In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhist Poetry of China

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Anthologies and Translations
  • General Studies

Chinese Studies Buddhist Poetry of China
Thomas Mazanec, Jason Protass
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0202


Buddhism entered China sometime in the first century CE, first in relatively small communities of foreign merchants, only to take hold among the elites in the following centuries. It should be no surprise, then, that it soon interacted with the indigenous poetry of China, the most highly regarded literary art of the elites. Comprised of multiple broad terms, “Buddhist poetry of China” eludes easy definition, which has led to some scholarly confusion. In this bibliography, we define “poetry” as any rhymed verse form (including but not limited to shi 詩); “Buddhism” as the institutions, practices, people, and texts that located spiritual authority in a Buddha, especially the historical Buddha Siddhārtha Gautama; and “of China” as works written in the Sinitic languages as they were used in the polities that claimed continuity with the Qin and Han dynasties (thus excluding much noteworthy Buddhist Sinitic verse composed in Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and elsewhere). Chinese poetry intersected with Buddhism in a variety of ways, which varied considerably by time, place, and social setting. Some poems drew upon Buddhist scriptures for stories and images, some were composed at Buddhist settings, some passed on Buddhist teachings, some were informed by Buddhist doctrines, some were written by or addressed to Buddhist practitioners, some were recited during Buddhist rituals or sermons, and some were designed to perform Buddhist practices themselves. Buddhist institutions were ambivalent toward poetry. Canonical scriptures warned against excessive indulgence in literary and other arts, and later monastic rulebooks shared many of these concerns. At the same time, Buddhist institutions recognized that facility with literary language could be a powerful tool for expression and proselytization, and that certain kinds of aesthetic refinement was important for ritual efficacy. Individual Buddhists held all kinds of attitudes toward poetry—some monks denounced it as a dangerous, slippery slope toward laicization, while others obsessively wrote thousands of poems, sometimes justifying it in Buddhist terms and other times not. Most seem to have come to peace with poetry as an integral part of the Chinese cultural sphere that could not be completely proscribed. The Buddhist poetry of China remains a vibrant, living tradition to this day. This bibliography focuses on English-language studies (but includes some in other languages, especially Chinese) and is arranged by the categories typically addressed in existing scholarship: Buddhist poetry by literati, poetry by Buddhist monks, poetry by legendary Buddhists, practical and didactic Buddhist verse, and the influence of Buddhism on poetic theory.


For a brief overview of the state of the field, see Barrett 2015 and Byrne and Protass 2015. Martin 2009, which introduces Buddhist literature more broadly, provides a good introduction through the sixth century, with the latter half focused on poetry. Broughton 2015 is aimed toward Buddhologists and has good coverage of Japanese textual scholars of Chan Buddhism.

  • Barrett, Timothy H. “Poetry: China (Until the Song Period).” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Edited by Jonathan Silk, 541–546. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015.

    Encyclopedic overview of scholarship on Chinese Buddhist poetry from antiquity to the tenth century.

  • Broughton, Jeffrey L. “Chan Literature.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Chinese Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    Includes a section on poetry, with subsections on “Poetic Lines, Inscriptions, and Songs,” “Case Collections,” “Shi Poetry,” and “Regulations of Purity.”

  • Byrne, Christopher H., and Jason Protass. “Poetry: China (Song and After).” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Edited by Jonathan Silk, 547–553. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015.

    Encyclopedic overview of scholarship on Chinese Buddhist poetry from the tenth century to the modern era.

  • Martin, François. “Buddhism and Literature.” In Early Chinese Religion, Part 2: The Period of Division (220–589 CE). Edited by John Lagerwey and Lü Pengzhi, 891–951. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

    In its section on poetry, focuses on how Indian ideas, texts, and forms found their way into the Chinese literary tradition from the second through sixth centuries. Overviews gāthās in scriptures and verse produced in Chinese. Finds only a few distinctive Buddhist poets until Xie Lingyun 謝靈運 (b. 385–d. 433) in the fifth century, noting that Buddhist poetry followed contemporary fashions until it “came of age” under the Tang.

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