Today, China is home to the world’s largest population of Buddhists. Yet, exactly how Buddhism (a religious philosophy based upon the belief that meditation and good behaviour can achieve enlightenment) arrived in China almost 2,000 years ago remains somewhat murky.
Most historians of ancient China agree that Buddhism arrived in the 1st century AD during the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), brought by missionaries from neighbouring India travelling along trade routes into China.
However, even once Buddhism had arrived, it was the translation of a large body of Indian Buddhist scriptures into Chinese that had far-reaching effects for spreading Buddhism throughout China and into Korea, Japan and Vietnam.
Here’s the story of how Buddhism spread to China.
The Silk Road
It is likely that Buddhism came to Han China by the Silk Road – either by land or sea. Some historians favour the sea hypothesis, claiming that Buddhism was first practiced in south China along the Yangtze and Huai River regions.
The other side of the argument is that Buddhism arrived in the northwest of China via the Gansu corridor, following the Yellow River basin in the 1st century AD, gradually spreading into Central Asia.
More popularised accounts in Chinese literature say that Emperor Ming of Han (28-75 AD) introduced Buddhist teachings into China after having a dream that inspired him to search out a god possessing the “brilliance of the sun”. The emperor sent Chinese envoys to India, who returned carrying the Buddhist Sutra scriptures on the back of white horses. They were also joined by two monks: Dharmaratna and Kaśyapa Mātanga.
Ultimately, the arrival of Buddhism in China is even more complex than just the question of travelling by sea, land or white horse: Buddhism has multiple schools that filtered into China’s different regions independently.
Buddhism indeed first arrived in China via the Silk Road and was based on the Sarvastivada school, which provided a foundation for Mahayana Buddhism in turn adopted by Japan and Korea. Buddhist monks accompanied merchant caravans along the Silk Road, preaching their religion along the way. The Chinese silk trade boomed during the Han dynasty and at the same time, Buddhist monks spread their message.
Buddhism continued to spread into Central Asia under the Kushan Empire of the 2nd century as the kingdom expanded into the Chinese Tarim Basin. Indian monks from central India, such as the monk Dharmaksema who had been teaching in Kashmir, also found their way into China to spread Buddhism from the 4th century AD onwards.
Before the arrival of Buddhism, Chinese religious life was characterised by three major belief systems: the cult of Five Deities, Confucianism and Daoism (or Taoism). The cult of Five Deities was the state religion of the early Shang, Qin and Zhou dynasties between roughly 1600 BC and 200 BC, and also an ancient practice dating back to Neolithic China. Emperors and commoners alike worshipped a universal God that could appear in five forms.
China during the Han dynasty was also devoutly Confucian. Confucianism, a belief system that focuses on maintaining harmony and the balance of society, appeared in China during the 6th and 5th centuries BC.
The Chinese philosopher Confucius had celebrated the power of an individual’s morality in helping others during a time of political and social upheaval in China as the Zhou reign ended. Although this did not prevent Confucian followers from suffering persecution during the short-lived Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) as scholars were killed and Confucian writings burnt.
Daoism is a religious philosophy which came about in the 6th century BC, advocating for a simple and happy life guided by nature. Buddhism differed from Confucianism and Daoism by highlighting the suffering of human life, the impermanence of material things and the importance of finding a reality beyond the one you currently lived in.
Early Chinese Buddhism
Buddhism did have trouble finding a footing in China at first. Monasticism and Buddhism’s focus on the self seemed in conflict with the traditions of Chinese society, so much so that Buddhism was thought harmful to state authority by many Chinese officials.
Then, in the 2nd century, Buddhist scriptures began being translated by Indian missionaries. These translations revealed a shared language and attitude between Buddhism and Daoism. Buddhism’s focus on growing inner wisdom aligned with Daoist thought, while its emphasis on morality and rituals also appealed to Confucian intellectuals among the gentry and imperial courts.
The first documented translations began with the arrival of the Parthian monk, An Shiago, in 148 AD. An Shiago was believed to be a Parthian prince who gave up his throne to become a Buddhist missionary. He worked hard to establish Buddhist temples in Luoyang (the Han capital of China) and his translations of Buddhist scripts into Chinese signalled the start of widespread missionary work.
Chinese emperors also began worshipping the Daoist deity Laozi and Buddha as equals. An account dating to 65 AD describes Prince Liu Ying of Chu (today’s Jiangsu), “delighted in the practices of Huang-Lao Daoism” and had Buddhist monks at his court, presiding over Buddhist ceremonies. A century later in 166, both philosophies were found at the court of Emperor Huan of Han.
Daoism became a way for Buddhists to explain their ideas and help Chinese people to comprehend their philosophy as translations of Buddhist scripture showed similarities between Buddhist nirvana and Daoist immortality. From its arrival in China, Buddhism therefore coexisted with native Chinese religious philosophies Confucianism and Daoism.
Chinese Buddhism after the Han dynasty
Following the Han period, Buddhist monks could be found advising northern non-Chinese emperors in politics and magic. In the south, they influenced the literary and philosophical circles of the upper class.
By the 4th century, Buddhism’s influence had begun to match that of Daoism across China. There were almost 2,000 monasteries scattered across the south which thrived under the Emperor Wu of Liang (502-549 AD), a keen patron of Buddhist temples and monasteries.
At the same time, the distinct schools of Chinese Buddhism were forming, such as the Pure Land school of Buddhism. Pure Land would eventually become the dominant form of Buddhism in East Asia, entrenched in common Chinese religious life.
Eventually, seeking to deepen their spirituality, Chinese pilgrims began retracing Buddhism’s first steps along the Silk Road to its homeland, India.