SOAS University of London

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

Chinese Buddhism in Pre-Modern Period

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2020/2021
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 2

This course offers an advanced introduction to the history, doctrines, beliefs and practices of Buddhism in China, from its arrival around the turn of the Common Era to the beginning of the Song dynasty (960-1279). It will thus explore the formation of Chinese Buddhism during its period of most intensive contact with India, and follow the emergence of its distinctive identity, in the wider context of Buddhism as a cross-cultural religious tradition. The module will also assess the place of Buddhism in the religious culture of pre-modern China and discuss its relationship with indigenous beliefs and practices, notably Taoism. Topics will include:

  • the historical process of diffusion of Buddhism to China from India and Central Asia;
  • the varieties of Buddhism that entered China in the period under consideration;
  • the stages and major events in the history of Buddhism in pre-modern China;
  • the doctrines and practices of the main schools (Tiantai, Pure Land, Chan, Huayan, Esoteric Buddhism);
  • the development of Buddhist monasticism;
  • cultures of meditation;
  • Buddhist rituals and lay devotion;
  • the confrontation between the Buddhist community and the imperial state;
  • the adaptation and cultural assimilation of Buddhism in medieval Chinese society.

In addition to the lectures, which will be shared with the UG module 'Buddhism in Pre-Modern China', the present module includes a weekly one-hour seminar. This will be devoted to advanced readings, in-depth analysis of the lecture topics and classroom discussion

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of the module students will be able to:

  • demonstrate an advanced critical knowledge of the historical development of Buddhism in China in the period from its introduction around the turn of the Common Era to the beginning of the Song dynasty (960-1279);
  • evaluate the main schools (Chan, Tiantai, Pure Land, etc.) and doctrines of pre-modern Chinese Buddhism;
  • assess the peculiar identity of Chinese Buddhism in the wider context of Buddhism as a cross-cultural religious tradition;
  • situate Buddhism as a part of Chinese religious tradition in its relationship with indigenous beliefs and practices;
  • develop fundamental methodological skills for the study of Chinese Buddhism;
  • demonstrate an awareness of the primary sources for the study of Buddhism in pre-modern China.


A two hour lecture and a one hour seminar each week.

Method of assessment

One 3,500 word essay (worth 75%);  one 1,500 Response Paper (worth 25%).

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].
  • Kieschnick, John. The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture. Princeton: Princeton U.P., 2003 [CC294.3 /903062].
  • Lopez, Donald, ed. Religions of China in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996 [CC291 /716632].
  • Teiser, Stephen F. The Scripture on the Ten Kings and the Making of Purgatory in Medieval Chinese Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1994 [CC294.3 /698512].
  • 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].
  • Zürcher, Erik. Buddhism in China: Collected Papers of Erik Zürcher. Edited by Jonathan A. Silk. Leiden: Brill, 2013 [CC294.3 /501659].


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules