Chang An 长安, The City of Eternal Peace Part. 5 A City of Temples

Under the Tang, Chang An was a major religious center, not only for Buddhism and Taoism but also for several religions which were relatively recent arrivals in China: Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity, Judaism and Manichaeism. The most famous of all the Buddhist pilgrims, Xuanzang- or Tripiṭaka, as in some English translations of the famous Chinese novel: Journey to the West, Xuanzang was addressed as "Tripitaka"  brought copies of the Indian scriptures directly to the city, which he then translated. 

Music: Dreams of the Temple

Tangentially, Xuanzang was not only remembered as a great scholar for his translations from Sanskrit to Chinese but also for his descriptions of the places he visited---the great Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Samarkand and the great stone Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. The interests garnered by his reports were nothing short of the effect Marco Polo's report of the orient had on the western European audiences- perhaps even greater because the Venetians were skeptical of his report after his return and threw him in jail. His trip was the inspiration of the for Journey to the West, widely regarded as one of the great novels of Chinese literature.

One of the few major Tang-era buildings left in Xi'an (Chang An) today is the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, first built in 652 AD, housing the library that Xuanzang collected. The current structure was re-built in 701-704 after an earthquake- the upper stories were eventually destroyed during a lightning storm in the Ming dynasty but otherwise the structure still remains. At Wild Goose Pagoda Buddhist monks from India and elsewhere gathered to translate Sanskrit texts into Chinese.


Buddhist monasteries played an integral role in Chinese society, offering lodging for travelers in remote areas, schools for children throughout the country, and a place for urban literati to stage social events and gatherings such as going-away parties.

The Tang Emperors saw themselves as patrons of Buddhism and Taoism (Li clan traced its lineage to Laozi himself, whose birth name was Li Er,) The founder of the dynasty Li Yuan and his son/ successor Li Shimin readily embraced a tolerant and pluristic view of religion and ethnicity. However in the aftermath of the disastrous An Lushan Rebellion, the official preference for Buddhism would change. For 4 years Buddhism was outlawed and its monasteries confiscated during the 9th century, however the policy was reverted afterwards. 

Empress Wu was a devout Buddhist to the point of being very superstitious. She built many Buddhist temples across China and ^the series of massive Buddha statues at the Longmen Grottes at Louyang. Buddhism in China reached its zenith during the early Tang period. However by the 9th century its influence would decline due to persecutions by emperor Wuzong.

In time- especially during the reign of Empress Wu Buddhism became the dominant religion- and many temples were opened across Chang An. The temples of Chang An, besides offering regular religious spectacles, relics for worship such as four of the Buddha’s teeth, and artworks for the public’s pleasure, also provided help to the poor, public baths and medicine and treatment for the sick. Of the four of Buddha's relics in the city, three of them having come respectively from India, Khotan (in the Tarim Basin) and Tibet and the fourth supposedly from heaven itself.


A critical Chinese concept: religious plurality- unlike the Abrahamic faiths, many 
religions in the orient did not advocate for the complete rejection of other faiths. 
Rather, many of the citizenry embraced more than one religions. One of the most 
popular was the syncretistity of Buddhism- Daoism- and Confuciaism
If one would look closer at the figures one would see Confucius, Laozi
and the Buddha all merged into one harmonious ideal. 

For two centuries the Tang emperors often prided themselves as patrons of all religions, including Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Nestorianism, and Islam. During the early phase of the dynasty Tang China was opened to many pilgrims came here to preach. In the 8th century, 3 masters of the Tantric Buddhist traditions came to Chang An and was welcomed by the Tang emperors and the court, where they then transmitted the Tantric tradition into China.

Daoism, which has its roots in the book of the Daodejing (attributed to Laozi in the 6th century B.C.) and Zhuangzi, had strong links with Tang Dynasty Emperors and ruling class. The ruling Li family of the Tang dynasty claimed descent from Laozi. Many Tang princes and princesses became Daoist priests and priestesses and had their lavish former mansions converted into Daoist abbeys and places of worship.

The spread of religions other than Buddhism under the Tang Dynasty can be documented fairly specifically. A stele erected in 781 relates the introduction of Nestorian Christianity as early as 635 AD by Syrian priests- The Chinese have often referred to Christianity as a Roman religion, after the collapse of the western Roman Empire, the Tang received Byzantine emissaries. The Assyrian Church of the East, otherwise known as the Nestorian Christian Church, was given recognition by the Tang court. In 781, the Nestorian Stele was created in order to honor the achievements of their community in China. The text and carvings exhibit a syncretism of Christian and Chinese traditions.

Tibetan missions to Tang China, although the Tibetan Empire and Tang China met under somewhat rough circumstances, the two empires became allies during the reigns of the Tibetan emperor Songtsen Gampo and the Taizong Emperor of Tang- which endured through the life time of both wise sovereigns. However generations later, conflicts resumed between the two empires. After the disastrous An Lushan Rebellion, the Tibetans drastically scaled up the incursions against the Tang. For several decades the two empires warred in a bitter constant struggle. During those troubled years where hundreds of skirmishes were fought and many died, the Tibetan missions to Tang increasingly took on more diplomatic dimensions and served to pass terms and dialogue to their Tang counterparts.

Zoroastrianism also received some impetus when the last of the Sassanian (Iranian) princes Peroz took refuge in China in the 670s, having fled the Arab invasions. Manichaeism also was connected with the large influx of Persians at the Tang court as early as 694 AD. Practicing among the many faithful were also the Jews who lived in small communities in close proximity with the newly arrived Muslims.

During the first 200 years of the Tang dynasty, Buddhism, Daoism, Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity, Manicheanism, Judiasm, and Islam were all practiced in the empire, Chang An 
alone boasted over thousands of buddhist temples and a dozens of 
Zoroastrian fire temples. 

In all- at least during the early Tang period, Daoists, Confucian scholars, Nestorian Christian missionaries, Zoroastrian priests and Buddhist monks, among them ones who helped found the native Zen Buddhist tradition in China, all felt comfortable in early Tang China and practiced and  proselytized their religions. 

When compared to the open religious persecutions during the proceeding Northern and Southern dynasties where whole religious could be outright banned and its adherents slaughtered it was a world of difference. However- after the cataclysmic An Lushan rebellion, which costed the death of conservatively at least 15 millions of Tang citizendry (or 1/5 of the empire,) and which was also largely supported by Sogdians, Arabs and Turkic peoples, the initial religious tolerance of the Tang shifted to weariness and suspicion. 

As the map of Chang 'an clearly shows, the city was also a religious center. Aside from the native Daoist temples, the presence of Buddhist, Manichean, Nestorian Christian, and Zoroastrian temples testify to the early Tang dynasty's tolerance and cosmopolitanism. Their congregations, like those of Buddhist temples during the Han, were largely foreigner from Central Asia. There were abundant religious activities recorded during this time. The Mazdean temple in Chang An was rebuilt in 631; the Nestorians were honored by the erection of a church in 638; the Manichaeans proposed their doctrines to the court in 694.

The An Lushan Rebellion- and the subsequent disintegration of Tang authority across the realm was the proverbial manticore's poison that destroyed the Tang's early policy of plurality and religious tolerance. The full century after the rebellion would be characterized by a weakening of the central Tang government's authority while the empire was besieged by a resurgent Tibetan Empire and the Khitans from the north, the frontier provinces began to not only flaunt the court's authority, but the standard of living and social cohesion in the chaos began to rapidly splinter along ethnic and religious lines.


A Manichean painted scroll from Central Asia

Even during this time of suspicion and distrust, two religions would gain more adherents during the aftermath of the An Lushan rebellion, when the Tang dynasty was saved by the support of the Manichaean Uyghurs.

Nearly a century later by the middle of the 9th century blames were castigated on the foreign elements that filled the Tang army and ministries, especially by the suffering peasantry. This was seen because many of the temples were exempt from taxes- thus the peasantry and the central government began to resent them for being supposedly privileged foreigners who were able to live above the common strife while drain the state's strained resources. Some of the Tang contemporaries have even claimed that about 40% — of the country's land fall into the hands of untaxable monasteries. Though likely this was just an exaggeration it was a prevalent practice to declare private lands as temples to avoid taxation.


According to the New Book of Tang and Zizhitongjian, in 842 the staunchly Daoist Emperor Wuzong turned against Buddhism. After the state went bankrupt after a campaign against the Uyghur princes who were hostile to the Tang, Wuzong forced many Buddhist monasteries from Chang An and across the realm to close down, their many monks and nuns would be defrocked and returned to lay life. All Buddhist monks and nuns under the age of 50 were ordered to return to lay life, taking "real jobs," marrying, producing children, and paying taxes. He also ordered that foreign monks return to their native lands. Wuzong also sought to clamp down on the Zoarastrians, Manicheans, and Nestorian Christians. Interestingly one foreign religion that was largely unaffected during this time was Islam.

In 845 Wuzong- by then erratic and wracked with sickness sought to further strip away the incluence of Buddhism and replace it with Daoism- closing down many of the remaining temples and passed laws to limit only one Buddhist monastery per city within the empire. 4,600 Buddhist monasteries were shut down along with 40,000 temples and shrines across the empire. Wuzong himself even sought to completely abolish Buddhism across the whole of the Tang realm when he died in 846, four years after he initiated his great persecutions.

The next emperor: Xuānzōng (not to be confused with Xuanzong of the previous century)- the last great Tang emperor would immediately issue a nation- wide amnesty to stop the persecutions and lift the limitations on the persecuted religions and restore the clergies of those faiths to their former ranks. However long term damage was already done- Buddhism would never attain the height it once held in Tang China during the early phase of the dynasty. Zoroastrian and Manichean influences would also greatly wane in the coming centuries. In general, Manicheanism would slowly decline in the coming centuries but it would be a unique fate.

Hidden in plain sight: Mani, the prophet of Manicheanism 
styled as the "Buddha" of Light, at a temple in Fujian. Many
version would also have him depicted as Jesus as well

Where as Manicheanism disappeared across Central Asia and the Tarim Basin due to the expansion of Islam into those regions, some of the last of the middle age's practicing Manicheanians would limp on in China for another 17 centuries, many outwardly pretended to be Buddhists or Christians to escape bans and persecutions. Most of the practicing Chinese Manicheans disappeared in the first decades of the twentieth century in South China. Today, strains of Manicheanism still exists in small groups in China, Tibet, Korea and to a lesser extent in North America.


Late Tang dynasty painting "Tejaprabhā Buddha and the Five Planets" (炽盛光佛并五星图), depicted as playing the pipa, c. 897 AD, painted 10 years before the fall of the Tang dynasty. By the late Tang dynasty both the dress code and art styles has became much more ostentatious compared to the previous era. Though Buddhism has been stunted during the persecutions under Wuzong, native strains like Zen and many other branches remained powerful and influential 

However, even in a period when persecution of Buddhism had begun, the deported Japanese pilgrim Ennin noted in his later accounts that in 840 he noted that there were monks from the "Western Lands" (apparently India) in one of the several hundred monasteries there, who still did not know Chinese very well but presumably were helping with the interpretation of Sanskrit versions of the Buddhist texts. He later described South Indian, North Indian, Ceylonese (Sri Lankan,) Kuchean (Kucha in the Tarim Basin), Korean and Japanese monks among the foreigners in the city. By 844 that there were still over 300 Buddhist temples in Chang An.

Manicheanism would slowly decline, not only in China but across the world with the advent of Islamic expansions into Central Asia and the Tarim Basin. Nestorianisn would also slowly fade into obscurity in the orient- having- like Manicheanism lost touch with its traditional origins in the west. Buddhism- though faded would remain a constant fixture within China for the next millennium, until it was persecuted- then revived under the communist rule in the 20th century.

Conversely, Daoism- having emerged unscathed from the ordeal owing to its native orgins would see a resurgence at the tail end of the Tang before it too was eclipsed by the ultimate victor of the dying Tang- the culturally conservative Confucianism.


Although Confucianism had always existed throughout the Tang- eclipsed by Buddhism and Daoism throughout much of the dynasty (often people are simultaneously Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist.) This most Chinese of philosophy also emerged unscathed from Wuzong's terrible ordeal. But whereas the laxed Daoist clergy preached detachment and abandonment of identity and duties, as the Tang world descended into civil war and chaos, it was Confucianism that looked at the swirling chaos and advocated for order and a return to virtue. It was for these concrete and consistent rhetoric that many turned (or returned) to Confucianism.

Tang dynasty calligraphy

Perhaps most significantly, because of the secular and stone like nature of Confucianism- it advocated for all of those things not at the behest of a mysterious all powerful Godhead, or a superstitious supreme authority (including the amorphous Dao) but saddled the responsibility of daily cultivation of oneself on the believers themselves. Confucians believed that individual responsibility and daily practice, cultivated on a societal level from the lowest peasant to the emperor himself would create an enlightened- but most of all, a harmonious society where traditions are preserved and ancient virtues are honored. Secular, meritocratic, and thoroughly at the deepest recesses of the Chinese identity.

An ugly man who was born an illegitimate child, Confucius spent his entire life trying to reform the decadant nobles of ancient China to no avail- but his words lived on. The Tang had too been like a decadent party, covered with gold flakes and dazzling foreign effigies, where the participants celebrated with strangers in wild unimagined debauches. But when the owner of the house woke up from their naked stupor and found themselves abandoned- found all the strangers had fled the scenes. 

Confucianism was like the old unassuming servant that was already wordlessly rearranging the house. His method: practice. Do it daily, that's the hard part, but that's also reforming yourself, that's the beginning to responsibility. It was not unsurprising that for for a generation born in the heels of what they must have seen as a mad orgy of extravagance that the old Master Kung's words came like crisp mountain air. 

As the Tang world collapsed and the many "foreign" peoples on the margin of the empires broke off and seceded with their colorful Buddhist and Nestorian adherents, for those Chinese that remained, the old- what had always been there- that had originated here in this land suddenly became quite meaningful again, Confucianism thus gained a retroactive charm. During the Song dynasty Confucianism would become the official state philosophy of the empire and many- pseudo religious practices would be attached to it in an attempt to make it into a state-philosophy. This new form would be known as Neo-Confucianism.



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Der said…
Interesting insights.

1. Are there records of Byzantine envoys in the Tang court? It's hard to believe frankly, Byzantium before 1000AD could be called one of the great powers of Asia, in fact, during the Tang era, Constantinople rivaled Chang An and probably still held lands in North Africa, Italy and Spain. One would think they'd have a more permanent relationship than just sending a few envoys. And if there were Greeks in Chang An, were there Chinese in the New Rome ??

2. How would you describe the back last against foreigners during the late Tang? Was it as vicious as described? Pogroms against Arabs, Persians and Turkic peoples and elimination of their various faiths. It would account for the lack of any permanent presence in China of these foreign elements, especially compared to say, Europe or Islam, where Jews of course survived and sometimes thrived, where communities of Muslims (or Moors) lived in Spain right up into the 1700's in Spain, or Black Africans live in Elizabethan England, and of course ancient Christian communities in Muslim lands. You don't see the same thing in China frankly do you??

3. I like your description of the resurgence of Confucianism, or more correctly Ruism. The reassertion of ancient Zhou Culture and Heritage, of True Huaxia Chinese culture. Do you believe it? about what you said, that Confucianism is the most 'authentic' representation of Chinese Culture? And that its revival then was a reaction to all the 'foreign' influences of the early Tang? This is why I've always admired the early Song Dynasty, the revival of ancient norms and heritage, the rediscovery of what is truly Chinese.
Dragon's Armory said…
1. The Byzantine and the Tang had exchanges, yes, during the celebration of Gaozong, and Xuanzong, on mount Tai the Byzantine, the Umayyad Caliphate showed up to congratulate them. There were many Christians in China, the Nestorians were of the Syriac tradition when they came and was associated either as a Syrian or a Persian tradition. In fact most in Tang China thought Romans were similar to Syrians because they were the cultural touchstones of the Daqin (Roman). One should remember that China- even when broken up is always kind of there. Even Mohammad himself made reference to China as an example of the eastern most verge of the world- (spain- Gibraltar being the western most) that's why in Aladdin he was from China where as his friend was from the farthest west- symbolically representing the east and west unite.

2. I have to kind of contend with that assertion, a lot of the halting of the foriegners into China, especially in the post Tang world is largely also do to the strong presence of Islamic polities and strong steppe polities. With- say the Qara Kanid and the Liao at China's back they served as a membrane against the incoming foreigners. I think the fragmentation of a strong Islamic power in the center of the Middle East (the weakening of the Abbassids) also served to cause disruptions in the long trade in the ME. Remember that during the height of Silk Road trade, most of the time the traders are dealing with large states- Byzantines, Gokturks, Umayyads, Abbasids, Tang, without them offering some sort of security trade will be more vulnerable to banditry and lawlessness.

Also on a domestic level, the weakening of the foreign custom and religions are also affected by the expansion of Islam and weakening of China. After all, Manicheanism, Nestorian Christianity, and Zoroastrianism all were uprooted in the Middle East and lost contact with their cultural beacons. Wuzong was a tyrant, but what Huang Chao and the other rebels did was reactionary lawlessness. Most were impoverished resentful nativists who did murder foriegners- but lets not forget that they also simultaneously raped, robbed, and murdered millions of their own native countrymen as well. If anything aside from the xenophobia there was also a classist element there as well, similar to the German Peasant's War. I think at the end of the day they were miserable band of desperates who hated all who were still well off.

Dragon's Armory said…
3. Well, I'm a Daoist so I don't believe that Confucianism is the most authentic representation of Chinese culture. I think that in the long courses of Chinese history the Chinese identity attached itself to revolve around Confucian values and outlook and in turn it inhabited the Chinese identity, but Daoism is both older and equally a strong nativist system of thought. Confucianism may have resurged in prominence during late Tang but I think its less to do with outright antipathy to foreigners than simply becoming strong due to process of elimination, remember that Manicheanism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity have all been rooted in the Middle east and by Wuzong's purges so Confucians kind of stayed unmolested by default and grew bigger as others waned.

I actually think politically- many looked toward Confucianism because they felt the world has~ as Butler Yeats put it: "Things fell apart" where the cultural norms, security and political order has utterly broke down. In this- traumatic post cataclysmic world, many people simply turned to the baseline of their cultural identity. I mean it's not surprising to me at all, I think that when a people is under pressure and surrounded by alien powers with alien ideas that the people will always turn to a foundation of their identity to entrench themselves. If not that then they would embrace those new ideas and become something else entirely. I mean this is why most of Central Asia and the Middle East converted to Islam during this period
kol said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Der said…
1. Yes, I have read that one of the Hadiths show that Muhammad mentioned China when seeking wisdom. But I am not aware of any primary sources that showed Byzantium had high level diplomatic contact with the Tang court. But I guess with Islam and the Turks in the way, coupled with the fact that the Byzantines had a horrible navy with its merchant marine taken over by the Venetians in later years, the two civilizations would find it difficult to maintain contact.

2. I think Wuzong's persecutions and Huang Chao's depredations served a purpose, a bloody purpose, but a necessary one. Wuzong is China's version of Henry VIII of England or the Catholic Kings of Spain, while Huang Chao is China's Adolf Hitler. Wuzong's persecutions purified foreign philosophies from China, or at least relegated them subordinated status, just as Henry VIII and the Catholic Kings purified England of foreign Roman Catholicism, reducing the power of clerics, monastaries and nunneries, while the Catholic Kings did the same for Spain with the Muslims. While Huang Chao's genocidal pogroms against non-Han Chinese elements prevented China from becoming a Ottoman Empire, Habsburg Empire, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Ethnic and philosophical homogenization, and therefore China remaining Chinese was the result. For good or ill.

3. Confucians and Daoists are brothers, both come from Chinese soil, both are the result of the Zhou Dynasty Spring and Autumn Period Hundred Schools of Thought awaking, which in itself is a part of the Axial Age. In turn, both Confucius and Lao Tze are descendants of the Sage Kings of most Ancient China, going back to the Yellow Emperor, as all Chinese can claim. Both complement each other perfectly. And when it comes to Buddhism, I would say Daoism is the Chinese expression (called the Dao) while the Buddha expressed the same sentiment from the Aryan perspective (called Dharma).
Dragon's Armory said…
1. Well both are too far away to have anything meaningful to lean on each other for, so most are just cordial acknowledgements

2. Well it also drove many away and destroyed a good deal of the legitimacy of the siting regime, idk I'm not one to advocate for nativist supremacy and never violence against minorities. Still- on an unrelated note part of me am glad that Chinese philosophical traditions were not displaced by foreign ones (well, not unless we are talking about the 20th century)

Huang Chao was not Adolf Hitler, if anything it's reactionary vandalism. Half self victimization and half xenophobia. South Asia saw a lot of that against Chinese communities overseas.

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