Buddhism’s impact on classical China
The popularity of Buddhism in China c. 220 CE was due to its positive reception in the large peasant class. However; emperors and aristocrats found themselves threatened by the relaxed Buddhist teachings that undermined the authority of the pro-Confucian government and weakened peasant work ethic. Although the anti-Buddhist opinions of high-ranking officials in the 3rd-6th centuries of China should be taken into consideration, a peasant-written document highlighting the benefits of Buddhism in contrast to the defensive viewpoints taken by emperors and aristocrats would be helpful in analyzing the true extent of Buddhism’s popularity in China.
Around 350 CE, a time of instability in China, peasants found comfort in the teachings of Buddhism, which unlike Confucianism offered an afterlife the threatened peasants could look forward to. This led to many conversions from Confucianism to Buddhism, which worried rulers; a loss of popular belief in the state-backed religion could potentially undermine the government and result in a loss of power for many bureaucrats. Han Yu, a court official in 819 CE, refers to the spread of this wicked “cult” from India and repeatedly presses that Buddhism be eradicated in China (Doc 4). The Tang emperor Wu, writing during roughly the same period, (845 CE), mirrors the opinion of Han Yu. He speaks of Buddhism negatively, citing the lax work ethic of Buddhists, and like Han Yu, he calls for the uprooting of Buddhism from China (Doc 6). However; behind both these officials’ vehement words is a fear that the popularization of Buddhism would alter the government structure, which would cause loss of their status. They wrote their edicts to change the minds of peasants who were considering converting to this “cult” because perhaps if they convinced enough to remain Confucian, they would keep their high-ranking positions.
Buddhism gained much of its popularity during the tumultuous era from 350-570...
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