buddhism: the Chan school, also called Zen, in which the emphasis is placed on meditation, and the Pure Land tradition, which follows the teachings of Amitabha Buddha.
Once again, China was undergoing change, and “the decline of the dynasty increased during the second half of the 9th century as factions within the central government began feuding” and “after a series of collapses beginning around 880, northern invaders finally destroyed the Tang dynasty. The Golden Age was over.”
The period of history that followed between the Tang and Song dynasties was known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. It was a brief (907-960) and tumultuous period in China’s history in which five different dynasties quickly succeeded each other.
The Song Dynasty (960-1279)
Founded by Emperor Taizu of Song, the Song government was the first in world history to issue paper currency. This was a period of tremendous growth and a period which saw the consolidation of China. “With a shrewd appreciation of the war-weariness among the population, Taizu stressed the Confucian spirit of humane administration and the reunification of the whole country.”
In 972 the emperor ordered the complete printing of the Chinese Tripitaka. This was the first printing of the “three baskets” or Tripitaka. The Tripitaka represents the entire Chinese Buddhist Canon and includes the Agama, Vinaya and Abhidharma texts from early Buddhist schools, as well as Mahayana sutras and scriptures from Tantrayana Buddhism.
In Pali, Tripitaka means three baskets or “collections of writings”. The exact date of the first Tripitaka, originating in India, is unclear. Most likely the texts were transmitted orally, as was the tradition, having been composed in the third century BCE. (25)
The Tripitaka is not something unique to Indian or Chinese Buddhism, in fact, “all Buddhists regardless of branch or school, believe in the Pali canon (known as the Tripitaka, and is the Buddha’s original teachings as originally recorded hundreds of years after his passing.”
The Three Baskets are classified as follows:
The female deity Quan Yin, the Buddha of Compassion, appeared as early as the first century CE in China, however, her feminine representation and vast popularity didn’t materialize until the 9th century CE.
Chan Buddhism, or Zen Buddhism, reached its zenith during the Tang and Song dynasties. It’s simplicity was greatly appealing to the masses; rather than meditating on deities and complex visualizations, the practitioner simply focused on the breath and worked to calm the mind, then used this calmer state of mind to maximize insight into one’s own situation.
The Yuan, Ming & Qing Dynasties
Khubilai Khan (1215-1294), was the founder of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty in China. The Khan’s ruled from 1279-1368 and were responsible for the restoration of many old temples and the building of new ones in cities like Peking. Khubilai Khan made Buddhism the official religion of China and appointed the Tibetan Lama, Pagpa Lama Lodoigyalsen, as the religious leader of the Yuan empire. “One significant effort in the field of dissemination of Buddhism in the Yuan Dynasty was the translations of books on Buddhism from the Tibetan, Sanskrit and Uighur into the Mongolian language and printing them. In the beginning of the 14th century, almost all books on Buddha’s teachings were translated into the Mongolian language.”
It was during the Yuan dynasty that the Mongols brought in large numbers of Muslim subjects to help administer China. There had been a Muslim presence in China since the 8th century when Muslim merchants began settling (and even dominating) trade in China’s coastal cities. “Another aspect of Islam’s historical impact was to sharply reduce Chinese contact with India and Central Asia after the 8th century, and thus to cut off the vital flow of new texts and ideas to Chinese Buddhism.”
The Ming dynasty
The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) is an historically important period in the history of Chinese Buddhism because of the now close relationship between Tibet and China. Scholars within China point to this period as proof of the intertwined nature of the relationship between the two countries. They argue that China’s issuance of titles to Tibetan rulers, and their acceptance of these titles, proves that Tibet was part of the Ming empire. “But most scholars outside China, such as Turrell V. Wylie, Melvin C. Goldstein, and Helmut Hoffman, say that the relationship was one of suzerainty, that Ming titles were only nominal, that Tibet remained an independent region outside Ming control, and that it simply paid tribute until the Jiajing emperors (1521-1566), ceased relations with Tibet.”
Hanshan Deqing (1546-1623) was a renowned poet and influential Buddhist monk who widely propagated the dual practices of the Chan and Pure Land schools of Buddhism. Further, he recommended the use of Nianfo, which is a term most closely associated with Pure Land Buddhism and generally refers to repeating the name of Amitabha Buddha or thinking about him. He enjoyed court patronage, but spent years as a religious wanderer. In addition, he wrote expositions and commentaries, gave lectures and was greatly admired for his strict adherence to the precepts. Hanshan Deqing is regarded as one of the great reformers of Chinese Buddhism during the Ming dynasty.
The Qing dynasty
The Qing dynasty (1644-1911) continued the lama-patron relationship, but, more out of practicality than personal involvement. “Under the Qing, art and architecture became instruments of imperial policy. Buddhist images and precedents were used for people of Mongolia and Tibet, while Confucian images were used for the Chinese. The Qing’s subtle exploitation of their subjects’ various rites and traditions enabled them to rule a large empire in ways their different peoples would understand and therefor obey.”
“By patronizing the Yellow Church we maintain peace among the Mongols. This being an important task we cannot but protect this (religion). (In so doing)we do not show any bias, nor do we wish to adulate the Tibetan priests as (was done during the) Yuan dynasty.”
The Republic of China (1912-1949)
The Republican government of the newly formed Republic of China was the result of the Xinhai Revolution, which overthrew the Qing dynasty, ending imperial rule. As Chinese society modernized, two prominent Buddhist scholars, Dixian and Taixu, proposed new models for Buddhism’s role in both the public and private sectors.
Dixian “Dixian, the conservative, proposed a model largely consistent with that of the ‘Scripture for Humane Kings’. In this model, the ruler’s protection of a virtuous Buddhist monastic order demonstrates the ruler’s benevolence and legitimacy.
The monk Taixu was a modernist who believed in propagating Pure Land Buddhism throughout China and the world. He wrote that “if today, based on good knowledge of our minds, we can produce pure thoughts and work hard to accomplish good deeds, how hard can it be to transform an impure China into a Chinese pure land?… All persons have this force of mind, and since they already have this faculty (benneng) to create a pure land, they can all make the glorious vow to make this world into a pure land and work hard to achieve it.” Unfortunately, Taixu died in 1947 and his goals and ideals were crushed by the Chinese Revolution of 1949.
The monk Xu-Yun
The Chinese monk Xu-Yun (1840-1959), also known as Hsu Yun, was far more successful in preserving, restoring and greatly contributing to the resurgence of both Pure Land Buddhism and Chang Buddhism in China during his well-documented 120 year lifespan.
He is widely regarded as one of the most influential teachers of both the 19th and 20th centuries. His autobiography, “Empty Cloud”, which he dictated on what was thought to be his deathbed (due to being repeatedly beaten by revolution rebels), aged 112, enshrined his life in the hearts and minds of his many thousands of followers as a modern day saint.
“In many ways, the story of Xu-yun is the story of modern Chinese Buddhist revival, for by the end of his career, he had succeeded in rebuilding or restoring at least a score of the major Buddhist rites, including such famous places as the Yun-xi, Nan-hua, Yun-men and Zhen-ru monasteries, besides countless smaller temples, also founding numerous Buddhist schools and hospitals. His followers were scattered throughout the length and breadth of China, as well as Malaysia and other outposts where Chinese Buddhism had taken root.” 
During his life, Xu-Yun travelled and taught both Pure Land and Chan Buddhism to thousands of lay and ordained followers in China and abroad. His fame as a wandering ascetic grew, and he had both Kings and commoners taking refuge in his teachings about the Buddha and Buddhism. He taught that by saying the Pure Land mantra of Amitabha Buddha, one could still the mind and cultivate one’s inner wisdom. Similarly, he taught in Chan Buddhism, the hua-tou, ‘the turning inward of the hearing to hear the self-nature’. Here, he said that we should look deeply into the question, ‘who is the repeater of the Buddha’s name?’ and that we “should endeavor to know where this ‘Who’ comes from and what it looks like.” 
Xu-Yun kept Buddhism alive through successive rulers during the 19th and 20th centuries, the Chinese Civil War (1940-1945), two World Wars and the Communist Revolution that resulted in the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 which was headed by the Communist leader Mao Zedong.
Mao & Contemporary Buddhism in China
In 1949 Mao Zedong’s Communist Red Army seized control of China. The following year he seized control of Tibet and declared that Tibet was part of China. Although Mao famously proclaimed religion as poison, Buddhist institutions under Mao readily submitted to Communist authority and continued to survive.
The 1959 incursion into Tibet resulted in the destruction of countless monasteries and temples and the death of more than a million people. Many religious leaders fled Tibet in 1959, including the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India to this day.
Under state control, this effectively meant that all monks and nuns were government employees. The Buddhist Association of China still exists, meaning that the government of China still controls all Buddhist institutions in China. The degree to which they were and are autonomous is open to debate, however, the fact remains that, even under repressive and oppressive conditions, Chan and Pure Land schools of Buddhism continued to flourish.
In 2009, on the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China’s founding, a biography about the life of Mao Zedong was published that asserted the dictator’s lifelong commitment and respect for Buddhism. Although the veracity of the biography may be in question, its publication shows modern day China’s high regard for Buddhism as an integral part of its history. In the biography, Mao is quoted as saying in response to a comment by an associate that temples were “full of superstition”, that “such a view is too one-sided, and shallow. (Buddhism) represents (an important aspect of Chinese culture). Do you understand this? Such beautiful monuments represent historical heritage from the past.”
In 1972 the Harvard academic Holmes Welch tried in his book, “Buddhism Under Mao”, to assess the practical realities of Buddhism under the Mao regime. Mr. Welch notes that Mao himself stated in a speech in 1957 that “all attempts to use administrative orders or coercive measure to settle ideological questions or questions of right and wrong are not only ineffective but harmful. We cannot abolish religion by administrative decree or force people not to believe in it.” 
Officially, the constitution of China allows for freedom of religion. In Mr. Welch’s view, “the religious goal is for the individual to find himself. Losing himself (in collective involvement in secular tasks) means to escape from the problem of who he is and what his life means: finding himself is to solve that problem.” 
Suppression under Mao The general historical consensus is that Communism set about to destroy the entwined beliefs of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism and replace them with the teachings of Lenin, Marx and Mao. There was suppression under Mao and even more after the Cultural Revolution of 1966 in which all religion was banned and thousands of shrines, temples and monasteries were destroyed and thousands of monks and nuns were forced to return to secular life. There are numerous stories of monks being tortured, imprisoned and even killed. However, after Mao’s death in 1976, religious activity resumed again in China and religious activity began once again to flourish.
The first World Buddhist Forum
In 2006 the first World Buddhist Forum was held in Hangzhou. “Tensions still remain in Beijing’s relationship to Tibetan Buddhism, particularly given believers’ loyalty to their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. He is viewed by the Chinese government as a “splittist”, with the aim of dividing China. In 2013 Xi Jinping visited the birthplace of Confucius and quoted the famous sage, saying, “a state without virtue cannot flourish; a person without virtue cannot succeed.”
In his 2017 book entitled “The Soul of China”, Ian Johnson compares the current religious revival in China to the Great Awakenings in America in the 18th and 19th centuries, when religious activism led to both great social and political change. He writes that “the state will continue trying to co-opt religious groups it believes are safe, and to crush the ones it perceives as more dangerous, which means that traditional religions such as Buddhism and Daoism are likely to be the winners.”
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