Ibn Wahab was an Arab merchant from Basra (Iraq) who sailed to China via the Indian Ocean around 872 CE. His travel account includes a description of his interview with the Chinese emperor. Wahab's visit at the height of the T'ang dynasty (618-907 CE), with its flourishing trade and efficient civil service, provides a first-hand account of China when its influence extended throughout all of Eurasia.
Fitzgerald, C.P. China: A Short Cultural History (London: Cresse Press, 1930), pp. 339-340.
When Buddhism reached China it encountered an already established civilization with deeply rooted literary and intellectual traditions. In addition, the scholarly elite of China was somewhat hostile to “foreign” influence. On the other hand, in the troubled times that followed the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 CE, Buddhism’s promise of a better hereafter proved a powerful draw among common people, while some rulers of the regional dynasties that replaced the Han saw in Buddhism a way to buttress their authority. Finally, Chinese intellectuals looked to it as a new source for magical elixirs of longevity or immortality (a path down which Taoism had already traveled by this time) and of metaphysical speculation. Major translation projects were undertaken in the period 200–500 CE, and knowledge of Buddhism spread through these texts and through the building of temples and the founding of Buddhist communities of monks. By the 400s Buddhism had become established widely enough to cause concern among traditionalist Chinese, especially among the Confucian scholarly elite, and to provoke counterattacks in the form of government persecution in the north and of tracts attacking the faith in the south.
The following text, whose author and exact date of composition are unknown, takes the form of a Buddhist answer to some of the common lines of attack contained in such tracts. From that internal evidence, and knowing something about the reaction against Buddhism in China, we can safely assert that it comes from southern China during the fifth century CE. In order to win the Chinese over to Buddhism, the followers of the new faith had to address, among other things, significant aspects of existing Chinese culture—for example, the importance of ancestor worship and of the five relationships of Confucianism. The author pursues one of the logical lines to take when recommending something new to a culture: He argues that the practice of Buddhism is compatible with traditional Chinese values and that the ideas in Buddhist texts are similar to those in the Chinese classics. Buddhism, he asserts, complements and extends Chinese cultural practices rather than contradicting them.
From Mou Tzu in The Disposition of Error by DeBary, et al., Sources of the Chinese Tradition, 274–80. Copyright © 1960 Columbia University Press.
The Chinese had to deal with nomadic neighbors on their northwestern frontier from an early date, and many of the patterns of that relationship were established, or at least explored, under the Han dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE). The Xiongnu was the Chinese name of the peoples, more or less politically united at different times, who were the dominant nomadic power on the frontier during Han rule. In addition to Chinese agricultural goods and metallurgy, the Xiongnu had developed a taste for Chinese silk, which became the principal luxury item used by nomadic leaders to build their political coalitions on the steppes: the more silk a leader could give away, the larger a following he could create.
As with all government business under the Han and subsequent Chinese dynasties, voluminous records were kept of (1) court deliberations over policy with regard to the frontier and (2) of diplomatic correspondence with the Xiongnu, whose leader had the title Shen-yu. Official court historians used these records extensively when writing their histories. The following selections are from the Hanshu, a Chinese history concerning the history of the Chinese empire from 206 BCE to 25 CE. It gives much detail about Chinese attitudes toward the “barbarians” who caused them so much trouble, as well as opening a few windows into the attitudes of the nomads themselves. Although colored by Chinese assumptions, the descriptions are generally accurate, receiving confirmation from other written sources and from archaeology. The selections describe an early period in Han relations with the Xiongnu, before 140 BCE, that can be described as conciliatory, being characterized by the payment of tribute by the Chinese to the Xiongnu (though the Chinese sources tend to call the goods “gifts”), use of diplomatic marriages, and other techniques designed to acculturate the “barbarians” to Chinese ways.
Excerpted from the Hanshu, trans. A. Wylie, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 3 (1874): 401–50.
The Lives of Eminent Korean Monks is a compilation of biographies of Buddhist monks from the Three Kingdoms period of Korean history (first century BCE through the tenth century CE). It promotes Buddhist piety by stressing the (often supernatural) deeds of these monks, and it is also a valuable source for Korean history. In spite of its importance, the work was long thought lost until portions of it were found at a Buddhist temple in the early twentieth century. This passage of the Lives deals with the introduction of Buddhism as the national faith of the Silla Kingdom in 527 CE, under King Pŏpkong.
“Pŏpkong Declares Buddhism the National Faith,” in Peter H. Lee, ed. Sourcebook of Korean Civilization, vol. 1, From Early Times to the Sixteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 75–77.
Ban Biao and Ban Gu
This dynastic history was a continuation of the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), originally compiled by Sima Qian (ca. 145–86 BCE), and it repeats many of the phrases and situations Sima Qian had described verbatim. However, these histories provide remarkable insights into the behavior of emperors and their families at court—while also suggesting developing notions of gender and education. This segment of the Han Shu covers the reign of Hsiao-Ai, in roughly 6–1 BCE.
Han Shu, Book 11 (Annals of the Emperor Hsiao-Ai), Chinese text and English translation: http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/saxon/servlet/SaxonServlet?source=xwomen/texts/hanshu.xml&style=xwomen/xsl/dynaxml.xsl&chunk.id=d2.49&toc.depth=1&toc.id=0&doc.lang=bilingual.>
Ban Zhao (45–ca. 116 CE) was by far the most educated woman of her day, and she trained many important male scholars. The Han Shu (the continuation of Sima Qian’s Shiji) was originally undertaken by her father, Ban Biao (3–54 CE), and continued by her brother Ban Gu (32–92). Ban Zhao is credited with the giving the Han Shu its present shape after the deaths of her father and brother, but she is most famous today for her advice book, directed toward young women.
Nancy Lee Swann, Pan Chao: Foremost Woman Scholar of China (New York: London Century, 1932), 82–90.
Buddhism had begun to spread widely within India after the conversion of Asoka in the third century BCE, and his promotion of the religion as part of a syncretic (a combination of elements from different beliefs) emphasis on dharma (sacred duty) as the bond between his government and his subjects. It may have been these efforts at popularizing the religion that gave impetus to tendencies within the religion that eventually carried it in a new direction. By the first century CE, these tendencies had begun to come together into a self-conscious new school of Buddhism, described by its practitioners as Mahayana, or the Greater Vehicle—meaning that this sect promised to carry far more people to salvation than the older version could. Followers of Mahayana Buddhism referred to the older version as Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle. The followers of the older version, though, preferred to refer to their religion as Theravada, or the Teaching of the Elders. This religion continued to exist and itself spread to parts of southeast Asia. It was the Mahayana version of Buddhism that first became widely popular in India and then, during the early centuries CE, spread all over central and East Asia.
In Mahayana belief, the Buddha has become an all-knowing being, somewhere between a divine person—a mortal man who achieves immortality— and a god, to whom even Hindu gods offer respect. His wisdom surpasses that of the other gods, because he recognizes the uncreated and infinite nature of the universe, whereas some of them imagine themselves as creators.
Accompanying the belief in the Buddha’s divinity is a belief in a class of beings known as bodhisattvas, or Wise Beings. Essentially these are people who had reached the edge of nirvana, release from the cycle of death and rebirth, only to compassionately turn back to help others cross over into bliss. Nirvana itself evolved from the somewhat abstract notion of “extinguishment”—of the soul becoming one with the cosmos and escaping the illusion of individuality—to a notion of a heavenly paradise. The image often used to explain the role of the bodhisattva is of a ferryman who repeatedly carries masses of devout worshippers over to salvation on his giant barge, while Theravada Buddhists cross the river one at a time and each one only once.
One of the most popular of the bodhisattvas was Avalokitesvara, or “Perceiver of the World’s Sounds,” who first shows up in a book called The Lotus Sutra, one of the earliest and most influential of the sacred texts of Mahayana Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra describes the ten cosmic levels of existence, from hell up to nirvana, with bodhisattvas on the ninth level working to remove the suffering of the world and to carry people to the highest level. Avalokitesvara is prominent among the bodhisattvas of The Lotus Sutra, and his cult spread with the dissemination of the text. The work was first translated into Chinese in 255 CE, and a Chinese translation made in 406 is the basis for this English translation. One interesting note about the transmission of Buddhism to China is that in later centuries Avalokitesvara, called Guanyin in China, was transformed into a female. In either form, “Perceiver of the World’s Sounds” illustrates the central characteristics of Mahayana Buddhism’s encounter with the transcendent.
The Lotus Sutra, trans. Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press (1993): 298–303. Copyright © 1993 Columbia University Press.
Virtually no records have survived from the period between the unification of China in 221 BCE and the collapse of the Qin Empire 15 years later. Accordingly, historians are forced to rely on documents composed during the Han dynasty for relevant information. Nevertheless, one of the stories passed along, concerning the advice of Li Si to the emperor, is a stark reminder of how fragile learning can be, even in a temporarily successful polity. The Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) is a lengthy history of China compiled by Sima Qian (ca. 145–86 BCE), and the collection also includes a detailed biography of Li Si.
Shih chi 87:6b–7a, in de Bary and Bloom, comps., Sources of Chinese Tradition, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), 140–141.
Tang Taizong (d. 649), a founder of the Tang dynasty, was determined to create an empire that expanded upon the consolidation achieved under the Sui dynasty. The result was a large empire of people diverse in language, religion, and culture; it was also economically diverse: the south was more productive and more prosperous than the north. Taizong recognized that these were all challenges to his dynasty, and that the Sui had faced similar problems and failed. Determined to be more effective, Taizong identifies what he sees as the weaknesses of the Sui and how he planned to prevent those some weaknesses from hampering his dynasty.
Translated by J. Dun Li, 1925
This source represents an alternative path that Chinese Buddhists took in trying to establish the compatibility of their faith with the existing body of Chinese literature and culture. Instead of arguing that the practice of Buddhism is compatible with ideas in classical Chinese texts, this alternative path was based on the Buddhist emphasis on individual enlightenment by means of meditation. Meditation and contemplation had been important practices in Buddhism since the Buddha himself attained enlightenment by meditating under a bo tree. In addition, a School of Meditation arose as one stream of Mahayana Buddhism, emphasizing meditation as the central path to enlightenment. Known as Ch’an in China and later as Zen in Japan, this school tended to discount the importance of texts in favor of practice and the direct transmission of the Buddhist Law from one master (or patriarch) to another. The foundational text for this school is The Platform Scripture of the Sixth Patriarch. The Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng (638–713), was the key figure in Ch’an Buddhism’s rise to prominence as one of the most influential Buddhist schools in China. The text appears to be a lecture by Hui-neng recorded by one of his pupils and dates to the early eighth century, around or shortly after Hui-neng’s death.
From The Platform Scripture of the Sixth Patriarch by DeBary, et al., Sources of the Chinese Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press (1960): 350–52.
Faxien (circa 334-415 CE) was a Chinese monk who, with several companions, traveled the Silk Road to India and returned via the Indian Ocean trade route between 399 and 413 CE. Their successful quest to obtain Buddhist scriptures helped to disseminate the religion throughout East Asia. Faxien also recorded his travels, which provide a comprehensive geography of central and south Asia of the time.
Faxien, A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms: Being an Account by the Chinese Monk Faxien of His Travels in India and Ceylon, trans. by James Legge, 1886.
Sima Qian (c. 145 to after 91 BCE) is to Chinese history writing what Herodotus and Thucydides combined are to Western historical writing. A scholar and official under the Han, he began collecting historical records and sources early in his career. He was eventually appointed Grand Historian of the Han Court in 107 BCE, in which office he composed the Records of the Grand Historian. Based on extensive research in the Imperial Library and on the sources he collected, this monumental work traces Chinese history from the legendary Five Sage Emperors down to Sima Qian’s own times.
Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian, trans. Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press (1993): 74–83.
The “Taika Reform Edicts” were issued in 645 to promote Buddhism and to clearly establish that the imperial family supported this relatively new religion. Korean missionaries officially brought Buddhism into Japan in 552. Although it never replaced Shinto, which to this day retains a prominent role in Japanese life, Buddhism was recognized as the official religion of the Yamato in 594. These “Edicts” reinforce that status.
The “Taika Reform Edicts” were much more than just an acknowledgement of the importance of Buddhism in Japan; the name translates to the “Great Reform Edicts” and included a comprehensive program of Sinicization in imperial Japan. Various aspects of Tang government and society were implemented in Japan with this reform, including Tang style bureaucracy, architecture, approaches to history, and Buddhism.
Richard Hooker. intro and ed., W.G. Aston, trans., Nihongi (London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1896), 197–227.
Tang China is known as the “golden age” of Chinese poetry and Li Bo (701-762) was one of its greatest poets. Li Bo brought an unparalleled grace and eloquence to his treatment of the traditional themes, a flow and grandeur that lift his work far above mere imitation of the past. Playfulness, hyperbole, and outright fantasy infuse Li Bo’s poetry and the Daoist reverence for nature runs through his works. A prolific poet, Li Bo strongly influenced succeeding generations of Chinese writers. His poetry has been translated into dozens of languages.
Arthur David Waley, A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1918)