Suppression of Buddhism Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Pogroms against Buddhism marked the beginning of its loss of power and position as the dominant religion in China, at which point Daoism re-emerged as the dominant religion, and Chan Buddhism gained ground.

Summary of Event

During the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907), Buddhism made a triumphant emergence from being a minor, foreign religion to becoming the dominant belief of the Chinese people, including the ruling class. The transition had taken many centuries to complete. Among the attractions of Buddhism was its tenet of offering to all people a form of salvation in the form of nirvana, a state of transcendence in which the individual leaves the world of suffering behind. Previously, an imperial cult of Confucianism and Daoism had held sway over the minds of the Chinese, but Buddhism gradually made inroads, and during the Tang Dynasty, it became the most prevalent religion in the country. China;Buddhism Buddhism;persecution of [kw]Suppression of Buddhism (845) [kw]Buddhism, Suppression of (845) Buddhism;suppression of China;845: Suppression of Buddhism[0930] Religion;845: Suppression of Buddhism[0930] Wuzong Xuanzang Taizong (599-649)

In 845, the Tang emperor Wuzong Wuzong (Tang emperor) announced that he was proscribing the practice of the religion. During this time, monasteries were burned to the ground, monks were killed, and statues of the Buddha were melted down. At first glance, this might seem an overreaction of the part of a single ruler, but the imperial house had been struggling with the question of what to do about the religion for more than one hundred years. Although the religion did no harm to its followers, it subverted the power of the emperor and caused numerous economic problems for the empire.

The establisment of the Tang Dynasty, with its orderly road systems, communications, and organization, greatly facilitated the Buddhist religion. In particular, the travels of the monk Xuanzang Xuanzang (Buddhist monk) to India from 629 to 645 and his subsequent patronage by the emperor Taizong Taizong (Tang emperor) brought millions of converts to the religion. Xuanzang’s grand trip, which he wrote about in Datang xiyouji (629; Buddhist Records of the Western World, 1884), captured the hearts and minds of the empire. Xuanzang’s role in converting the common people to Buddhism was so important that even today, the story of Xuanzang’s journey is retold in East Asia in books, cartoons, stage plays, films, and video games—and forms the basis for an extensive portion of popular culture in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan Travel by land;Xuanzang . The conversion of vast numbers of Chinese to Buddhism caused problems for the empire in many areas, including decreases in the amount of tax collected, hoarding that created coin shortages, and an increase in exemptions from work projects.

Perhaps the most serious consequences Buddhism had on the Chinese empire were economic. As Buddhist monasteries were established, they created “inexhaustible treasuries.” The purpose of the treasuries was to create a reserve fund that could be used to purchase food for the poor during times of famine or to provide help for adherents to Buddhism in times of distress. The treasuries served as depositories for the donations that were made to the monasteries. Monasticism;Buddhism Sometimes these donations took the form of a simple string of cash in gratitude for a safe delivery of a child or a recovery from a long illness. Other donations involved large tracts of land, usually granted at the death of the landowner, which the monastery could lease out to small sharecroppers. Because monasteries did not pay taxes to the central government, whatever was raised on monastery land was also untaxed. This allowed the monasteries to raise silk and sell it via the Silk Road at an enormous profit to the monastery, without paying taxes to the central government.

To the central government, even more worrisome than the monasteries’s receipt of tax-free income was the fact that most monasteries hoarded coins Coinage;China and silver, which had catastrophic consequences on the fiscal and monetary system. Throughout China’s history, the country had been plagued by the problem of not having enough coins to transact business. During the Tang Dynasty, the lack of money had been alleviated somewhat by the introduction of a new, nearly pure copper coin, the Kaiyuan tongbao. Kaiyuan tongbao When monasteries received strings of coins and deposited them into their inexhaustible treasuries, the central government was not informed that these coins were effectively no longer in circulation. In fact, many of the monasteries were saving the coins to melt them down and cast statues of the Buddha. This action removed the coins from circulation and meant that the central government would have to mint more coins to make up for those that had gone into the creation of statues. In effect, this meant that the central government was financing the creation of the statues of the Buddha. Occasionally, even during the reign of emperors who supported Buddhism, the coinage shortage was so severe that statues had to be removed from temples, melted down, and reissued as coinage.

Another economic problem that Buddhism posed to the imperial house involved the laity. Lay members were Buddhists who did not join the order as ordained monks or nuns but devoutly served their local monastery or temple. Although many lay members of the Buddhist religion were simply pious believers, their numbers soon swelled as many people attempted to declare themselves lay members in order to avoid mandatory military service, official conscription on work projects, and heavy tax burdens. The number of dubious converts to the religion was probably small at first but by the late Tang Dynasty had grown to several million. The situation made staffing army positions so difficult that officials on occasion had to enter monasteries and completely empty them of followers, ordering some to enter military service immediately and others simply to revert to taxable status.

The leaders of the monasteries could perhaps have saved themselves from the coming backlash if they had found ways to moderate the monasteries’s seemingly insatiable appetite for worldly goods, an ironic state of affairs given Buddhism’s precepts against materialism. However, the monasteries did not seem to be aware of the drain that they imposed on the central administration, and at the same time, the religion of the emperors was changing.

The Tang Dynasty had supported both Buddhism and Daoism Daoism for reasons of legitimacy. Members of the Tang ruling class had the surname Li, which was the same as that of the legendary founder of Daoism, Laozi (Lao-tzu; 604-sixth century b.c.e.). As a result, Tang emperors frequently experimented with Daoism, which promised (though did not deliver) eternal life to the devout emperor. In fact, many emperors probably killed themselves by drinking elixirs of immortality, which often contained deadly poisons. Among the Daoists was Wuzong. Early in life, he had become a strict Daoist, preferring the traditional Chinese religion to the foreign import of Buddhism. Faced with numerous financial crises that could be conveniently blamed on the Buddhists, Wuzong eagerly and actively pursued policies that led to the destruction of hundreds of monasteries and the returning of millions of Buddhist lay members to civilian life.


The sanctions imposed by Wuzong signified the beginning of the end for Buddhism as the dominant religion in China. The collapse of the Tang Dynasty and the resultant disruption of imperial power effectively spelled the end of imperial Buddhism. The pogroms that were imposed on Buddhism in China had two major effects: First, they caused the Buddhist leaders to gradually turn inward; the religion began to focus on internal enlightenment rather than existing in the national conscience. This furthered the development of the Chan Chan Buddhism (Zen) form of Buddhism. Today Zen Buddhism is the dominant religion of Japan. Second, the Chinese government developed a distrust of organized religion, an attitude that remains a hallmark of the government, which has gradually permitted more religious activity among its population in the twenty-first century but maintains very strict controls over the practice of religion.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ch’en, Kenneth. The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973. Examines how the religion changed as it increasingly became Sinicized. Special emphasis on the foundations of Zen.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gernet, Jacques. Buddhism in Chinese Society: An Economic History from the Fifth to the Tenth Centuries. Translated by Franciscus Verellen. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. Points out the relationship between Buddhism and the economy of China. Contains a bibliography and references many fragments from Dunhuang.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lopez, Donald, ed. Buddhism in Practice. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. Devoted purely to the religion of Buddhism, this anthology compares the practice of the religion in China, India, Tibet, and certain regions of Southeast Asia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lopez, Donald, ed. Religions of China in Practice. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. An excellent anthology that examines Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism and includes references to anthologies, autobiographies, and other texts not usually available. Compares and contrasts the thoughts and beliefs of the three religions, along those of popular religion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zurcher, Eric. The Buddhist Conquest of China. 2 vols. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1972. The classic study of how Buddhism flexed its muscle in Confucian China.

Categories: History