Buddhism was originated in the 6th century BCE in what’s today known as Nepal and India. It was brought to China by Buddhist monks from India and central Asia during the later period of the Han dynasty in the 2nd century CE through the silk roads. It wasn’t until a few centuries later that Buddhism became assimilated into Chinese culture. One of the key forces of Buddhism’s success was actually Taoism, an original social practice of ancient China. Early Buddhist monks borrowed ideas from Taoist via the Chinese language to help the Chinese understand Buddhist concepts, which at that time was very new and strange to Chinese people. Both Buddhism and Taoist benefited from this exchange. Taoist expanded their ideas about the cosmos and ways to structure their monastic orders by modeling from Buddhism. And Buddhists used Taoist vocabulary to translate their texts into Chinese, which made it easier to teach that tradition. As a result, thousands of Buddhist texts were translated from Indian languages into Chinese and it became one of the biggest projects of translation in the ancient world.
Over time, Buddhism became a popular force in the lives of the Chinese from the common people to the emperor himself. In fact by the 6th century, Buddhism rivaled the Taoist in popularity and political influence. It was during this time and over the course of the next three centuries that major schools of Chinese Buddhism formed. Two schools that retained their influence today are Pure Land Buddhism and Ch’an Buddhism, which is known as Zen Buddhism in Japan. Even in mainland China, where religion is often suppressed by the government, there are still practitioners of these two schools of Chinese Buddhism. Buddhism in China also underwent many changes throughout the country’s history and was varied in its social and religious manifestations and philosophical beliefs. Most scholars think of Buddhism as many Buddhisms. In the so-called classical periods of Buddhism in China, in Tang dynasty there were a number of schools of Buddhism that taught and promoted their own philosophies and meditation practices. The Huayen and Tiantai schools for instance varied in its philosophy, location and political influence. The teachings of various schools influenced and were adapted later by Korea and Japan. One of the most popular figures in Chinese Buddhism is the bodhisattva Guan Yin. Guan Yin was originated from Indian Buddhism as a superior being who aids the suffering of the world and later became a key figure in the devotional practices of Chinese Buddhists and Taoists alike. If you ever go to a Chinese temple, the first statue you might see, if it’s not the Buddha, it might be Guan Yin. One thing you should know is that even though Buddhism was originated in India, Chinese Buddhism as we know today might be very different from the early Indian Buddhism. This is also true for Buddhism in other countries like Tibet, Thailand and Japan.