Buddhism in China

From Foreign Import to State Religion

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Buddhism or 汉传 (fójiào) was first brought to China from India by missionaries and traders along the Silk Road that connected China with Europe in the late Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD).

By then, Indian Buddhism was already over 500 years old, but the faith didn't begin to flourish in China until the decline of the Han Dynasty and an end to its strict Confucian beliefs.

Buddhist Beliefs

Within the Buddhist philosophy grew two main divisions. There were those that followed the traditional Theravada Buddhism, which involves strict meditation and a closer reading of the original teachings of Buddha. Theravada Buddhism is prominent in Sri Lanka and most of Southeast Asia.

The Buddhism that took hold in China was Mahayana Buddhism, which includes various forms such as Zen Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism - also known as Lamaism.

Mahayana Buddhists believe in the broader appeal to Buddha's teachings compared to the more abstract philosophical questions posed in Theravada Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhists also accept contemporary buddhas like Amitabha, which Theravada Buddhists don't.

Buddhism was able to directly address the concept of human suffering. This had wide appeal for the Chinese, who were dealing with the chaos and disunity of warring states vying for control after the fall of the Han. Many ethnic minorities in China also adopted Buddhism. 

Competition with Daoism

When first introduced, Buddhism faced competition from followers of Daoism. While Daoism (also called Taoism) is as old as Buddhism, Daoism was indigenous to China.

Daoists do not view life as suffering. They believe in an ordered society and strict morality. But they also hold strong mystical beliefs such as ultimate transformation, where the soul lives after death and travels to the world of the immortals.

Because the two beliefs were so competitive, many teachers from both sides borrowed from the other. Today many Chinese believe in elements from both schools of thought.

Buddhism as a State Religion

Buddhism's popularity led to the quick conversion to Buddhism by later Chinese rulers. The subsequent Sui and Tang Dynasties all adopted Buddhism as their religion.

The religion was also used by foreign rulers of China, such as the Yuan Dynasty and the Manchus, to connect with the Chinese and justify their rule. The Manchus strived to draw a parallel between Buddhism. a foreign religion, and their own reign as foreign leaders.

Contemporary Buddhism

Despite China's shift to atheism after the Communists took control of China in 1949, Buddhism continued to grow in China, especially after the economic reforms in the 1980s.

Today there are an estimated ​244 million followers of Buddhism in China, according to the Pew Research Center, and over 20,000 Buddhist temples. It is the largest religion in China. Its followers vary by ethnic group.

Ethnic Minority Groups that Practice Buddhism in China
Mulam (also practice Taoism) 207,352 Guangxi About the Mulam
Jingpo 132,143 Yunnan About the Jingpo
Maonan (also practice Polytheism) 107,166 Guangxi About the Maonan
Blang 92,000 Yunnan About the Blang
Achang 33,936 Yunnan About the Achang
Jing or Gin (also practice Taoism) 22,517 Guangxi About the Jing
De'ang or Derung 17,935 Yunnan About the De'ang
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Chiu, Lisa. "Buddhism in China." Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, learnreligions.com/buddhism-in-china-688147. Chiu, Lisa. (2020, August 25). Buddhism in China. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/buddhism-in-china-688147 Chiu, Lisa. "Buddhism in China." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/buddhism-in-china-688147 (accessed January 28, 2021).