Tang-era Buddhist painting

Buddhism reached its height in China in the Tang Dynasty. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The great Tang Dynasty, which ruled over a reunified China from 618 to 907, patronized Buddhism as a state cult during the greater portion of its reign. If there was a universal religion in China it was Buddhism, and that religion had duly been passed on to Korea and to Japan, where it was already beginning to flourish. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University]

Doctrines were refined. Schools expanded. The Pure Land School and the worship of Amitabha became widespread. Many Tang emperors were Buddhists, or at least nominally favorable to Buddhism. Some great Chinese poets from the period were monks. Many Indian and Central Asian monks and pilgrims came to teach in China. Chinese pilgrims were sent to India to study Buddhism. Indian culture made great inroads as Buddhist philosophy entered China, accompanied by the Indian arts of astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and philology. Chan (a school of Mahayana Buddhism combined with Taoism, which gave birth to Zen in Japan) was the dominant sect. Famous Chan monks from the Tang era include Mazu Daoyi, Baizhang, and Huangbo Xiyun. Pure Land Buddhism initiated by the Chinese monk Huiyuan (334–416) was also popular. It fused with Chan Buddhism after the Tang Dynasty.

Buddhism began to flourish in China during the Northern and Southern dynasties (A.D. 386-589). During the 6th century, before the Tang Dynasty, Chinese Buddhism was consolidated and standardized. Great schools were founded that boasted thousands of disciples. Schools with royal patrons built huge monasteries. Between A.D. 476 and 540 the number temples rose from 6,500 to 30,900 and the number of monks and nuns grew from 80,000 to 200,000 (out of a population of 50 million).

In A.D. 629, early in the Tang Dynasty period, the Chinese monk Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang) left the Tang dynasty capital and traveled west — on foot, on horseback and by camel and elephant — to India and returned in A.D. 645 with 700 Buddhist texts from which Chinese deepened their understanding of Buddhism. Xuanzang is remembered as a great scholar for his translations from Sanskrit to Chinese but also for his descriptions of the places he visited — the great Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Samarkand and the great stone Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. His trip was the inspiration of the for “Journey to the West,” widely regarded as one of the great novels of Chinese literature. [Book: "Ultimate Journey, Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment" by Richard Bernstein (Alfred A. Knopf); See Separate Article on Xuanzang]

Buddhist monasteries played an integral role in Chinese society, offering lodging for travelers in remote areas, schools for children throughout the country, and a place for urban literati to stage social events and gatherings such as going-away parties. At Wild Goose Pagoda, built by 709, adjacent to the Dajianfu Temple in Chang'an, Buddhist monks from India and elsewhere gathered to translate Sanskrit texts into Chinese. [Source: Wikipedia]

Wu Zetain, Buddhism, Merchants and Wealth

To legitimize her rule, Empress Wu Zetain (ruled A.D. 665-690) circulated a document known as the Great Cloud Sutra, which predicted that a reincarnation of the Maitreya Buddha would be a female monarch who would dispel illness, worry, and disaster from the world. She even introduced numerous revised written characters to the written language, which reverted to the originals after her death. Arguably the most important part of her legacy was diminishing the power of the northwest aristocracy, allowing people from other clans and regions of China to become more represented in Chinese politics and government. [Source: Wikipedia]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: "The eastern gentry, who supported the empress Wu and later the empress Wei, were closely associated with the foreign merchants of western Asia and the Buddhist Church to which they adhered. In gratitude for help from the Buddhists, the empress Wu endowed them with enormous sums of money, and tried to make Buddhism a sort of state religion. A similar development had taken place in the Toba and also in the Sui period. Like these earlier rulers, the empress Wu seems to have aimed at combining spiritual leadership with her position as ruler of the empire. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“In this epoch Buddhism helped to create the first beginnings of large-scale capitalism. In connection with the growing foreign trade, the monasteries grew in importance as repositories of capital; the temples bought more and more land, became more and more wealthy, and so gained increasing influence over economic affairs. They accumulated large quantities of metal, which they stored in the form of bronze figures of Buddha, and with these stocks they exercised controlling influence over the money market. There is a constant succession of records of the total weight of the bronze figures, as an indication of the money value they represented. It is interesting to observe that temples and monasteries acquired also shops and had rental income from them. They further operated many mills, as did the owners of private estates (now called "chuang") and thus controlled the price of flour, and polished rice.

“The cultural influence of Buddhism found expression in new and improved translations of countless texts, and in the passage of pilgrims along the caravan routes, helped by the merchants, as far as western Asia and India, like the famous Xuanzang. Translations were made not only from Indian or other languages into Chinese, but also, for instance, from Chinese into the Uighur and other Turkish tongues, and into Tibetan, Korean, and Japanese.

Silk and Buddhism

Tang-era Buddhist sculpture

Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: ““Another factor in the demand for Chinese silk was the spread of Buddhism. From its beginnings in northern India around 500 B.C., Buddhism spread throughout south, central and east Asia. Of particular interest for the history of the Silk Road are the paths which brought that faith into what is now northern Pakistan, Afghanistan, the river valleys of Central Asia and then the oasis cities surrounding the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang. The Buddhist communities in these regions were sizeable: travellers such as the Chinese monks Faxian and Xuanzang in the middle of the first millennium CE reported several thousand monks at some of the oasis cities. Some scholars speak of the Buddhist "conquest" of China, where the adherents of the faith at its peak would have numbered in the millions. Silk occupied an important place in Buddhist rituals. Stupas (relic shrines) would be draped in silk and painted silk banners commissioned as donations by laymen. We see examples of these banners in the paintings and relief sculptures of the caves at Yungang and Dunhuang, and many of the striking banners themselves were preserved in the famous Library Cave at the Mogao temples near Dunhuang. [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad *]

“Donations of sizeable quantities of silk guaranteed that prayers would continue to be said for deceased individuals to ensure their favorable rebirth. Graves excavated along the northern Silk Road (for example in the Turfan region) contain lists of objects which presumably were to accompany the dead. However, the large quantities of silk in some of the lists generally were not in fact buried with the dead but seem to represent symbolic (and to a degree, real) donations. There was a belief that silk thread provided a link between this life and rebirth in one of the Buddhist heavens; the symbolic loads of the camels among mingqi, sculpted grave figurines, seem to include bundles of such thread. Buddhist imagery both of holy figures and of laymen being memorialized in the cave temples of places such as Dunhuang, Kizyl and Bezeklik often preserve for us a precise visual record of fabric designs. While Xinru Liu's argument about the causal relationship between the spread of Buddhism and the development of the Silk Road trade may be somewhat forced, there is no denying that a growing demand for silk was connected with the spread of that faith.” *\

Spread of Buddhism on the Silk Road

Buddha head in Miran

Heather Colburn Clydesdale wrote: “Trade routes were also traversed by Buddhist pilgrims. The most famous was the Chinese monk Xuanzang (602–664), who, in defiance of the emperor Taizong's prohibition against travel beyond China, departed Chang'an in 629 and walked to India. He returned triumphantly more than sixteen years later, accompanied by a caravan laden with sutras, statues, and relics, which he bestowed to the emperor. He chronicled his journey, describing the climates, peoples, and customs he encountered, in his book Record of the Western Regions. [Source: Heather Colburn Clydesdale, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

There was great contact and interest in India as a hub for Buddhist knowledge. Xuanzang managed to bring back valuable Sanskrit texts to be translated into Chinese. There was also a Turkic–Chinese dictionary available for serious scholars and students, while Turkic folksongs gave inspiration to some Chinese poetry. [Source: Wikipedia]

Xuanzang wasn’t the first Chinese monk to travel on the Silk Road, The Chinese monk Faxian (Fa-hsien) left China around A.D. 399 to study Buddhism and locate sutras and relics in India. He traveled from Xian to the west overland on the southern Silk Road into Central Asia and described monasteries, monks and pagodas. He crossed over Himalayan passes into India and ventured as far south as Sri Lanka before sailing back to China on a route that took him through present-day Indonesia. His entire journey took 15 years.

Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “The spread of Buddhist doctrines from India to China beginning sometime in the first century CE triggered a profusion of cross-cultural exchanges that had a profound impact on Asian and world history. The travels of Buddhist monks and pilgrims and the simultaneous circulation of religious texts and relics not only stimulated interactions between the Indian kingdoms and various regions of China, but also influenced people living in Central and Southeast Asia. Indeed, the transmission of Buddhist doctrines from India to China was a complex process that involved multiple societies and a diverse group of people, including missionaries, itinerant traders, artisans, and medical professionals. [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006 ]

“Chinese pilgrims played a key role in the exchanges between ancient India and ancient China. They introduced new texts and doctrines to the Chinese clergy, carried Buddhist paraphernaliafor the performance of rituals and ceremonies, and provided detailed accounts of their spiritual journeys to India. Records of Indian society and its virtuous rulers, accounts of the flourishing monastic institutions, and stories about the magical and miraculous prowess of the Buddha and his disciples often accompanied the descriptions of the pilgrimage sites in their travel records. In fact, these travel records contributed to the development of a unique perception of India among members of the Chinese clergy. For some, India was a sacred, even Utopian, realm. Others saw India as a mystical land inhabited by “civilized” and sophisticated people. In the context of Chinese discourse on foreign peoples, who were often described as uncivilized and barbaric, these accounts significantly elevated the Chinese perception of Indian society.

“Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing were among hundreds of Chinese monks who made pilgrimages to India during the first millennium CE. The detailed accounts of their journeys make them more famous than others. These travel records are important historical resources for several reasons. First, they provide meticulous accounts of the nature of Buddhist doctrines, rituals, and monastic institutions in South, Central, and Southeast Asia. Second, they contain vital information about the social and political conditions in South Asia and kingdoms situated on the routes between China and India. Third, they offer remarkable insights into cross-cultural perceptions and interactions. Additionally, these accounts throw light on the arduous nature of long-distance travel, commercial exchanges, and the relationship between Buddhist pilgrims and itinerant merchants.”



In A.D. 645, the Chinese monk Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang) left China for India to obtain Buddhist texts from which the Chinese could learn more about Buddhism. He made it to Central Asia and India despite being held up by surly Chinese guards and guides who abandoned him in the middle of nowhere. In Central Asia he traveled to Turfan, Kucha, the Bedel pass, Lake Issyk-kul, the Chu Valley (near present-day Bishkek), Tashkent, Samarkand, Balk, Kashgar and Khoton before crossing the Himalayas into India.

Xuanzang spent 16 years in India collecting texts and returned with 700 Buddhist texts. His journey inspired the Chinese literary classic Journey to the West by Wu Ch'eng-en, a story about a wanderings Buddhist monk accompanied by a pig, an immortal that poses as a monkey and a feminine spirit. Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “The human skeletons were piled up like signposts in the sand. For Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk traveling the Silk Road in A.D. 629, the bleached-out bones were reminders of the dangers that stalked the world's most vital thoroughfare for commerce, conquest, and ideas. Swirling sandstorms in the desert beyond the western edge of the Chinese Empire had left the monk disoriented and on the verge of collapse. Rising heat played tricks on his eyes, torturing him with visions of menacing armies on distant dunes. More terrifying still were the sword-wielding bandits who preyed on caravans and their cargo’silk, tea, and ceramics heading west to the courts of Persia and the Mediterranean, and gold, gems, and horses moving east to the Tang dynasty capital of Changan, among the largest cities in the world. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, June 2010]

What kept Xuanzang going, he wrote in his famous account of the journey, was another precious item carried along the Silk Road: Buddhism itself. Other religions surged along this same route — Manichaeism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and later, Islam — but none influenced China so deeply as Buddhism, whose migration from India began sometime in the first three centuries A.D. The Buddhist texts Xuanzang carted back from India and spent the next two decades studying and translating would serve as the foundation of Chinese Buddhism and fuel the religion's expansion. Near the end of his 16-year journey, the monk stopped in Dunhuang, a thriving Silk Road oasis where crosscurrents of people and cultures were giving rise to one of the great marvels of the Buddhist world, the Mogao caves.

Yijing’s Account Shows Lots of Chinese Buddhist Monks Traveled to India

Uighur princes in Chinese headgear in western China

Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “The biographies of Chinese pilgrims in Yijing’s "Memoirs of Eminent Monks" reveal that, despite the perilous nature of the journey, Buddhist monks from China visited India frequently and in considerable numbers during the seventh century. Some of these monks used the overland routes through Central Asia and Tibet to India. Others, similar to Yijing, took the maritime route via Southeast Asian ports. Some returned to China after their pilgrimages, others either decided to stay in India or died before they could embark on the return voyage. [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006]

These biographies are short accounts of pilgrimages of Chinese monks who have left no records of their trips to India. In the biography of the monk Xuanzhao in fascicle one, for example, Yijing gives Xuanzhao’s genealogy and narrates his experience learning the Buddhist doctrine, the long journey he took to India through Tibet, the education he received at Indian monasteries, and his return to China through Nepal and Tibet. Shortly after reaching China, Xuanzhao was ordered by the Tang Emperor Gaozong to return to India to procure for him longevity drugs and physicians. Yijing reports that Xuanzhao accomplished his objective but died before he could return to China. Together with fifty-five other biographies, this account demonstrates the resolute and fervent desire of the Chinese clergy to visit Buddhist sites and study in India.

“Addressing the large number of Buddhist followers unable to undertake the perilous journey to India, Yijing wrote the following in his introduction to "The Record of Buddhism": “If you read this Record of mine, you may, without moving one step, travel in all the five countries of India.” He ends the work by stating, “My real hope and wish is to represent the Vulture Peak in the Small Rooms [peak of Mount Song] of my friends, and to build a second Rajagrha City in the Divine Land of China.”

“These two statements represent the wishes of all other Chinese pilgrims, including Faxian and Xuanzang, who returned to write narratives of their pilgrimages to India. Through their narratives, they sought to provide the followers of the Buddhist doctrine in China an opportunity to envision the sites and events in the life of the Buddha that they considered sacred and miraculous. Additionally, these pilgrims, by returning with Buddhist texts, relics, and other paraphernalia, tried to recreate in China an Indic world where the followers could perform pilgrimages without embarking on the arduous journey to India and, at the same time, dispel their feeling of borderland complex.

Buddhism Arrives in Japan From Tang-Era China

Kentoshi ship routes between China and Japan

Many Chinese Buddhist monks came to Japan to help further the spread of Buddhism there. Two 7th-century monks in particular, Zhi Yu and Zhi You, visited the court of Emperor Tenji (r. 661–672), whereupon they presented a gift of a south-pointing chariot that they had crafted. This 3rd century mechanically driven directional-compass vehicle (employing a differential gear) was again reproduced in several models for Tenji in 666, as recorded in the Nihon Shoki of 720. [Source: Wikipedia]

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: ““During the Nara period the power and influence of Buddhism grew under the supervision of Buddhist monks who had studied in and returned from Tang China. Temples in Japan accumulated vast landholdings during this era, their priests gained tremendous political influence (particularly during the reigns of Emperor Shomu and Empress Shotoku). Buddhism in Japan had the stamp of Tang control: ten Buddhist masters who had studied in Tang China as well as the superintendents placed in charge of temple property, extended state control over all Buddhist matters. With the burgeoning numbers of worshippers and clergy, many temples had to be constructed. There were about two hundred temples at the beginning of the period but over a thousand at the end of it. Thus Buddhism gained official recognition as the state religion, and the network of Buddhist temples served to buttress the authority of the central state. [Source: Heritage Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]

Japanese monks also visited China; such was the case with Ennin (794–864), who wrote of his travel experiences including travels along China's Grand Canal. The Japanese monk Enchin (814–891) stayed in China from 839 to 847 and again from 853 to 858, landing near Fuzhou, Fujian and setting sail for Japan from Taizhou, Zhejiang during his second trip to China. Kukai (774-835) was a Japanese envoy to Tang Dynasty China in 804. During a two-year stay in China he studied esoteric Buddhism; upon returning to Japan, he devoted himself to systemizing and spreading its teachings.

Growth of Buddhist Power in the Tang Dynasty

Wild Goose pagoda

During the Tang Dynasty, Buddhist monasteries were also engaged in the economy, since their land property and serfs gave them enough revenues to set up mills, oil presses, and other enterprises. Although the monasteries retained 'serfs', these monastery dependents could actually own property and employ others to help them in their work, including their own slaves. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Dr. Eno wrote: “Early in Buddhism's career in China, it had become an established practice that Buddhist monks and temples should be tax-exempt, and rulers of the unstable regimes of the era of disunity were generally unwilling to bring their legitimacy as kings into question by the impious act of attempting to assert fiscal authority over the sacred realm. Consequently, as time went on, Buddhist institutions were able to accumulate vast stores of wealth to which the state had no access. It became common for lay people to donate money and property to temples, both to earn increased access to paradise for their charitable works, and also to gain certain more tangible favors from Buddhist temples. Among the latter, for instance, might be included free use of lands that had been donated. This common practice allowed wealthy landowners to give away large tracts of land to monasteries, but to continue collecting rents from tenant peasants who farmed the land. Because the land was now officially the property of the temple, the yields could no longer be taxed and the landowner greatly increased his profits, of which the Buddhist temple received a cut. (Buddhism came to play similarly important economic roles in Korea and Japan.) [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University]

“The Buddhist “church” came to offer an alternative career to many aspiring young men and women, competing in many ways with the rewards of wealth and status promised by a government career (which was, in any event, open only to men), and the growing population of tax-exempt monks and nuns were attracted to their “profession” as much by hope of worldly gain as by devotion to the faith.” /+/

Memorial on the Bone of the Buddha By Han Yu

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Han Yu (768-824) was orphaned at a young age and was largely self-taught through his own diligent study. Passing the examinations, he served four Tang emperors. An outspoken official, Han Yu was committed to the strengthening of the central government, which had been weakened by regional military strongmen. Han Yu advocated unity and strong imperial rule in his writings and participated in military action against regional strongmen. He was also outspoken on other matters that were important to him: he was exiled to the extreme south of the Tang empire for submitting the following memorial to his ruler, the Xianzong emperor, in 819. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“Memorial on the Bone of the Buddha” by Han Yu reads: “Your servant begs leave to say that Buddhism is no more than a cult of the barbarian peoples which spread to China in the time of the Latter Han. It did not exist here in ancient times. When Emperor Gaozu [first emperor of the Tang] received the throne from the House of Sui, he deliberated upon the suppression of Buddhism. But at that time the various officials, being of small worth and knowledge, were unable fully to comprehend the ways of the ancient kings and the exigencies of past and present, and so could not implement the wisdom of the emperor and rescue the age from corruption. Thus the matter came to naught, to your servant’s constant regret.

“Now Your Majesty, wise in the arts of peace and war, unparalleled in divine glory from countless ages past, upon your accession prohibited men and women from taking Buddhist orders and forbade the erection of temples and monasteries, and your servant believed that at Your Majesty’s hand the will of Gaozu would be carried out. Even if the suppression of Buddhism should be as yet impossible, your servant hardly thought that Your Majesty would encourage it and, on the contrary, cause it to spread. Yet now your servant hears that Your Majesty has ordered the community of monks to go to Fengxiang to greet the bone of Buddha that Your Majesty will ascend a tower to watch as it is brought into the palace, and that the various temples have been commanded to welcome and worship it in turn. Though your servant is abundantly ignorant, he understands that Your Majesty is not so misled by Buddhism as to honor it thus in hopes of receiving some blessing or reward, but only that, the year being one of plenty and the people joyful, Your Majesty would accord with the hearts of the multitude in setting forth for the officials and citizens of the capital some curious show and toy for their amusement. … But the common people are ignorant and dull, easily misled and hard to enlighten, and should they see their emperor do these things they might say that Your Majesty was serving Buddhism with a true heart. “The Son of Heaven is a Great Sage,” they would cry “and yet he reverences and believes with all his heart!

“Now Buddha was a man of the barbarians who did not speak the language of China and wore clothes of a different fashion. His sayings did not concern the ways of our ancient kings, nor did his manner of dress conform to their laws. He understood neither the duties that bind sovereign and subject nor the affections of father and son. If he were still alive today and came to our court by order of his ruler, Your Majesty might condescend to receive him, but … he would then be escorted to the borders of the state, dismissed, and not allowed to delude the masses.

“How then, when he has long been dead, could his rotten bones, the foul and unlucky remains of his body, be rightly admitted to the palace? Confucius said, “Respect spiritual beings, while keeping at a distance from them.” So when the princes of ancient times went to pay their condolences at a funeral within the state, they sent exorcists in advance with peach wands to drive out evil, and only then would they advance. Now without reason Your Majesty has caused this loathsome thing to be brought in and would personally go to view it. No exorcists have been sent ahead, no peach wands employed. The host of officials have not spoken out against this wrong, and the censors have failed to note its impropriety. Your servant is deeply shamed and begs that this bone be given to the proper authorities to be cast into fire and water that this evil may be rooted out, the world freed from its error, and later generations spared this delusion. Then may all men know how the acts of their wise sovereign transcend the commonplace a thousandfold. Would this not be glorious? Would it not be joyful? Should the Buddha indeed have supernatural power to send down curses and calamities, may they fall only upon the person of your servant, who calls upon high Heaven to witness that he does not regret his words. With all gratitude and sincerity your servant presents this memorial for consideration, being filled with respect and awe.

Emperor Wuzong

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Buddhism was a fundamental part of the culture, religiosity, and even the skyline of Tang China. As such, it is not surprising that Tang emperors should have had ambivalent feelings about Buddhism, both as a religion and, even more so, as an assemblage of institutions and people — temples, monasteries, monks and nuns — which held substantial wealth in land and other resources but which did not pay taxes. The following edict from Emperor Wuzong (r. 841-846) is indicative of the seriousness with which Tang emperors regarded Buddhism. The fact that Emperor Wuzong was a fervent Daoist and anxious to seek a Daoist elixir of immortality and thus heavily under the influence of Daoist priests adds another twist to the plot.” [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Emperor Wuzong’s Edict on the Suppression of Buddhism: The Edict of the Eighth Month reads: “We have heard that up through the Three Dynasties the Buddha was never spoken of. It was only from the Han and Wei on that the religion of idols gradually came to prominence. So in this latter age it has transmitted its strange ways, instilling its infection with every opportunity spreading like a luxuriant vine, until it has poisoned the customs of our nation; gradually, and before anyone was aware, it beguiled and confounded men’s minds so that the multitude have been increasingly led astray. It has spread to the hills and plains of all the nine provinces and through the walls and towers of our two capitals. Each day finds its monks and followers growing more numerous and its temples more lofty. It wears out the strength of the people with constructions of earth and wood, pilfers their wealth for ornaments of gold and precious objects, causes men to abandon their lords and parents for the company of teachers, and severs man and wife with its monastic decrees. In destroying law and injuring mankind, indeed nothing surpasses this doctrine! Now if even one man fails to work the fields, someone must go hungry; if one woman does not tend her silkworms, someone will be cold. At present there are an inestimable number of monks and nuns in the empire, each of them waiting for the farmers to feed him and the silkworms to clothe him, while the public temples and private chapels have reached boundless numbers, all with soaring towers and elegant ornamentation sufficient to outshine the imperial palace itself.

Attack on Buddhism in the Tang Dynasty

Towards the end of the Tang dynasty, Chinese emperors began to favor Taoism over Buddhism; monks and nuns were secularized; temples and libraries were destroyed. The prominent status of Buddhism in Chinese culture began to decline as the dynasty and central government declined as well during the late 8th century to 9th century. Buddhist convents and temples that were exempt from state taxes beforehand were targeted by the state for taxation. In 845 Emperor Wuzong of Tang finally shut down 4,600 Buddhist monasteries along with 40,000 temples and shrines, forcing 260,000 Buddhist monks and nuns to return to secular life; this episode would later be dubbed one of the Four Buddhist Persecutions in China. Although the ban would be lifted just a few years after, Buddhism never regained its once dominant status in Chinese culture. Buddhism remained overshadowed by Taoism and Confucianism until it experienced a revival in the 11th century. Nonetheless, Chán Buddhism gained popularity amongst the educated elite.

Dr. Eno wrote: “The tremendous growth of Buddhism led to a reaction by various Chinese kingdoms of the time. Although rulers of some of these states were devout Buddhists, during the sixth century we see the first of a long series of suppressions and persecutions of the Buddhist community. There were a number of factors that governed these episodes. The most critical was the growing economic importance of Buddhism in Chinese society. As the economic influence of Buddhism grew, governments became increasingly inclined to force reductions in the scale of Buddhist monasteries and nunneries. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University]

“During the latter period of the Tang, as the dynasty suffered a series of destabilizing blows that undermined its self-confidence, the government began to take drastic action against the Buddhist establishment. The climax came in 845 when the Tang government proclaimed a massive suppression of Buddhism. The emperor withdrew the status of over 200,000 monks and nuns, closed over 4,000 monasteries and nunneries, confiscated millions of acres of temple lands, and registered 150,000 “slaves” attached to the temples, who had been under the protection of the Buddhist establishment, as taxpaying freemen. /+/

“This would be the most dramatic attack on Buddhism until the Communist government closed all temples during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. The suppression came close to wiping out Buddhism in China, but so powerful were the forces of the religion that the government policy was relaxed the following year, upon the death of the emperor (who apparently died from Daoist elixirs of immortality that he had been in the habit of imbibing). The temples were soon replenished with returning monks and new postulants. But significant damage had been done, and although Buddhism remained an important force in China, it never recaptured the dominance that it possessed during the early and mid-Tang periods. The century before the great suppression of 845 remained the highwater mark of Buddhism's influence on China, and all significant philosophical and religious innovations that China contributed to world Buddhism occurred before that time.” /+/

Image Sources: Silk Road Foundation; Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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