Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution

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The Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution initiated by Tang Emperor Wuzong reached its height in the year 845 CE. Among its purposes were to appropriate war funds and to cleanse China of foreign influences. As such, the persecution was directed not only towards Buddhism but also towards other foreign religions, such as Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism. Only the native Chinese ideologies of Confucianism and Taoism survived the upheaval relatively unaffected.

Reasons for the Persecution[edit]

Emperor Wuzong's reasons for persecuting the Buddhist organisations and temples throughout China were economic, social, and religious.

  • Economic reasons: In 843 the emperor's armies won a decisive battle against the Uyghur tribes at the cost of almost bankrupting the country. Wuzong's solution to the financial crisis was to go after the wealth that had been accumulated in the Buddhist monasteries. Buddhism had flourished greatly during the Tang period, and its monasteries enjoyed tax-exempt status. In 845, Wuzong closed many Buddhist shrines, confiscated their property, and sent the monks and nuns home to lay life.
  • Social reasons: Confucian intellectuals such as Han Yu railed against Buddhism for undermining the social structure of China. It eroded the loyalty of son to father, and subject to ruler, by encouraging people to leave their families and to become monks and nuns. Once they had been ordained, they stopped engaging in useful economic activity such as agriculture and weaving, and became a burden that had to be supported by the work of others. The persecution sought to return monks and nuns to the ranks of tax-paying commoners engaged in useful economic activity.[1]
  • Religious reasons: While Wuzong saw Buddhism as a foreign religion that was harmful to Chinese society, he became a zealous follower of Taoism, a faith which he regarded as native to China. Buddhism preached the attainment of non-birth or nirvana, which its critics equated with death, while Taoism promised immortality, a notion that increasingly captured the attention of the emperor as he grew older and less rational.[2]

An imperial edict of 845 stated the case against Buddhism as follows:

Events of the Persecution[edit]

The first phase of the persecution was one aimed at purifying or reforming the Buddhist church rather than exterminating it. Thus, the persecution began in 842 with an imperial edict providing that undesirables such as sorcerers or convicts were to be weeded out from the ranks of the Buddhist monks and nuns and were to be returned to lay life. In addition, monks and nuns were to turn their wealth over to the government; those who wished to keep their wealth would be returned to lay life and forced to pay taxes.[4] During this first phase, Confucian arguments for the reform of Buddhist institutions and the protection of society from Buddhist influence and practices were predominant.[5]

Gradually, however, the Emperor Wuzong became more and more impressed with the claims of Taoist fanatics, and came to develop a severe dislike for Buddhism.[6] The Japanese monk Ennin, who lived in China during the persecution, even suggested that the emperor had been influenced by his illicit love of a beautiful Taoist priestess.[7] In addition, as time went by the emperor became more irascible and less sane in his judgments. One of his edicts banned the use of single-wheeled wheelbarrows, since they break up "the middle of the road," an important concept of Taoism.[8] As a result, in 844 the persecution moved into a second phase the objective of which was the extermination rather than the reformation of Buddhism.[9] According to the report prepared by the Board of Worship, there were 4,600 monasteries, 40,000 hermitages (places of retreat), 260,500 monks and nuns. The emperor issued edicts that Buddhist temples and shrines be destroyed, that all monks (desirables as well as undesirables) be defrocked, that the property of the monasteries be confiscated, and that Buddhist paraphernalia be destroyed.[10] An edict providing that foreign monks be defrocked and returned to their homelands resulted in Ennin's expulsion from China.[11] By the edict of AD 845 all the monasteries were abolished with very few exceptions. When the monasteries were broken up the images of bronze, silver or gold were to be handed over to the government.

In 846, the Emperor Wuzong died, perhaps on account of the elixirs of life he had been consuming. It is also possible that he was intentionally poisoned. Shortly thereafter, his successor proclaimed a general amnesty. The persecution was over.[12]

Effects on Buddhism[edit]

The suppression of monasteries and persecution of foreign religions were part of a reformation undertaken. The persecution lasted for twenty months—not long, but long enough to have permanent effects. Buddhism, for all its strength, never completely recovered. For centuries afterwards, it was merely a tolerated religion. The days of its greatest building, sculpture, and painting, and its most vital creative thought, were past.

In some aspects while much of traditional Buddhist teachings were later arduously restored following Emperor Wuzong's reign, some traditional schools of thought were wiped out. This included the ancient Esoteric school, which barely survived through transmission of the teachings to the Japanese monk Kūkai, later the founder of the Shingon sect.

Effects on other religions[edit]

In addition to Buddhism, Wuzong persecuted other foreign religions as well. He all but destroyed Zoroastrianism and Manichaeanism in China, and his persecution of the growing Nestorian Christian churches sent Chinese Christianity into a decline from which it never recovered.

Chinese records state Zoroastrianism and Christianity were regarded as heretical forms of Buddhism, and were included within the scope of the edicts. Below is from an edict concerning the two religions:

Islam was brought to China during the Tang dynasty by Arab traders, who were primarily concerned with trading and commerce, and not concerned at all with spreading Islam. They did not try to convert Chinese at all, and only did commerce. It was because of this low profile that the 845 anti Buddhist edict said absolutely nothing about Islam.[14] It seems that trade occupied the attention of the early Muslim settlers rather than religious propagandise; that while they observed the tenets and practised the rites of their faith in China, they did not undertake any strenuous campaign against either Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, or the State creed, and that they constituted a floating rather than a fixed element of the population, coming and going between China and the West by the oversea or the overland routes.[15][16]

See also[edit]

Sources[edit]

  • Reischauer, Edwin O. Ennin's Travels in Tang China. New York: Ronald Press, 1955.
  • Philip, T. V. East of the Euphrates: Early Christianity in Asia. India: CSS & ISPCK, India, 1998 (See here)

References[edit]

  1. ^ Reischauer, p.221 ff.
  2. ^ Reischauer, p.243 ff.
  3. ^ Philip, p.125.
  4. ^ Reischauer, p.237 ff.
  5. ^ Reischauer, p.242-243.
  6. ^ Reischauer, p.245.
  7. ^ Reischauer, p.246.
  8. ^ Reischauer, p.247.
  9. ^ Reischauer, p.244, 253.
  10. ^ Reischauer, p.253 ff.
  11. ^ Reischauer, p.256 ff.
  12. ^ Reischauer, p.270.
  13. ^ Philip, p.123.
  14. ^ Herbert Allen Giles (1926). Confucianism and its rivals. Forgotten Books. p. 139. ISBN 1-60680-248-8. Retrieved 2011-12-14. In7= 789 the Khalifa Harun al Raschid dispatched a mission to China, and there had been one or two less important missions in the seventh and eighth centuries; but from 879, the date of the Canton massacre, for more than three centuries to follow, we hear nothing of the Mahometans and their religion. They were not mentioned in the edict of 845, which proved such a blow to Buddhism and Nestorian Christianityl perhaps because they were less obtrusive in ithe propagation of their religion, a policy aided by the absence of anything like a commercial spirit in religious matters. 
  15. ^ Frank Brinkley (1902). China: its history, arts and literature, Volume 2. Volumes 9-12 of Trübner's oriental series. BOSTON AND TOKYO: J.B.Millet company. pp. 149, 150, 151, 152. Retrieved 2011-12-14. It would seem, however, that trade occupied the attention of the early Mohammedan settlers rather than religious propagan dism; that while they observed the tenets and practised the rites of their faith in China, they did not undertake any strenuous campaign against either Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, or the State creed, and that they constituted a floating rather than a fixed element of the population, coming and going between China and the West by the oversea or the overland routes. According to Giles, the true stock of the present Chinese Mohammedans was a small army of four thousand Arabian soldiers, who, being sent by the Khaleef Abu Giafar in 755 to aid in putting down a rebellion, were subsequently permitted to * * settle in China, where they married native wives. The numbers of this colony received large accessions in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries during the conquests of Genghis, and ultimately the Mohammedans formed an appreciable element of the population, having their own mosques and schools, and observing the rites of their religion, but winning few converts except among the aboriginal tribes, as the Lolos and the Mantsu. Their failure as propagandists is doubtless due to two causes, first, that, according to the inflexible rule of their creed, the Koran might not be translated into Chinese or any other foreign language; secondly and chiefly, that their denunciations of idolatry were as unpalatable to ancestor-worshipping Chinese as were their interdicts against pork and wine. They were never prevented, however, from practising their faith so long as they obeyed the laws of the land, and the numerous mosques that exist throughout China prove what a large measure of liberty these professors of a strange creed enjoyed. One feature of the mosques is noticeable, however: though distinguished by large arches and by Arabic inscriptions, they are generally constructed and arranged so as to bear some resemblance to Buddhist temples, and they have tablets carrying the customary ascription of reverence to the Emperor of China, — facts suggesting that their builders were not entirely free from a sense of the inexpediency of differentiating the evidences of their religion too conspicuously from those of the popular creed. It has been calculated that in the regions north of the Yangtse the followers of Islam aggregate as many as ten millions, and that eighty thousand are to be found in one of the towns of Szchuan. On the other hand, just as it has been shown above that although the Central Government did not in any way interdict or obstruct the tradal operations of foreigners in early times, the local officials sometimes subjected them to extortion and maltreatment of a grievous and even unendurable nature, so it appears that while as a matter of State policy, full tolerance was extended to the Mohammedan creed, its disciples frequently found themselves the victims of such unjust discrimination at the hand of local officialdom that they were driven to seek redress in rebellion. That, however, did not occur until the nineteenth century. There is no evidence that, prior to the time of the Great Manchu Emperor Chienlung (1736-1796), Mohammedanism presented any deterrent aspect to the Chinese. That renowned ruler, whose conquests carried his banners to the Pamirs and the Himalayas, did indeed conceive a strong dread of the potentialities of Islamic fanaticism reinforced by disaffection on the part of the aboriginal tribes among whom the faith had many adherents. He is said to have entertained at one time the terrible project of eliminating this source of danger in Shensi and Kansuh by killing every Mussulman found there, but whether he really contemplated an act so foreign to the general character of his procedure is doubtful. The broad fact is that the Central Government of China has never persecuted Mohammedans or discriminated against them. They are allowed to present themselves at the examinations for civil or military appointments, and the successful candidates obtain office as readily as their Chinese competitors. Original from the University of California
  16. ^ Frank Brinkley (1904). Japan [and China]: China; its history, arts and literature. Volume 10 of Japan [and China]: Its History, Arts and Literature. LONDON 34 HENRIETTA STREET, W. C. AND EDINBURGH: Jack. pp. 149, 150, 151, 152. Retrieved 2011-12-14. It would seem, however, that trade occupied the attention of the early Mohammedan settlers rather than religious propagan dism; that while they observed the tenets and practised the rites of their faith in China, they did not undertake any strenuous campaign against either Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, or the State creed, and that they constituted a floating rather than a fixed element of the population, coming and going between China and the West by the oversea or the overland routes. According to Giles, the true stock of the present Chinese Mohammedans was a small army of four thousand Arabian soldiers, who, being sent by the Khaleef Abu Giafar in 755 to aid in putting down a rebellion, were subsequently permitted to * * settle in China, where they married native wives. The numbers of this colony received large accessions in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries during the conquests of Genghis, and ultimately the Mohammedans formed an appreciable element of the population, having their own mosques and schools, and observing the rites of their religion, but winning few converts except among the aboriginal tribes, as the Lolos and the Mantsu. Their failure as propagandists is doubtless due to two causes, first, that, according to the inflexible rule of their creed, the Koran might not be translated into Chinese or any other foreign language; secondly and chiefly, that their denunciations of idolatry were as unpalatable to ancestor-worshipping Chinese as were their interdicts against pork and wine. They were never prevented, however, from practising their faith so long as they obeyed the laws of the land, and the numerous mosques that exist throughout China prove what a large measure of liberty these professors of a strange creed enjoyed. One feature of the mosques is noticeable, however: though distinguished by large arches and by Arabic inscriptions, they are generally constructed and arranged so as to bear some resemblance to Buddhist temples, and they have tablets carrying the customary ascription of reverence to the Emperor of China, — facts suggesting that their builders were not entirely free from a sense of the inexpediency of differentiating the evidences of their religion too conspicuously from those of the popular creed. It has been calculated that in the regions north of the Yangtse the followers of Islam aggregate as many as ten millions, and that eighty thousand are to be found in one of the towns of Szchuan. On the other hand, just as it has been shown above that although the Central Government did not in any way interdict or obstruct the tradal operations of foreigners in early times, the local officials sometimes subjected them to extortion and maltreatment of a grievous and even unendurable nature, so it appears that while as a matter of State policy, full tolerance was extended to the Mohammedan creed, its disciples frequently found themselves the victims of such unjust discrimination at the hand of local officialdom that they were driven to seek redress in rebellion. That, however, did not occur until the nineteenth century. There is no evidence that, prior to the time of the Great Manchu Emperor Chienlung (1736-1796), Mohammedanism presented any deterrent aspect to the Chinese. That renowned ruler, whose conquests carried his banners to the Pamirs and the Himalayas, did indeed conceive a strong dread of the potentialities of Islamic fanaticism reinforced by disaffection on the part of the aboriginal tribes among whom the faith had many adherents. He is said to have entertained at one time the terrible project of eliminating this source of danger in Shensi and Kansuh by killing every Mussulman found there, but whether he really contemplated an act so foreign to the general character of his procedure is doubtful. The broad fact is that the Central Government of China has never persecuted Mohammedans or discriminated against them. They are allowed to present themselves at the examinations for civil or military appointments, and the successful candidates obtain office as readily as their Chinese competitors. Original from Princeton University