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READ: Why do Belief Systems Spread? How China Made Buddhism its Own

Historically, belief systems have been shared along trade routes and at times, have been transformed once they’ve entered a new region. This was certainly the case with Buddhism.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. According to the article, what are some reasons why Buddhism became popular in China?
  2. Who is the main person who brought Buddhism to China, according to the traditional story?
  3. What is one example of how Buddhism sinicized in China, according to the article?
  4. Why and how did sinicization of Buddhism happen, according to Zenryū Tsukamoto?
  5. How did systems of belief change people’s behaviors?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. What does the sinicization of Buddhism tell us about the nature of a belief system as a community? As a network?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Why do Belief Systems Spread? How China Made Buddhism its Own

An extremely detailed and ornate painting of the Buddha in the center of a city or collection of temples
By Bridgette Byrd O’Connor
Historically, belief systems have been shared along trade routes and at times, have been transformed once they’ve entered a new region. This was certainly the case with Buddhism.


Many non-Buddhists’ picture the Buddha as a happy, shirtless man with a large belly that people rub for good luck. This idea of Buddha is a particularly Chinese one. You wouldn’t often see that representation in India, where Buddhism originated. Images of the “Laughing Buddha”, or Budai, can also be seen in other parts of Southeast Asia such as Thailand and Singapore, as well as in Japan. So why is the image of Buddha so different in these areas compared to India?start superscript, 1, end superscript
A photo of a golden sculpted smiling Buddha surrounded by flowers and gifts
Maitreya (“Laughing Buddha”) at Miaoying Temple, Beijing, China. By Shizhao, Public Domain.
As you read earlier in this lesson, Buddhism began in India with the life and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. But Buddhism was not confined to this region. Merchants traveled from India to nearby locations such as China and Southeast Asia bringing goods to exchange. But they also brought ideas, including belief systems. One of the most popular belief systems was Buddhism.
There are many reasons why Buddhism became popular in China. Buddhism united the Chinese people into a community of believers. This unification helped the Chinese overcome a period of war and unrest during the Warring States period. There is also the connection to exchange networks. When trade increased along the Silk Road, ideas and belief systems also spread. Sometimes the area that adopted these new beliefs changed the beliefs into something that was their own.
Map shows the expansion of Buddhism from India to China
Expansion of Buddhism from India to China, Southeast Asia, and Japan. By Gunawan Kartapranata, CC BY-SA 3
Scholars have asked, “Who spread these ideas across China?” Did Indian people move to China and bring this faith? Did the Chinese spread these beliefs around the empire themselves? Or maybe it was a combination of these two explanations?
The traditional origin story of the arrival of Buddhism in China began with a dream of the Emperor Ming Ti. He reigned during the Han Dynasty in the mid-first century CE. He dreamed of a golden god, thought to be the Buddha. In order to understand this vision better, he sent representatives to India to learn more about the Buddha. Ming’s advisors brought back Buddhist sutra (scripture) and housed these works in a temple near the capital city. There could be some truth to this, just as many origin stories might have some truth to them. But historical accounts focus on a more gradual introduction of Buddhism to China through trade routes.
As Buddhist ideas spread from Indian merchants throughout China, parts of the faith were adopted. Some Buddhist ideas became mixed with similar beliefs that already existed, like Daoism. Both Buddhism and Daoism focused on magical beliefs and rituals. Many Chinese found it easy to blend these two belief systems. The Chinese followers of Daoism also had another origin story about their founder, Laozi. They believed Laozi traveled to India where he was reborn as the Buddha. This belief helped to mesh these two faiths together.
The Chinese kept some of the Indian faith’s practices and beliefs. This included the more traditional beliefs in karma and nirvana. Over time, these central doctrines to Buddhism became “Sinicized” (changed through Chinese influence). For example, many Chinese emperors had a fascination with immortality. As a result, there were many court members who attempted to create tonics that would extend the emperor’s life on Earth. Some of these elixirs actually ended up causing the death of a few emperors. But this focus of extending life on Earth and achieving immortality became interwoven with some Buddhist practices like enlightenment (nirvana). So, for many Chinese who adopted Buddhist beliefs, the idea of nirvana morphed into one that was different from the definition of nirvana in India. One of the most popular forms of Buddhism in both China and Japan is the Pure Land School. The Pure Land School believes in the Indian sutras but has a different focus than Indian Buddhism. “While in India rebirth in the Pure Land meant a complete break with earthly life, which was considered a life of suffering, in the Chinese Pure Land School it means an extension of earthly living.”squared Buddhism became Sinicized. It was changed for a Chinese audience and combined with other Chinese beliefs such as Daoism and more traditional cult practices.
The height or “golden age” of Buddhism in China was during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). During this period, many of the Tang emperors protected monasteries. The faith grew both spiritually and economically. But as foreign influences became less trusted in the ninth century, Buddhism experienced persecution. The Chinese government ordered over 4000 monasteries destroyed. In addition, close to 300,000 monks and nuns were forced out of their homes and places of worship. While Buddhism in China declined somewhat after the Tang, it never disappeared. In some areas, it combined with both Daoism and Confucianism. These three belief systems combined with more traditional Chinese rituals to become a mixture practiced together.

Historical scholars explain how the Chinese made Buddhism their own

How and why did Buddhism change after it was brought to China? Chinese and Buddhist history experts looked at evidence and formed ideas to explain the spread of this belief system. The Japanese expert Zenryū Tsukamoto wrote A History of Early Chinese Buddhism (1979). In these two volumes he says mistakes may have been made in translating Buddhist writings into Chinese. Did these mistakes in translation lead to a different form of Buddhism in China than the one practiced in India? Or were the differences in Chinese and Indian Buddhism a result of other factors?
“Eventually Indian artifacts joined this stream [of goods and ideas shared along the Silk Road] and, most important for our purposes, Buddhism began to flow with it, exerting an enormous influence not only on Chinese cultural forms but on those of the rest of Asia as well…Buddhism, this rebel child of Indian culture, proceeded eastward quite as if it were the representative of Indian civilization, functioning very actively and over an extended period of time as an embassy of peace, uniting the sophisticated, and at the same time utterly dissimilar, cultures of India and China…
As an example of the transformation just mentioned, one might cite the fact that scriptures of this foreign religion, written with a phonetic script or recited orally, in a language with a highly developed morphology [structure], were now rendered into a literary language of a totally different character, that of China, written with ideographs [characters] each of which had an independent meaning of its own and characterized by an absence of morphology. Now the Chinese had recourse not to the original but to Buddhist scriptures translated into their own language, which they read, interpreted, and equipped with commentary, developing a set of Buddhist doctrines and practices able to function in Chinese society…Under the circumstances, the original sense of the Indian Buddhist scriptures inevitably underwent a typically Chinese interpretation. However mistaken this interpretation might be from the point of view of the originals, Chinese Buddhism developed on the assumption that the interpretation was an accurate one.” (4-5)
Kenneth Kuan Sheng Ch’en expresses a slightly different view in his work Chinese Transformation of Buddhism (1973). Ch’en thought that Buddhism went through a gradual process of Sinicization. The Chinese were willing to accept this belief system because it fit with beliefs and practices they already had, such as Daoism. However, in order for the Chinese to fully embrace Buddhism, the faith was organized into a more orderly format.
“It is true that the process of Indianization [of China] did take place, but it is also true that another process was going on, namely, the adaptation of Buddhism to Chinese conditions. While Indian ideas were gaining ground, the Chinese were also fashioning changes in the Indian ideas and practices, so that Buddhism became more and more Chinese and more acceptable to the Chinese. I call this process the Sinicization of Buddhism in China…
Already possessed of a high level of civilization when Buddhism was introduced about the beginning of the Christian era, the Chinese were not totally overwhelmed by the new religion. It is true that for a few centuries, the Chinese were captivated by the overpowering religious panorama brought in with Buddhism, but in time, what some scholars call the basic personality or the local genius of the Chinese began manifesting itself…
Further examples of such Sinicization may be cited here. One is the classification of the Buddhist sutras [scripture] according to chronological periods, which may be attributed to the Chinese predilection [preference] for history. During the centuries after the introduction of Buddhism in China, a tremendous body of literature, conveying the widest assortment of doctrines and ideas, was translated into Chinese. This huge body of literature must have been a constant source of amazement to the Chinese, for how could one individual preach such a variety of teachings during his brief span of life? Moreover, how could one explain the numerous doctrinal differences taught…These problems led the Chinese Buddhists to undertake the task of organizing and classifying the entire corpus [collection] of literature according to periods and doctrines. By classifying the sutras according to chronological periods, the Chinese succeeded in bringing some order out of chaos.” (5-9)
Author bio
Bridgette Byrd O'Connor holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and has taught Big History, World History, and AP U.S. Government and Politics for the past ten years at the high school level. In addition, she has been a freelance writer and editor for the Big History Project and the Crash Course World History and U.S. History curriculums.

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user Jessica Huang
    One of my questions for the spread of Buddhism is how it became less popular in India but it became popular in China, though varying in different dynasties. The temple "Ming’s advisors brought back Buddhist sutra (scripture) and housed these works in a temple near the capital city." is called the White Horse Temple, which still stands in Luoyang, China.
    (5 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Hecretary Bird
      Many of the early empires of India, such as the Mauryas and Guptas, supported Buddhism or at the very least tolerated it. When India fragmented at the fall of the Gupta Empire, the people turned to their familiar Hinduism, I think. Additionally, Buddhism faced pressure and competition with other religions, especially hinduism and Islam. As the Gupta Empire collapsed, the Hindu Brahmins began to gain some political power and were liked by the rulers of the resulting kingdoms. With the exception of the Pala Dynasty, the kingdoms adopted Hinduism. Additionally, Buddhism was further disrupted by the Islamic incursions, from the Dehli Sultanate to the Muslims.
      (5 votes)