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Buddhism in a Post- Han China Analytical Essay


Buddhism is one of the religions, which has played an important role in the history of China. This religion, which spread to China from Central Asia, moved from being an insignificant religion to enjoying widespread acceptance by many Chinese. However, the influence of Buddhism was because of the collapse of the Han dynasty in 220 AD.

Williams suggests that this collapse created a spiritual vacuum that the popular religions of the time tried to fill (131). Of all the competing religions and philosophies of the time, Buddhism was able to obtain the greatest support. This paper engages in a critical analysis of the attractions that Buddhism offered to Post-Han China.

The Han Dynasty

The Han dynasty, which existed between 206 BC, and 220AD was characterized by a centralized administration with an emperor who expanded the boundaries of China through conquest. The empire had a strong army that was used for expand the territory under the administration’s control. In the course of the Han dynasty, Confucianism influenced the structure of government and this philosophy was the most influential in society.

During this era, Central Asian missionaries who styled the religion as a sect of Daoism introduced Buddhism to China (Chey 125). In its early years, Buddhism was viewed as a foreign religion and periodic persecution of Buddhists was common in the Han dynasty (Williams 131). As such, Buddhism played an inferior role in China over the cause of the Han dynasty.

The fall of the Han was precipitated by political instability caused by conspiracies among empresses and court officials. This instability led the military to overthrow the Han dynasty in 220 AD therefore ending the four-century rule of the Han.

After the fall of the Han, most of the scholars in China abandoned the Confucian philosophy that had been followed by the Han dynasty. In its place, many followed Buddhism, which offered a number of attractions to the Chinese population.

Attraction of Buddhism

The early centuries following the collapse of the Han dynasty post were characterized by widespread chaos and violence as warlords sought to assert their dominion in various regions. In these chaotic times, Buddhism brought about some sense of order for the Chinese people. Historically, religion has been used as a means for validating the authority of the ruling class.

In the same way, Buddhism enabled the rulers to solidify their authority over their subjects (Williams 130). The religion stipulated what it entailed being a good citizen and outlined the responsibilities that the subjects had to fulfill to their rulers. Buddhism brought about a sense of identity to the people of China.

A major cause of the fall of the Han was religious rebellion, which plagued China up to the overthrow of the Han dynasty. Tang notes that post-Han dynasty China as characterized by an extended period of division and civil war (170). The absence of an organized government in China encouraged the rise of warlords who tried to establish their own rule over China.

As Buddhism spread all over the land, the Chinese people had a common ground and they could once again exhibit a sense of unity. Buddhism offered a means of personal deliverance since it was a doctrine of personal salvation. Duiker and Spielvogel suggest that the collapse of the Han Empire “had a market effect on the Chinese psyche” (312).

The Confucian principles, which had been at the core of Han leadership, came under severe challenge. Confucianism had emphasized on hard work and the giving up of individual interests for the common good. The fall of the Han dynasty suggested that these values were not solid and individuals started to seek out messianic creeds that emphasized individual effort and the supernatural or the promise of earthly or heavenly salvation.

The disunity and political fragmentation facing post-Han China made individualism appealing to most people. Williams documents that most people attempted to live in harmony with the Source of Things and if necessary alone (131). Buddhism exhorted this kind of lifestyle and it therefore gained a foothold with the society.

Individuals no longer had to concern themselves with the communal good since the religion only held them responsible for their own personal conduct. Buddhism was attractive since it did not require major cultural changes for its new Chinese converts. In its introductory years, Buddhism was presented as a Daoist sect; a fact that increased its popularity since Daoism was already well known by the Chinese.

Tang notes that for a while, there was a clash between Buddhism and Daoism due to cultural differences between the two religions (170). However, these conflicts did not last since Buddhism was able to adapt successfully. By the post-Han period, Buddhism had completely merged with traditional Chinese culture and had become a part of Chinese culture.

Kuiper confirms that the early translations of Buddhist text into Chinese utilized Daoist vocabulary, which made them easy to follow to the Chinese (119). As such, new converts did not perceive Buddhism as a religion that tried to being about a new way of living for the Chinese. Instead, Buddhism was perceived as a part of Chinese culture and the sect produced had a Chinese spirit in it (Tang 170).

Buddhism offers an emotional satisfaction that was sort after by many especially in the intellectual circles. Confucianism which had been practiced in the Han dynasty emphasized moralism and complacency. In the post-Han era, the intellectuals began to reject this ideology and sought emotional satisfaction in hedonistic pursuits and philosophical Daoism (Duiker and Spielvogel 312).

However, the hedonistic pursuits and Daoism did not satisfy the deeper emotional needs that the people continued to feel. Buddhism inspired the people through its sophisticated meditative practice and they were able to enjoy the emotional satisfaction they sort. It continued to receive inspiration from the sophisticated meditative practices of the Indian

Another attraction of Buddhism in China was its emphasis on the values of charity and compassion. The post-Han China was characterized by a lack of virtue as communities went to war against each other. Buddhism taught of the values of humanity and exhorted individuals to treat each other in a neighborly fashion.

Through the concept of Karma, Buddhism taught that a person would be punished or rewarded in their next life based on their actions in the present life (Kuiper 118). The concept of Karma, which revealed that each person determined their own destiny through their individual actions, was attractive to the Chinese who were moving to a more individualistic form of society.

The teachings of Buddhism were able to provide solace in times of sorrow in a way that the other popular beliefs could not. Chinese Buddhism taught the indestructibility of the soul and this enabled the people to bear with the hardships that war brought about (Kuiper 118).Buddhism gave the people hope of a better life in the hereafter and this made the religion appealing to the people who were undergoing turbulent times.

Buddhism taught that life was suffering and this was a reality that many Chinese could relate to. However, Buddhism revealed that if one lived a good life, then they could attain Nirvana, which is a state of eternal bliss. Buddhism provided a means for the masses to acquire a formal education. In the post-Han centuries, Buddhism established itself as a powerful intellectual force in China.

Buddhist schools from India were set up in China and monastic establishments became widespread. For this reason, Buddhism became well established among the nobles and peasantry alike since it provided a means for education. Kuiper states that this attraction of Buddhism made the Sui dynasty of 581-618 take Buddhism as the state religion (120).


Religion has played a major role in the development of human civilization. This paper set out to analyze the attraction of Buddhism in post-Han China. To this end, the paper has demonstrated that Buddhism was able to emerge as a sufficient substitute to Confucianism in post-Han China.

Buddhism was able to meet the needs that the Chinese people faced following the state of unrest that followed the collapse of the Han dynasty. Because of the numerous attractions that Buddhism offered, the religion was able to obtain a large following throughout China and continue to play a crucial role in Chinese society for many centuries.

Works Cited

Chey, Siew. China Condensed: 5000 Years of History & Culture. New Delhi: Marshall Cavendish, 2005

Duiker, William and Spielvogel, Jackson. Cengage Advantage Books: World History. NY: Cengage Learning, 2012. Print.

Kuiper, Kathleen. The Culture of China. Boston: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2010. Print.

Tang, Yijie. Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, and Chinese Culture. Beijing: CRVP, 1991. Print.

Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. NY: Taylor & Francis, 2009. Print.

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