Chinese Buddhism has shaped Chinese culture in a wide variety of areas including art, politics, literature, philosophy, medicine and material culture, which is also marked by the interaction between Indian religions, Chinese religion and Taoism. More than 2,500 years have passed since the birth of Buddhism, which was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, prince of the ancient state of Kapilavath in India (now in Nepal). Buddhism is one of the world’s three major religions, and it is generally believed in western countries that Buddhism originated in India. 

History of Chinese Buddhism

Buddhism first came to China in the first century CE during the Han dynasty, through missionaries from India, which took over a century to become assimilated into Chinese culture. It was probably introduced to China by Silk Road traders from the west in about the 1st century CE.

Initially, Buddhism in China faced a number of difficulties in becoming established. Confucian China was not terribly friendly to Buddhism. In 446, the Wei ruler Emperor Taiwu began a brutal suppression of Buddhism. While his successor, Emperor Xiaowen, ended the suppression and began a restoration of Buddhism that included the sculpting of the magnificent Yungang Grottoes. During the reign of emperor Liang Wu from 502 to 549, Buddhism flourished in southern China. The emperor was a devout Buddhist and a generous patron of temples and monasteries.

The influence of Buddhism in China reached its peak during the Tang dynasty (618-907). Buddhist art flourished and temples became rich and powerful. In 845, however, the emperor began a suppression of Buddhism, which marked the beginning of a long decline. Even so, after a thousand years, Buddhism thoroughly permeated Chinese culture and also influenced its rival religions of Confucianism and Taoism.

Major Branches of Chinese Buddhism

Due to the differences of time, approach, region, ethnic culture, social and historical background of introduction, Chinese Buddhism has formed three major branches, namely Han Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Southern Buddhism in Yunnan.

Han Buddhism

Han Buddhism is a Buddhism sect divided by geographical location, spreading in China, Japan, Korea and other places. It is a branch of northern Buddhism, mainly mahayana Buddhism. Because of Chinese influence, Han Buddhism spread Mahayana Buddhism to Korea, Japan and Vietnam, and influenced Tibetan Buddhism. In essence, Chinese Buddhism can be said to be one of the main forces shaping the appearance of Mahayana Buddhism. 

Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism, sometimes called Lamaism, branch of Vajrayana( Tantric, or Esoteric) Buddhism that evolved from the 7th century CE in Tibet. It is based mainly on the rigorous intellectual disciplines of Madhyamika and Yogachara philosophy and utilizes the Tantric ritual practices that developed in Central Asia and particularly in Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism incorporates Madhyamika and Yogacara philosophy, Tantric symbolic rituals, Theravadin monastic discipline and the shamanistic features of the local Tibetan religion Bön. See more about Tibetan Buddhism.

Southern Buddhism

Buddhism that spread from India to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Yunnan province of China. The term Southern Buddhism contrasts with Northern Buddhism, which spread to Central Asia, Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan. Southern Buddhism is also called Theravada Buddhism or Southern Theravada Buddhism.

Basic Concepts of Chinese Buddhism

Chinese Buddhism incorporates elements of traditional Buddhism and Taoism. To help the Chinese comprehend Buddhist concepts, Buddhists borrowed ideas from Daoism via the Chinese language. Both Buddhism and Daoism benefited from this exchange. Buddhism in China–as is the case with religious Daoism and Confucianism–also underwent many changes throughout the country’s history and was varied in its social and religious manifestations and philosophical beliefs.

Common beliefs include

  • existence of gods, ghosts and hell realm
  • reincarnation, or more technically, rebirth, according to one’s karma
  • karmic retribution, ethically cause and effect

Deny Fatalism

Buddhism denies fatalism and believes that people have a destiny. However, it does not encourage people to leave fate to fate, but hopes that people can create their own destiny. Buddhism advocates that all dharma is born by karma, so fate is also born by karma. Bad fate can be changed by planting good karma. On the contrary, a good fate will fall even if it is not well maintained.


Buddhism believes that when karma is not available, things disappear, and such a phenomenon is “emptiness”. So what is karma? The cause is the main condition, the effect is the auxiliary condition, and when neither the main condition nor the auxiliary condition is available, nothing exists. Therefore, the existence of any thing needs to have primary and secondary causes. 

Opposed to Suicide

Living beings in the endless cycle of life is hard to get the opportunity to be a person. Whether we repay our parents, the pursuit of a happy life in the world, or the study of Buddhism, all rely on this very rare precious person. Buddhism is not only against killing life, but also against suicide, and advocates protecting life. The Buddha had a clear condemnation and prohibition of suicide.

Against the Doomsday Cult

Doomsday rumors have no basis in Buddhist classics. Buddhism is a religion that gives people confidence, hope and joy. Buddhists should not easily believe and spread doomsday stories. Buddhism claims that every day is a good day.

The Top Buddhist Sites in China

The Mogao Grottoes

The Mogao Caves, also known as the Thousand Buddha Grottoes or Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, form a system of 492 temples 25 km southeast of the center of Dunhuang, an oasis located at a religious and cultural crossroads on the Silk Road, in Gansu province.

The Leshan Giant Buddha

The Leshan Giant Buddha is a 71-metre tall stone statue, built between 713 and 803, depicting Maitreya. It is carved out of a cliff face of Cretaceous red bed sandstones that lies at the confluence of the Min River and Dadu River in the southern part of Sichuan province in China, near the city of Leshan.

The Yungang Grottoes

The Yungang Grottoes, formerly the Wuzhoushan Grottoes, are ancient Chinese Buddhist temple grottoes near the city of Datong in the province of Shanxi. They are excellent examples of rock-cut architecture and one of the three most famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China. The others are Longmen and Mogao

Songzanlin Monastery

The Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery, also known as Sungtseling and Guihuasi, is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery situated 5 kilometres from the city of Zhongdian at elevation 3,380 metres in Yunnan province, China.

Learn More About Buddhism in China

If you are eager to learn more about Chinese Buddhism, please contact our experts who will help you create a personalized journey to China’s top Buddhist sites. Our knowledgeable travel consultants and local guides will be sure to blend some of China’s top Buddhist highlights into your customized itinerary. Below are some ready-made itineraries which can be fully-customized to meet your needs.

Recommended Tours:
4 Days Dunhuang City Tour
5 Days Lhasa Small Group Tour with Three Major Monasteries
8 Days Best Yunnan Classic Tour
9 Days Sichuan World Heritages Tour