Medieval Chinese Religion
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Medieval Chinese Religion

Under the Han Dynasty (about 200 BC to 200 AD), scholars working for the emperors tried to find a way to combine Taoism and Confucianism. They believed that the emperors should follow the Tao, or the way, and help people to be good by rewarding good deeds. In this way, people would naturally want to be good, and wouldn't have to be forced into it.

Around 500 AD, in the period of the Three Kingdoms, Buddhism first came to China along the Silk Road from India, where the Buddha had lived and where Buddhism got started. Actually there were Buddhists in China even during the Han Dynasty, starting about 50 AD, but there got to be a lot more of them under the Three Kingdoms. Some Buddhists were persecuted by the emperors, but generally Buddhism was popular and accepted. The T'ang Dynasty Empress Wu, for example, was a Buddhist. But Taoism was still very strong in China too.

During the T'ang Dynasty, also, trade with the Sassanians and then the Islamic Empire in West Asia meant that Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam all found converts in China. In 636 AD, for instance, some Christians from Syria in West Asia built a church in China. By 750, Chinese Muslims built the Great Mosque in Chang'an. Jews settled at Kaifeng, at the end of the Silk Road, and built a synagogue there in 1163 AD.

Under the Song Dynasty (about 1000 AD), a sort of Confucianism combined with Buddhism got to be popular. Scholars reread the old Confucian philosophical writings in Buddhist terms, and tried to get Buddhist meanings out of them.

With the Mongol conquests around 1200 AD a new multiculturalism came to China. Kublai Khan, a Mongol emperor, although he was himself a Buddhist, was very interested in all different faiths and encouraged Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Tibetan lamas to all come debate each other at his court in China. But most people in China remained either Buddhists or Taoists.

Under the Ming Dynasty (begins in 1368 AD), Confucianism was again the main principle of the emperors, while Buddhism and Taoism remained popular among ordinary people. Throughout this whole time, however, the old ideas of the Mandate of Heaven, the traditional Chinese gods, and ancestor worship remained normal for everyone in China.

Learn by doing: Buddhism in China

Bibliography and urther reading about Chinese religion:

One World, Many Religions: The Ways We Worship, by Mary Pope Osborne (1996). .

The Gods and Goddesses of Ancient China, by Leonard Everett Fisher (2003). . One page for each god, with lots of pictures and some historical context.

Five Heavenly Emperors: Chinese Myths of Creation, by Song Nan Zhang (1994). Stories .

Chinese Mythology A to Z, by Jeremy Roberts (2004).

Dragons and Demons : Myths of China, by Stewart Ross (1998). A few Chinese stories, retold .

Dragons, Gods and Spirits from Chinese Mythology, by Tao Sanders (1983). More of a child's encyclopedia.

More about Chinese religion
More about China


Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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