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
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.
HEIGHT OF BUDDHISM IN CHINA
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.
EARLY TANG TOLERANCE
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.
LATE TANG INTOLERANCE AND PERSECUTIONS
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.
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
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.
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.
CHANG AN TOPICS
PART 1: CHANG AN OVERVIEW
PART 2: LAYOUT AND CITY WALL
PART 3: DAMING PALACE
PART 4: GARDENS & POOLS
PART 5: A CITY OF TEMPLES
PART 6: WESTERN CHANG AN MARKET
PART 7: EASTERN CHANG AN LEISURE
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