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Statue of a man with wings

The boddhisatva Avalokitesvara, with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes, about 950 AD (Musee Guimet, Paris)

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. Emperors should help people to be good by rewarding good deeds. That 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 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 Buddhists under the Three Kingdoms.

Chinese people created new ways of thinking about Buddhism, including Zen Buddhism. so Buddhism in China was different from Indian Buddhism. The emperors persecuted some Buddhists, 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. Many Uighur Manichaeans also lived in western China. 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. They tried to get Buddhist meanings out of Confucian books.

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. He 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 were still 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

More about Buddhism in China

Zen Buddhism

And Zen Koans

Bibliography and further 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.

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

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

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

More about Chinese religion
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