Buddhism in China - Medieval China
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Buddhism in China

Buddha from Tumshuk
Buddha from Western China, ca. 450 AD

Buddhism first came to China from India around 500 AD, spreading through Central Asia along the Silk Road. A Buddhist artist carved this wooden Buddha in Western China, on the Silk Road, before Buddhism really reached central China. At this time China was broken up into a lot of smaller kingdoms, so there wasn't much organized opposition to the new religion.

In China, Buddhism got stronger and stronger, even while it was losing ground in India to Hinduism. Soon most of the Buddhists were in China and not India. In China, even more than in India, most Buddhist people continued to lead more or less ordinary lives, but some Buddhist men and women left their jobs and their families in order to live in Buddhist monasteries as monks or nuns.

Very soon after Buddhism came to China, in the 500s AD, Chinese people developed their own kind of Buddhism, which we call Zen Buddhism. Zen comes from the Sanskrit (Indian) word dhyana, which means "meditation," but the Chinese philosophy of Taoism might also be an influence on Zen. Zen philosophy emphasizes meditation and experience instead of words and explanations.

Under the T'ang Dynasty, in the 600s AD, Zen Buddhism became the main kind of Buddhism in China. Zen Buddhists built big monasteries in China, where both men and women lived as monks and nuns. Many of the powerful women at the T'ang court supported the Buddhist monasteries and helped them get tax exemptions and gave the monasteries money and land. The poet Bai Juyi was a Buddhist in a powerful position at the T'ang court.

But around the end of the T'ang Dynasty, in 845 AD, the Chinese emperor Wuzong turned against Buddhism. He began by persecuting Uighur refugees, who were Manichaeans, but soon the persecution spread to include other foreign religions - Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Buddhism (but not Islam). Emperor Wuzong wanted all Chinese people to be Taoists. Buddhism was an especially good target because the Buddhist monasteries and temples were so rich, and when Emperor Wuzong destroyed them he got to keep their money. Emperor Wuzong's troops killed many Buddhist monks and nuns, and destroyed many Buddhist monasteries and temples, artwork and books.

When Emperor Wuzong died, though, the persecution stopped, and Buddhism began to be more popular again. Under the Sung Dunasty, in the 1100s, many people in China were Buddhists. Zen Buddhism remained very popular at this time.

More about Zen Buddhism
More about Buddhism's origins in India
Learn by doing: Buddhism project

Bibliography and further reading about Buddhism:

Buddhism in India
Learn by Doing - Buddhism Projects

Zen Buddhism
Bodhisatvas
A project to make a gold Buddha statue
Chinese religion
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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