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 anybody really trying to stop the new religion.
In China, Buddhism got stronger and stronger, even though back in India most Buddhists were going back to Hinduism. Soon there were a lot more people following Buddhism in China than in 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: learning by doing.
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 exemptionsand gave the monasteries money and land. The poet Bai Juyi was a Buddhist in a powerful position at the T’ang court. Buddhist ideas changed the traditional Chinese Qingming festival so that it became more about visiting your ancestors’ graves.
But around the end of the T’ang Dynasty, in 845 AD, the Chinese emperor Wuzong turned against Buddhism. He started out 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 got more popular again. Under the Song Dynasty, in the 1100s, many people in China, including the emperors, were Buddhists. As Buddhist universities like Nalanda closed in India, Song Dynasty universities opened up in China to take their place. Zen Buddhism also remained very popular at this time.
In the 1200s AD Kublai Khan forced China to be part of the Mongol Empire. Kublai Khan favored Islam and traditional Chinese gods over Buddhism. But when the Mongol Empire collapsed, in the 1300s, the Ming Dynasty emperors were Buddhists again, and Buddhism was again very strong in China.