Chinese Buddhism: History and Themes

Key information

Start date
End date
Year of study
Term 1
Module code
FHEQ Level
Department of Religions and Philosophies

Module overview

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’, and 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., the place of Buddhism in the religious culture of premodern China and its relationship to indigenous beliefs and practices.

Each theme will focus on the premodern period and the modern and contemporary era, in order 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:
  • • demonstrate an advanced critical knowledge of the historical development of Buddhism in China
  • • evaluate the main schools (Chan, Tiantai, Pure Land, etc.) and doctrines;
  • • 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 Chinese Buddhism, and the development of the scholarship in the field


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

Scope and syllabus

  1. Course Introduction and Preliminary Reflections
  2. When and how did Buddhism arrive to 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 (25%) and one 3,000 word essay (75%)

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].


Stefania Travagnin


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules