Buddhist practice transformed the religious landscape in China, introducing new forms of mental cultivation and new ritual technologies within an altered cosmology of spiritual goals. Buddhist practice was carried out by individuals, but was equally as often a communal activity. A basic unit of religious practice was the family; Buddhist cultivation was also carried out by communities of practice at monasteries, which were also sites of large-scale rituals. Forms of religious practice included meditation, oral recitation, ritual performances including confession and vow making, and merit-making activities. Meditation encompassed following breath and exercises that recreated Buddhist images in the practitioner’s mind. Meditation could be carried out while sitting, or while walking, and might also incorporate recitation of scriptures, names of the Buddhas, and dhāraṇī. Indeed, meditation practices were most often embedded in liturgical sequences that included confession, vows, and merit dedication. The goal of these religious practices might be personal spiritual development; through the concept of merit transference, religious activities also worked to benefit others, especially the dead. The fundamental of components of Buddhist practice were present very early in the tradition’s history in China, and over time these elements were combined in new ways, and with reference to changing objects of devotion. The four major bodhisattvas of Mañjuśrī (Wenshu 文殊), Samantabhadra (Puxian 普賢), Kṣitigarbha (Dizang 地藏), and Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin 觀音) were especially important as objects of devotion, and also were emplaced in the Chinese landscape, where they were incorporated into pilgrimages.
When Buddhism started to become part of religious life in China from the 1st century ce onward, the Chinese were confronted with several peculiar aspects of the first major foreign religion that took root in their century-old culture. They had to come to terms with the fact that the religion had been founded by an individual in distant India as clearly expressed in the different versions of the Buddha biography, but also with the constant and sometimes confusingly contradictory and apparently incomplete stream of Buddhist texts from India that were translated into Chinese. While Indian and Central Asian monks arrived in China very early and transmitted Buddhist texts and practices, Chinese monks from the 3rd century onward started to actively search for Buddhist texts, new teachings in the “Western Regions,” the ancient Chinese name for all regions lying west of the cultural or political boundaries of the Chinese Empire, which also included India. Some of them also wanted to visit and see the sacred places in the homeland of their religion in India in order to gain religious merit or to study Buddhist doctrine and practice in the monastic centers of learning in the “Middle Region” or Magadha, the heartland of Buddhism in the Gangetic plain. Although it is not clear, due to the lack of historical sources, how many of these Chinese monks, much less frequently Buddhist laymen, took the risk of the perilous journey through the deserts and across high mountain passes of Central Asia or across the ocean, there must have been hundreds of them between the 4th and 11th centuries. A number of these died during their journey while others decided to stay in India, the “Holy Land” of Buddhism. Some of those who returned to China left records about their travels or of the information they had gathered about the “Western Regions.” The most famous of these monks are Faxian (trav. 319–413), Xuanzang (trav. 629–645), and Yijing (trav. 671–695). The three monks represent the different routes taken by Chinese travelers to South Asia: Faxian went via the land route (Silk Road) and returned by sea, Xuanzang made both trips by the overland route, and Yijing traveled by the sea route via Southeast Asia. While Faxian’s and Xuanzang’s records are a kind of documentary description of the different regions they traveled through or heard about, mainly reporting on the situation of Buddhism, Yijing’s two reports comprise an anthology of Buddhist monks who had traveled to India in the second half of the 7th century and a record of Buddhism as practiced in India and on the Southeast Asian archipelago. The records and their translations had a strong influence on the emerging fields of South and Central Asian history and archaeology in the 19th century when most of the translations of the relevant texts were made.
The ruling elite of imperial China was composed of diverse groups, including imperial clansmen and in-laws, eunuchs and other palace attendants, as well as incumbents of a vast civil and military bureaucracy who had hailed, in some historical periods, from different social, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. The distribution of power among these groups shifted constantly in tandem with the vagaries of political situations. Of these groups, the most prominent and best documented were the shi, who derived their status from a confluence of economic, social, political, and cultural resources. What it meant to be a shi and who qualified as a shi varied greatly over time. The first shi were men of talent who were recruited into government on account of their administrative, military, and diplomatic abilities, regardless of their family or regional origin. The rise of these shi was itself a corollary of China’s transition into the imperial era, which was marked by a persistent endeavor by warring states to build an effective bureaucratic administration staffed by capable men. Within a few centuries, however, the shi had become a semi-hereditary elite, comprising a relatively small number of families that monopolized high offices in government, resided in the capital, and married almost exclusively among themselves. This superelite dissipated in the 10th and 11th centuries, in the midst of a series of economic, social, and political changes that profoundly transformed the character of the shi as well as their relationship to the imperial state and local society. In the subsequent millennium, learning took precedent over pedigree and officeholding in defining shi status. Hence, the shi became a more inclusive epithet and was adopted by all men who had the education that qualified them for government service, thus blurring the distinction between government officials and a more diffuse stratum of local leaders. These transformations took place in the context of longue-durée economic and social changes from Song times onwards, including the growth of private wealth, the spread of printing, the expansion of the educated population, and the development of various local social institutions.
Warfare and the military were at the center of the imperial Chinese state, though their significance was downplayed by government officials and the literati. Chinese dynasties fielded armies organized and supported by the central government that combined infantry and cavalry forces, and mixed part-time (militia) and professional soldiers. Cavalry and infantry forces were strongly, though not exclusively, connected to ethnic background. The best and most numerous cavalry came from steppe groups, and the best and most numerous infantry were Chinese. The stirrup and guns were invented in China, changing the course of both Chinese and world military history. China also had a highly developed tradition of military thought that drew upon a classical tradition and was vastly elaborated and expanded upon during the imperial period. What most distinguished imperial China from its earlier period was the effective use of war to create and support a unified state. Overall, the history of warfare and the military in imperial China was one of technological and intellectual sophistication in support of state power.