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 CE. This is when pro-Buddhist scholars began appearing in greater numbers. One such scholar, Zhi Dun, identified Buddhism as a means of getting through trying times. Around 350 CE, the beginning of the unstable period, Zhi wrote a letter describing the wonder of the afterlife promised by Buddha. He wrote this to comfort the thousands of fearful and spiritually deprived Confucian Chinese, who lacked belief in an afterlife.
Their death was a growing possibility, because they were being slaughtered by invading Mongols. Zhi wished to inform them of the alternative afterlife promised through Buddhism; “Nirvana” (Doc 2). The same teachings Zhi was addressing to the Chinese peasantry had already been spoke by the Buddha himself to the Indian people many centuries before c. 563 BCE. The first sermon Buddha gave spoke of Noble Truths, which could stop sorrow and craving (Doc 1). One can see why these ideas, embodied by Buddhism would be popular among a poor Chinese peasantry, just as they had been in India.
Although the general impression from Chinese officials and scholars towards Buddhism is negative, there were a few discrepancies; Chinese scholars who favored Buddha’s teachings. A Chinese scholar wrote positively in 500 CE of the Buddha in comparison to Confucius, stating “To compare the sages to the Buddha would be like comparing a white deer to a unicorn…” (Doc 3). Moreover, around 800 CE, after the period of instability, a scholar favored by the Tang imperial household wrote an essay on the nature of man, stating boldly that “Confucius, Laozi, and the Buddha were all perfect sages,” (Doc 5). This document highlights that once the era of instability had passed and Confucianism was again the dominant religion, rulers and their court scholars could evaluate Buddhism as a religion without fearful prejudice.
In conclusion, historically, the spread of Buddhism into China was regarded negatively by the ruling, high-ranking, and aristocratic class. China was inundated with anti-Buddhist propaganda (shown by the documents) in response to the popularity among the majority of the peasantry, which made up the bulk of the Chinese population. This propaganda was typically anti-Buddhist because it was the upper/literate class who was writing it; consequently it was slanted towards their own negative views on Buddhism. A document written by a very poor or peasant scholar regarding their view of Buddhism would create a more complete picture of how it was really received in China.