In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Buddhisms in China

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • The Chinese Buddhist Canon
  • Sui and Tang Dynasties’ Buddhism
  • Five Dynasties and Song Dynasty Buddhism
  • Yuan and Ming Dynasties’ Buddhism
  • Qing Dynasty Buddhism
  • Chinese Buddhism in the Modern Era
  • Buddhism in Taiwan
  • New Approaches

Buddhism History of Buddhisms in China
Albert Welter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0143


Buddhism is a major religion in China, and its influence extends beyond China to other regions of East Asia, particularly Korea and Japan, and other areas in Asia and throughout the world affected by the Chinese diaspora. The history of Chinese Buddhism covers roughly two thousand years, from its entrance into China through India and central Asia in the 1st century CE, down to the present. Not only was the advance of Buddhism momentous for China and its East Asian neighbors; it also invites interest from historians of religion and culture. Buddhism in China is one of the few instances in the premodern era in which two advanced, highly literate, and sophisticated cultures encountered each other, resulting in a hybrid mix that transformed both Buddhist teaching and Chinese culture. Buddhism is historically the most successful of the “foreign” religions in China, and its status has long been the subject of debate. Throughout this history, Buddhism has enjoyed eras of growth and prosperity punctuated by periods of persecution, decline, and neglect. In spite of questions regarding Buddhism’s place in China’s cultural identity, the religion has manifested an enduring resilience and has continued to thrive. Fluctuating borders impacting China’s territorial expanse have also affected the ethnic makeup of the Chinese nation and the types of Buddhism practiced in China. This raises the question of what constitutes “Chinese” Buddhism. China’s current borders (for which there is premodern precedent as well) include Tibetan and Mongolian regions, as well as territories occupied by Theravada-practicing ethnic groups in China’s southeast. In this case, an argument could be made that Chinese Buddhism includes representation from each of Buddhism’s major “vehicles” (or yanas): Theravada, Mahayana, and Tantrayana. For the purposes of this review, however, Chinese Buddhism is restricted primarily to its traditional definition as regarding those developments pertaining to Chinese-language sources, practices, and so forth, of Han Chinese ethnicity. Until recently, research into Chinese Buddhism was largely confined to developments leading up to a hypothetical “golden age” in the Tang dynasty (618–906), and this remains the area of greatest research strength. In addition to post-Tang and modern developments, more recent scholarship has expanded into areas beyond doctrine and intellectual history to include popular and folk Buddhist practices as emerging areas of investigation. Because of the temporal expanse and wide range of phenomena that this bibliography on Chinese Buddhism covers, both the scope of topics and numbers of citations have been limited. The vast corpus of secondary literature in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean languages has also been largely omitted. It should also be noted that no attention has been given here to doctrinal schools and developments, which will be covered in a separate bibliographic article on Chinese Buddhist doctrines and practices.

General Overviews

Currently existing overviews of Chinese Buddhism are few in number, restricted in scope, and dated in terms of scholarship. Still, some will suffice in providing a solid, basic orientation to the study of Chinese Buddhism, introducing major themes, figures, and developments. For the general reader, Wright 1959 provides a succinct and accessible overview. Based on a series of lectures delivered at the University of Chicago, Wright presents a captivating introduction to the importance of Buddhism in the Chinese context and its enduring appeal as a subject of study. For those seeking more depth, Ch’en 1964 provides rich and detailed coverage. While Ch’en’s attention to detail is admirable and his work continues to be unsurpassed, it suffers from its schematization of Chinese Buddhism and its lack of attention to later periods. Divided into successive periods of “growth and domestication,” “maturity and acceptance,” and “decline,” it focuses on the development of Buddhism leading up to the Tang period (618–906) as a “golden age,” followed by stagnation and inertia. Works like Gregory and Getz 1999, a series of articles devoted to various aspects of Buddhism in the Song dynasty (960–1279), have successfully challenged the suppositions assumed in Ch’en’s work regarding the alleged “decline” of Buddhism in China, even postulating that if any period deserved the sobriquet of “golden age,” it might be the Song dynasty rather than the Tang, but a general overview of Chinese Buddhism reflecting such perspectives has yet to be written. Other surveys tend to target specific periods prior to the Song, or to focus on particular themes. Zürcher 2007 is a masterful overview of early Buddhism in China from its inception until the 5th century and remains one of the seminal and influential works in the field. The same period is dealt with by Tsukamoto 1985. Contrasting with Zürcher’s model of an Indian Buddhist conquest of China, Ch’en 1973 invokes a model of Chinese assimilation and transformation, using a thematic rather than historical framework. Both models may be appropriate, depending on the period or periods one is dealing with. Gernet 1995 is a masterful account of the social and economic roles that Buddhism forged in China between the 5th and 10th centuries and remains valuable as a counterinterpretation of the impact that Buddhism had in China beyond strictly religious and intellectual areas.

  • Ch’en, Kenneth K. S. Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964.

    For decades the standard introduction to Buddhism in China, this work provides a wealth of detail and insights into its historical development. Though dated in some respects, it remains the best single-volume source on the topic.

  • Ch’en, Kenneth K. S. The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.

    Groundbreaking work emphasizing the “sinification” of Buddhism, emphasizing how Buddhism was assimilated and transformed in the Chinese context.

  • Gernet, Jacques. Buddhism in Chinese Society: An Economic History from the Fifth to Tenth Centuries. Translated by Franciscus Verellen. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

    English translation of Les aspects économiques du bouddhisme dans la société du Ve au Xe siècle, published in 1956. Unprecedented in scope and influence, Gernet pioneered the use of Dunhuang materials to reveal hitherto-unknown social and economic aspects of Buddhism in China.

  • Gregory, Peter N., and Daniel A. Getz, eds. Buddhism in the Sung. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1999.

    A groundbreaking volume of studies by various authors exploring the depth and range of Buddhism in the Song (Sung) dynasty. It also successfully challenged the dominant narrative that postulated the Tang dynasty as the apex of Buddhism in China.

  • Tsukamoto, Zenryu. A History of Early Chinese Buddhism: From Its Introduction to the Death of Hui-Yuan. Translated by Leon Hurvitz. New York: Kodansha America, 1985.

    Masterful work by a leading Japanese scholar of Chinese Buddhism, focusing on the reception and development of Buddhism in China in its first centuries.

  • Wright, Arthur F. Buddhism in Chinese History. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1959.

    Succinct and accessible introduction. Provides a quick overview suitable for general readers.

  • Zürcher, E. The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004156043.i-472

    Originally published more than fifty years ago, this work remains fundamental to the study of early Buddhism in China. Originally published in 1959.

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