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The Silk Road is a network of trade routes that interconnected the western, Eastern and Southern Asia with Europe, East and North Africa, and the Mediterranean. These trade routes started being used at around the second century BC in the Han Dynasty. The routes were both on land and sea.
There were sea routes connecting the Red Sea and India, China, East Africa and Southeast Asia. The countries using the Silk Road traded various goods. India exported pepper, ivory, precious stones, and textiles.
On the other hand, China exported silk, porcelain, tea and spices. The Roman Empire traded jewels, gold, glassware, silver, carpets and wine. The Silk Road got its name from the Chinese trade of silk.
The most important good traded along the Silk Road was silk. Religion was also carried along the Silk Road as traders from different continents engaged in trade. Religions like Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity were spread in China.
The Chinese adopted these religions and incorporated their culture into them1. This changed these religions from the original form. This discussion explores the extent to which the religions that were spread along the Silk Road were transformed by the Chinese. Comparisons are made between the original religions and the transformed ones in China.
Buddhism was introduced in China from India and led to the transformation of towns along the Silk Road. Buddhist monks and nuns used to receive material donations and in return offered Buddhist literature and instructions to the donors.
Thus, Buddhism was spread. When Buddhism was spread to China, most of its elements were retained, for instance, sacred writings, monastic system, worship rites, among others. However, Buddhism went through several changes in China2.
At the time when Buddhism was introduced in China, Taoism and Confucianism were the major religions in this country. At first, many people did not convert to Buddhism but after sometime at around the second century, lots of people converted to the religion owing to its simple requirements and likeness to Taoism.
Many Buddhist scholars came to China and Buddhism gained more followers. Many Buddhist scriptures were translated into Chinese language. By the sixth century AD, Buddhism was strongly rooted in China owing to a need to get rid of old religions like Taoism and Confucianism and embrace something new.
At this time, Buddhism went through various changes with one group of Buddhists following the religion in its spiritual and philosophical sense while another group followed it in their simple ways and incorporated their superstitious Chinese nature into it3.
Both Indian and Chinese scholars continued translating Buddhist texts into Chinese in order to win more converts. The Chinese also developed many schools of Buddhism using ancient Buddhist principles.
Some of these schools include the Pure-land, the Dharmalaksana, the Kosa, the Satysiddhi, the Three Sastra, the Lotus, the Vatamsaka, the Intuitive, the Esoteric, and the Discipline schools, among others4. Each of these schools was based on a certain Buddhist doctrine, and was developed by the disciples of Buddha.
Emperor Wu-Tsung ordered for the destruction of Buddhist enterprises and the return to normal life of all nuns and monks since they had become very greedy and had left their religious ways to engage in activities such as business, farming, and lending money.
From this time, Buddhism began to decline in China and people resumed to their original religions. The advent of communism in China signaled the end of Buddhism religion and public worship and monasteries were destroyed5.
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Even though the Indians were able to spread Buddhism in China, it underwent some transformation. Some aspects of Indian Buddhism were not accepted by the Chinese. They dismissed some practices as irrelevant. The Chinese also interpreted Buddhist ideologies in their language.
They modified facts and invented other details and added them to the scriptures. Some original texts have been modified to mean something different and others even have the opposite meaning. Continuity and order are some of the principles that guide the Chinese in their daily lives. Therefore, they added their own facts where clarity was lacking in order to maintain these two principles.
Both the Chinese and Indians believe in and follow the teachings of Buddha, the founder of the religion. However, there are various differences between the religions. According to Indian Buddhism, there are no souls; but the Chinese Buddhists believe that human beings have souls.
The Chinese Buddhists also worship the dead and their departed relatives’ images. However, this is not the case in Indian Buddhism as they want nothing to do with the dead.
The Indian Buddhists believe that when one dies, they are completely separated from the life on earth. The Chinese on the other hand believe that after death, one continues with earthly living and even the human relations are maintained in the next life.
As Buddhism developed in China, it interacted with other Chinese religions like Taoism. Buddhism allowed followers to be both Buddhists and to follow other religions. Therefore, most Chinese became Taoists and Buddhists at the same time.
Islam spread to China through the land and water silk routes. Muslim traders, mostly Arabian and Persian, established businesses in the Chinese capital during the Tang Dynasty. These merchants were allowed to build their mosques and were not seen as a threat since they did not conduct missionary activities in China.
Islam scriptures were translated into Chinese and this made the religion to be accepted in China and also to incorporate some aspects of the Chinese culture. Chinese cultural aspects of customs, architecture and festivals were incorporated in Islam.
The architecture of Chinese mosques is different from that of other Muslims. Ordinary mosques have minarets and domes on the roofs while the Chinese ones are built using the traditional Chinese style with buildings surrounding a squire yard. The inside of the mosque is also decorated the traditional Chinese way6.
The Chinese Muslims have also changed the way the Islamic festivals are celebrated by other Muslims around the world. Most of the festivals are in line with other Islamic countries, for instance, the end of Ramadan, the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, among others. However, some festivals differ.
For instance, the Islamic festival of sacrifice is referred to as the festival of fidelity in China. Moreover, the Chinese Muslims do not celebrate the birth and death of prophet Muhammad on 12th March like other Muslims but do so on a different date and celebrate this festival together with the commemoration of the death of their ancestors.
The manner of commemoration and the story behind the Islamic festival of the salvation of prophets Nuh, Adam, and Ibrahim from danger are different in China. The Chinese also respect the daughter of the prophet Muhammad more than his wife, which is contrary to what other Muslims believe7.
The Chinese Muslims also changed the religious customs of the original Islam. They have incorporated traditional Chinese customs into their funerals, weddings, language, dressing, and naming. Arabic and Persian are the languages of Islam around the world.
However, the Chinese use these languages only during religious services and use Chinese at all other times. The Chinese Muslims have also changed the way ordinary Muslims dress. The Chinese Muslims also use Chinese names or combine a Chinese and Muslim name. The Chinese also do not follow the Islamic law in marriage and burial rites.
In addition to believing in the Qur’an and Hadith, the Chinese Muslims have also adopted other principles from their culture to guide them. They have incorporated principles from other religions like Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism into Islam.
The Chinese Muslims have also integrated Confucian ethics into Islam and tried to quote the Hadith and the Qur’an to validate them. An example is the Confucian concept of ethical human relationships between the father and son, the ruler and subject, the husband and wife and an individual with the friends.
This concept was expounded and incorporated into Islam8. The Chinese looked for Qur’an verses that are close to these teachings and used them to prove that they should be accepted into Islam.
It was important to integrate Chinese culture into Islam. Most aspects of the Chinese culture are from the Confucian religion, which is the main religion in China.
Religions that do not accept the Confucian ideologies do not easily get accepted. Incorporating Confucian ideologies in a religion attracts many followers and therefore the religion is able to develop. Even if the Islam in China is very different from other parts of the world, other Muslim communities still accept them as their own since they still uphold the basic principles of Islam.
From the above discussion, it is clear that the silk trade played a great role in spreading various religions to China. As the traders traded their goods, they influenced other people to adopt their religions. The Chinese adopted several religions from their trade partners.
However, they made modifications to these religions in order for them to fit into their cultural beliefs and practices. As a result, these religions changed a great deal from their original form; to the extent that they became very different from the original religions practiced in other parts of the world.
The transformations that the religions of Buddhism and Islam underwent in China have been discussed. It was the incorporation of the Chinese culture into these religions that enabled them to spread very rapidly as the people could identify with them.
Chen, K. (1973). The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Foltz, R. (1999). Religions of the Silk Road. New York: St Martin’s Press.
Xinru, L. (1996). Silk and Religion. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
1 L. Xinru (1996). Silk and Religion. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
2 K. Chen (1973). The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
3 R. Foltz (1999). Religions of the Silk Road. New York: St Martin’s Press.
4 R. Foltz (1999). Religions of the Silk Road. New York: St Martin’s Press.
5 K. Chen (1973). The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
6 R. Foltz (1999). Religions of the Silk Road. New York: St Martin’s Press.
7 L. Xinru (1996). Silk and Religion. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
8 L. Xinru (1996). Silk and Religion. Delhi: Oxford University Press.