In considering this account of world history, one of the big problems is the different shape of history in China and the West. For whereas in the West, Rome declined and fell and the Middle Ages that followed lasted for nearly a millennium, in China the periods of disunity that separated the dynasties were always followed by a bounce back, when a new dynasty came along even more glorious than what came before. Why?
I believe that the answer lies in religion. The problem with Rome was that when it declined, all its beliefs and traditions were wiped out and replaced by those of Christianity. There is no coexistence – Christianity triumphed, and the gods of Rome, and its traditions and history were forgotten. Dark Age writers such as Gildas display an intimate knowledge of the Old Testament and draw their arguments from the Testaments, but their knowledge of Roman history is sketchy and often wrong.
China was different. In China, the old religions, essentially the teaching of Confucius, but also Daoism and the ancestral religions tended to rise and fall with the success of the traditional Chinese Empire, but when in periods of disunity they fell out of fashion, Buddhism took their place; and Buddhism is a very much nicer religion than Christianity. For whereas Christianity is intolerant of all other gods and religions, Buddhism coexisted with other religions. In India, its birthplace, it coexisted with and then virtually vanished in the face of the traditional religion of Hinduism. In Southeast Asia it became predominant, while in Japan it coexisted with the traditional religion of Shintoism. In China, Buddhism was and is still enormously powerful and in order to understand Chinese history, we must also seek to understand Buddhism.
The Life of Buddha
Buddha lived in the sixth or fifth century BC – his dates like those of Confucius are uncertain –but it appears he was a contemporary of Confucius and indeed of Plato and Aristotle in Greece. He was born into a royal family and lived a sheltered youth, but when he grew up and went out into the world he was appalled at poverty and suffering, so he sought ways of alleviating the suffering and by means of the four Noble Truths he aimed to achieve enlightenment. He gathered numerous disciples and left a flourishing sect which really took off two centuries later when the great King Ashoka adopted it and it became virtually the state religion.
It spread abroad, carried by merchants along the Silk Road and arrived in China in the years after around 200 AD, at the time when the Han Empire was collapsing and with it the Confucian philosophy that underpinned it: Buddhism was ready to step into the gap. It flourished exceedingly under the Northern Wei dynasty, the most successful of the dynasties in the unsettled period between the Han and the Tang. It is to this period that the greatest Buddhist sculptures belong, the huge statues of Buddha, carved first at the Yungang grottoes in the north-west near Datong, the early capital of the Northern Wei. When they fled south to the Chinese heartland at Luoyang, further giant statues were erected along the river at Longmen.
Why was Buddhism so successful? The trouble with Confucianism is that it is essentially a philosophy rather than religion, and while very attractive to those who are rationalists, there is little to appeal to religious types. Buddhism however is a really religious religion: it has a strong element of mysticism, and it encourages meditation and yoga: it offers a spiritual enlightenment with strong element of stress management, indeed it promises those who follow in its footsteps that they will be offered spiritual enlightenment and relief from sorrow.
There was also a strong element of the exotic: it was a foreign religion that came from mystical India with its long tradition of Hindu spiritualism. It arrived in China from the North, along the Silk Road, the very area from which the invaders came, the Northern Barbarians who established kingdoms in the age of disunity. Again the problem with Confucianism is that it was essentially a Chinese religion, from which the non-Chinese were, if not exactly barred, were nevertheless treated as outsiders. However Buddhism united all: the great Buddhist statues of Yungang and Longmen were sponsored by the Northern Wei barbarians.
And then there was the physical: there were no Confucian temples, no monasteries to which one could retire. Buddhism however had a huge a physical presence and in China today it is the Buddhist monasteries and temples that form the outstanding architectural monuments of China’s historic past. Monasteries were particularly popular: many felt the urge to retire from the everyday world, and to abandon their worldly goods, shave their heads and proclaim chastity and renounce any chance of having children. This was particularly upsetting to the traditional Confucians and indeed all Chinese tradition, for there was a firm belief in the family, and a belief that one should honour one’s ancestors by continuing their line and producing children. Chastity was firmly against Chinese tradition, as was the shaving of one’s head.
But monasteries soon grew rich. They were free from taxation and novices often gave them all their wealth. There were indeed attempts at suppression, notably in 843-5 by the Emperor Wuzong, whose wars had depleted the treasury, and who desperately needed money. But the succeeding Emperor reversed the decision; though the loss of taxation when land was given to monasteries was a sore point to many Emperors. The monasteries appealed to men and women alike – there were many nunneries. True, all the Bodhisattvas were male, but they were portrayed in an androgynous or asexual form, so it was never clear whether they were male or female. Buddhism indeed appealed particularly to the elderly widows who otherwise tended to feel abandoned.
They even produce a characteristic architectural structure in the shape of the pagoda. Originally the pagoda, or rather the stupa from which it was derived, was a tower erected over a sacred relic, but once established in China, the pagoda became more of a tower for the sake of building a tower. Many were in timber and have not survived, but a number were built in brick, and even if they never quite achieved the flamboyance of the pagodas of Japan or South East Asia, they nevertheless form the outstanding relics of China’s historic past.
Buddhism is very different from Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions – and indeed from the Greek and Roman pantheon. It is essentially an offshoot of Hinduism, and does not believe in a Creator God – or perhaps rather sees this as being an irrelevant concept. Buddhism is essentially a pessimistic religion, believing that life is suffering, and the purpose of a religion is to help us escape from this suffering by dispelling cravings and ignorance by means of meditation and study. This can be done in many ways, which has resulted in many different branches of Buddhism, and indeed many different branches of Hinduism. But it does mean that it is a religion of tolerance and compassion and that we should seek answers within our own minds. It is this tolerance and compassion that is the main difference from Christianity, and which has enabled it to coexist with the philosophy of Confucianism, and it is this background of coexistence that has enabled the Chinese Empire to continue so long and so successfully.