Around the scanty utterances of Lao Tzŭ or Lao-tsze (q.v.; see also § Chinese Literature, §§ Philosophy) an attempt was made by later writers to weave a scheme of thought which should serve to satisfy the cravings of mortals for some definite Taoism. solution of the puzzle of life. Lao Tzŭ himself had enunciated a criterion which he called Tao, or the Way, from which is derived the word Taoism; and in his usual paradoxical style he had asserted that the secret of this Way, which was at the beginning apparently nothing more than a line of right conduct, could not possibly be imparted, even by those who understood it. His disciples, however, of later days proceeded to interpret the term in the sense of the Absolute, the First Cause, and finally as One, in whose obliterating unity all seemingly opposed conditions of time and space were indistinguishably blended. This One, the source of human life, was placed beyond the limits of the visible universe; and for human life to return thither at death and to enjoy immortality, it was only necessary to refine away all corporeal grossness by following the doctrines of Lao Tzŭ. By and by, this One came to be regarded as a fixed point of dazzling luminosity in remote ether, around which circled for ever and ever, in the supremest glory of motion, the souls of those who had left the slough of humanity behind them. These transcendental notions were entirely corrupted at a very early date by the introduction of belief in an elixir of life, and later still by the practice of alchemistic experiments. Opposed by Buddhism, which next laid a claim for a share in the profits of popular patronage, Taoism rapidly underwent a radical transformation. It became a religion, borrowing certain ceremonial, vestments, liturgies, the idea of a hell, arrangement of temples, &c., from its rival; which rival was not slow in returning the compliment. As Chu Hsi said, “Buddhism stole the best features of Taoism; Taoism stole the worst features of Buddhism. It is as though one took a jewel from the other, and the loser recouped the loss with a stone.” At the present day there is not much to choose between the two religions, which flourish peaceably together. As to their temples, priests and ceremonial, it takes an expert to distinguish one from the other.
There is no trustworthy information as to the exact date at which Buddhism first reached China. It is related that the emperor Ming Ti (A.D. 58–76) had a dream in which a golden man appeared to him, and this mysterious visitant was interpreted by the emperor’s brother to be none other than Shākyamuni Buddha, Buddhism. the far-famed divinity of the West. This shows that Buddhism must then have been known to the Chinese, at any rate by hearsay. The earliest alleged appearance of Buddhism in China dates from 217 B.C., when certain Shamans who came to proselytize were seized and thrown into prison. They escaped through the miraculous intervention of a golden man, who came to them in the middle of the night and opened their prison doors. Hsü Kuan, a writer of the Sung dynasty, quotes in his Tung Chai Chi passages to support the view that Buddhism was known in China some centuries before the reign of Ming Ti; among others, the following from the Sui Shu Ching Chi Chih: “These Buddhist writings had long been circulated far and wide, but disappeared with the advent of the Ch‛in dynasty,” under which (see § Chinese Literature, §§ History) occurred the Burning of the Books. It is, however, convenient to begin with the alleged dream of Ming Ti, as it was only subsequent to that date that Buddhism became a recognized religion of the people. It is certain that in A.D. 65 a mission of eighteen members was despatched to Khotan to make inquiries on the subject, and that in 67 the mission returned, bringing Buddhist writings and images, and accompanied by an Indian priest, Kashiapmadanga, who was followed shortly afterwards by another priest, Gobharana. A temple was built for these two at Lo-yang, then the capital of China, and they settled down to the work of translating portions of the Buddhist scriptures into Chinese; but all that now remains of their work is the Sūtra of Forty-two Sections, translated by Kashiapmadanga. During the next two hundred and fifty years an unbroken line of foreign priests came to China to continue the task of translation, and to assist in spreading the faith. Such work was indeed entirely in their hands, for until the 4th century the Chinese people were prohibited from taking orders as priests; but by that date Buddhism had taken a firm hold upon the masses, and many Chinese priests were attracted towards India, despite the long and dangerous journey, partly to visit the birthplace of the creed and to see with their own eyes the scenes which had so fired their imaginations, and partly in the hope of adding to the store of books and images already available in China (see § Chinese Literature, §§ Geography and Travel). Still, the train of Indian missionaries, moving in the opposite direction, did not cease. In 401, Kumarajiva, the nineteenth of the Western Patriarchs and translator of the Diamond Sūtra, finally took up his residence at the court of the soi-disant emperor, Yao Hsing. In 405 he became State Preceptor and dictated his commentaries on the sacred books of Buddhism to some eight hundred priests, besides composing a shāstra on Reality and Semblance. Dying in 417, his body was cremated, as is still usual with priests, but his tongue, which had done such eminent service during life, remained unharmed in the midst of the flames. In the year 520 Bōdhidharma, or Ta-mo, as he is affectionately known to the Chinese, being also called the White Buddha, reached Canton, bringing with him the sacred bowl of the Buddhist Patriarchate, of which he was the last representative in the west and the first to hold office in the east. Summoned to Nanking, he offended the emperor by asserting that real merit lay, not in works, but solely in purity and wisdom combined. He therefore retired to Lo-yang, crossing the swollen waters of the Yangtsze on a reed, a feat which has ever since had a great fascination for Chinese painters and poets. There he spent the rest of his life, teaching that religion was not to be learnt from books, but that man should seek and find the Buddha in his own heart. Thus Buddhism gradually made its way. It had to meet first of all the bitter hostility of the Taoists; and secondly, the fitful patronage and opposition of the court. Several emperors and empresses were infatuated supporters of the faith; one even went so far as to take vows and lead the life of an ascetic, further insisting that to render full obedience to the Buddhist commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” the sacrificial animals were to be made of dough. Other emperors, instigated by Confucian advisers, went to the opposite extreme of persecution, closed all religious houses, confiscated their property, and forced the priests and nuns to return to the world. From about the 11th century onwards Buddhism has enjoyed comparative immunity from attack or restriction, and it now covers the Chinese empire from end to end. The form under which it appears in China is to some extent of local growth; that is to say, the Chinese have added and subtracted not a little to and from the parent stock. The cleavage which took place under Kanishka, ruler of the Indo-Scythian empire, about the 1st century A.D., divided Buddhism into the Mahāyāna, or Greater Vehicle, and the Hināyāna, as it is somewhat contemptuously styled, or Lesser Vehicle. The latter was the nearer of the two to the Buddhism of Shākyamuni, and exhibits rather the mystic and esoteric sides of the faith. The former, which spread northwards and on to Nepaul, Tibet, China, Mongolia and Japan, leaving southern India, Burma and Siam to its rival, began early to lean towards the deification of Buddha as a personal Saviour. New Buddhas and Bōdhisatvas were added, and new worlds were provided for them to live in; in China, especially, there was an enormous extension of the mythological element. In fact, the Mahāyāna system of Buddhism, inspired, as has been observed, by a progressive spirit, but without contradicting the inner significance of the teachings of Buddha, broadened its scope and assimilated other religio-philosophical beliefs, whenever this could be done to the advantage of those who came within its influence. Such is the form of this religion which prevails in China, of which, however, the Chinese layman understands nothing. He goes to a temple, worships the gods with prostrations, lighted candles, incense, &c., to secure his particular ends at the moment; he may even listen to a service chanted in a foreign tongue and just as incomprehensible to the priests as to himself. He pays his fees and departs, absolutely ignorant of the history or dogmas of the religion to which he looks for salvation in a future state. All such knowledge, and there is now not much of it, is confined to a few of the more cultured priests.
The 7th century seems to have been notable in the religious history of China. Early in that century, Mazdaism, or the religion of Zoroaster, based upon the worship of fire, was introduced into China, and in 621 the first temple under that denomination was built at Ch‛ang-an in Shensi, then the capital. Mardaism. But the harvest of converts was insignificant; the religion failed to hold its ground, and in the 9th century disappeared altogether.
Mahommedans first settled in China in the Year of the Mission, A.D. 628, under Wahb-Abi-Kabḥa, a maternal uncle of Mahomet, who was sent with presents to the emperor. Wahb-Abi-Kabḥa travelled by sea to Canton, and thence overland to Ch‛ang-an, the capital, where he was well received. Mahommedanism. The first mosque was built at Canton, where after several restorations, it still exists. Another mosque was erected in 742; but many of the Mahommedans went to China merely as traders, and afterwards returned to their own country. The true stock of the present Chinese Mahommedans was a small army of 4000 Arab soldiers sent by the caliph Abu Giafar in 755 to aid in putting down a rebellion. These soldiers had permission to settle in China, where they married native wives; and four centuries later, with the conquests of Jenghiz Khan, large numbers of Arabs penetrated into the empire and swelled the Mahommedan community. Its members are now indistinguishable from the general population; they are under no civic disabilities, and are free to open mosques wherever they please, so long as, in common with Buddhists and Taoists, they exhibit the tablet of the emperor’s sovereignty in some conspicuous position.
In A.D. 631 the Nestorians sent a mission to China and introduced Christianity under the name of the Luminous Doctrine. In 636 they were allowed to settle at Ch‛ang-an; and in 638 an Imperial Decree was issued, stating that Olopun, a Nestorian priest who is casually mentioned as a Persian, Nestorianism. had presented a form of religion which his Majesty had carefully examined and had found to be in every way satisfactory, and that it would henceforth be permissible to preach this new doctrine within the boundaries of the empire. Further, the establishment of a monastery was authorized, to be served by twenty-one priests. For more than a century after this, Nestorian Christianity seems tohave flourished in China. In 781 the famous Nestorian Tablet,
- Otherwise Abū Ja‛far Ibn Mahommed al-Mansūr (see Caliphate, C. § 2).