History of Buddhisms in China: The Nanbeichao Period (Late 4th Century to the Sui Dynasty)
- Henrik H. SørensenHenrik H. SørensenCenter for Religious Studies, Ruhr University Bochum
The period from the 3rd to the late 6th century, variously known as the period of the Northern and Southern States (Nanbeichao) and the Six Dynasties period (Liuchao) signals a formative period in Chinese history when Buddhism established itself in China. Virtually all its major scriptures, doctrines, and practices were introduced in some form during this period, which in many ways can be considered a defining development in the religion’s history in East Asia. During this time Buddhism, which entered China from both the Central Asian Silk Road and from the southern sea route, was at the beginning accompanying merchants from abroad, and during its early time mainly served foreign communities.
The Nanbeichao period is the time when Buddhism not only established itself but also became the dominant religious power in China, far outdistancing the native Daoist and Confucian traditions in terms of influence, economic power, and number of adherents. Even so, Buddhism in China was not a monolithic tradition with a centralized hierarchy or power structure. Buddhism in China, as in its native India, was divided into numerous independent communities each with its own leaders and support units, many reflecting specific local tendencies and geo-political conditions. As in many other religions, Buddhism was greatly dependent on royal and upper-class patronage for support in order to sustain its growing monastic populations and the costly building and construction projects its practices required. This meant land donations and the building of temples and monuments, including large-scale excavation of cave complexes for worship and habitation, which dot the Chinese landscape to this day.