SOAS University of London

Department of Religions & Philosophies, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

History and Themes of Chinese Buddhism

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 1

This course offers an advanced introduction to the history, doctrines, beliefs and practices of Buddhism in China. This thematic history will explore the transition from ‘Buddhism in China’ to the formation of ‘Chinese Buddhism’, hence the emergence of its distinctive identity in the wider context of (1) Buddhism as a cross-cultural religious tradition; (2) Buddhism as an identity marker of Chinese culture, i.e., we will assess the place of Buddhism in the religious culture of premodern China and discuss its relationship with indigenous beliefs and practices.

Each theme will focus on the premodern period and the modern and contemporary era, so to analyse reception history of texts, doctrines and rituals, and forms of transition, continuation and rupture within the overall history of Chinese Buddhism. 

Topics will include:

• the historical process of diffusion of Buddhism to China from India and Central Asia;

• the adaptation and cultural assimilation of Buddhism in Chinese society 

• the stages and major events in the history of Buddhism in premodern and modern China;

• the doctrines and practices of the main schools (Pure Land, Chan, Tiantai, and Huayan);

• the development of Buddhist monasticism;

• Buddhist rituals and lay devotion;

• the confrontation between the Buddhist community and institution and the political power.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On completion of the syllabus, students should:

1. have acquired a basic knowledge of the historical development of Buddhism in China;

2. have become familiar with the main schools (Chan, Tiantai, Pure Land, etc.) and doctrines of Chinese Buddhism;

3. be aware of the distinctive identity of Chinese Buddhism in the wider context of Buddhism as a cross-cultural religious tradition;

4. be able to locate Buddhism as a part of Chinese religious tradition and discuss its relationship with indigenous beliefs and practices;

5. have acquired the basic methodological skills for the study of Chinese Buddhism.    


One hour Lecture; one hour Tutorial

Scope and syllabus

  1. Course Introduction and Preliminary Reflections
  2. When and how did Buddhism arrive in China? And how did Buddhism affect China?
  3. Texts, Translations, Authority and Canonization (I)
  4. Texts, Translations, Authority and Canonization (II)
  5. Discipline for the Sangha & Rules for the Monasteries: Creating a 'Chinese Model'
  6. Eminence & Charisma: Biographies and Hagiographies of Monks and Nuns
  7. Buddhism and Society, Buddhism and Power
  8. Schools: Chan & Pure Land
  9. Schools: Tiantai & Huayan
  10. Rituals and Pilgrimage Practices

Method of assessment

  • One 1500 word Reaction Paper (30%)
  • One 2,500 word essay (70%)

Suggested reading

  • Ch’en, Kenneth. Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964 [CC294.3 /204898].
  • Ch’en, Kenneth. The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1973 [CC294.3 /995320].
  • Gernet, Jacques. Buddhism in Chinese Society: An Economic History from the Fifth to the Tenth Centuries. Translated by Franciscus Verellen. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995 [CC294.3 /811619].
  • Lopez, Donald, ed. Religions of China in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996 [CC291 /716632].
  • Wright, Arthur. Buddhism in Chinese History. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1959 [CC294.3 /820289].
  • Zürcher, Erik. The Buddhist Conquest of China. Leiden: Brill, [1959] 2007 [available as e-book].


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules