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Background to the Táng Dynasty Persecutions of Buddhism

(Period 12, AD 618-907)

This page is designed to provide an extremely spare political background to the famous Táng dynasty persecutions of Chinese Buddhists in the reign of Emperor Wǔzōng 武宗 (reign 12a-18, AD 840-846). It supplements the on-line texts of three Confucian polemicists who opposed Buddhism on various grounds. (Link)


Confucians throughout the Táng dynasty (AD 618-907) had dark suspicions about religion. The elite view was that the common people were easily led astray by opportunistic charlatans, and that the formal institutions of both Buddhists and Daoists seemed to be acquiring riches and power that placed them annoyingly if not dangerously outside the law.

Early in the dynasty, DÍ Rénjíe 狄仁杰 (630-700), famed to this day as an archetypal virtuous official (and celebrated even in modern television serials as an ingenious detective), is said to have ordered some 1,700 temples destroyed in 688 in the course of an official tour of inspection in the Jiāngnán Censorial Circuit (江南道), to the south of the Yangtze river, apparently provoking little significant opposition. (Temples to political heroes were discreetly were left untouched.)

One of the most important of the early Táng anti-Buddhist voices had been that of FÙ Yì 傅奕 (555-639), whose memorial to the emperor in 624 is described on a different page of this web site. (Link) J.J. M. deGroot writes:

… As a matter of fact, the only effect of his memorial was a theoretical abolishment of Taoism and Buddhism. We read that in the 4th month of the 9th year of the Wǔdé 武德 period [reign 12a-2], (AD 626) the religions of Buddha and of Lǎozǐ 老子 were abolished. (New Books of the Táng Dynasty (Xīn Táng Shū 新唐书] chapter 1, folio 17.) And in the following month an edict was issued by the emperor, which is preserved in the Old Books of the Táng Dynasty (Jiù Táng Shū 旧唐书), chapter 1, folio 14. This prescribed, that only they who had become monks or nuns without any intention of a worldly nature and from no selfish motives, and, moreover, obeyed the religious commandments and led a life of rigorous asceticism, should be allowed to remain in the convents. On their behalf, three Buddhist monasteries and a Taoist one should be maintained in the imperial capital, and in all the other districts of the realm only one. But, adds the chronicler, these measures were never definitely executed, and in the sixth month the emperor rehabilitated the religions of Buddha and Lǎozǐ. (New Books, chapter 1, folio 17.)

J.J. M. de Groot, 1901 Sectarianism &
Religious Persecution in China
Volume 1. Leiden: E.J. Brill. P. 42.
(Re-edited to facilitate web reading.)

By the middle of the dynasty, a succession of political crises and short reigns had weakened the state, and concessions to Buddhists by pious emperors had put a great deal of land beyond the effective reach of the government, and most importantly of the tax man. Some Confucian and Daoist opponents of Buddhism had protested, but measures to curb Buddhist expansion had been weak at best, and Buddhism seemed to many to pose an ever greater threat to the security of the state.

Reigns 12-13 (799-805):
Emperors Dézōng & Shùnzōng

woodblock pciture

Nearly two centuries after Fù Yì submitted his memorial against Buddhism, in 805, the emperor Dézōng 德宗 (reign 12a-12, shown at left) died after a reign of six difficult years in which he sought to contain upstart warlords by increasing the power of eunuchs on the theory that they would be loyal to the throne.

He was succeeded by his son Shùnzōng 顺宗 (reign 12a-13), whose own sons were tutored by a certain QIÚ Shìliáng 仇士良 (781-843), one of a great many eunuchs remembered to this day for their corruption and manipulation.

Emperor Shùnzōng was almost immediately disabled by a stroke, and abdicated in favor of his young but very competent son Xiànzōng 宪宗 (reign 12a-14). If QIÚ Shìliáng thought having been tutor to the prince would make the new ruler his puppet, he was quite mistaken.

Reign 14 (805-820):
Emperor Xiànzōng Seeks Reforms & Is Assassinated

Xiànzōng correctly saw that a series of brief reigns had allowed established interests, and especially the eunuchs like his teacher Qiú Shìliáng, to carve out their own little realms within the body politic, and that serious reform was needed. He successfully took direct and forceful command of the armed forces, renewed the policy of making government promotion depend upon actual merit rather than connection, and (like many emperors before and after him) sought to curb the power of the court eunuchs, who exhibited something of the same inevitability, ubiquity, and corruptibility as do lobbyists in modern governments.

Seeing abuses and correcting them against the momentum of established interests was, as today, difficult unto impossible, even for an authoritarian monarch. One of the obvious troubles of the Chinese state was the enormous power of the eunuchs, to be sure. But another was the enormous power, both political and economic, of the Buddhist clergy, to whom pious (or gullible) emperors over a long period had granted lands and tax-free privileges of many kinds. And unlike the eunuchs, the establishment Buddhists tended to have popular support. It was to the powerful and pragmatic Emperor Xiànzōng that HÁN Yù 韩愈 in 819 directed his unsuccessful memorial. (Text) Today he is famous for it. In his own time, it sent him into exile.

Reigns 15-17 (820-840):
The Eunuchs Take Over

Xiànzōng's many reforms were not well received, especially by the eunuchs, and in 820, the year after Hán Yù's memorial, he was assassinated, bringing his playboy son, the emperor Mùzōng 穆宗 (reign 12a-15, 820-824) to the throne until he died in a polo match four years later only to be followed by his own even more dissolute offspring, Emperor Jìngzōng 敬宗 (reign 12a-16), who perhaps fully deserved his assassination by palace eunuchs in 827.

Unfortunately the eunuchs enthroned in his place his dedicated but easily manipulated half-brother, twelve-year-old Wénzōng 文宗 (reign 12a-17, 826-840), who died at the age of 30 after a reign characterized largely by his domination by the eunuch.

Seeking to retain their control of the state, the eunuchs, still led by the unscrupulous but now elderly eunuch Qiú Shìliáng, this time selected Wénzōng's younger brother, then sixteen, passing over (and murdering) two competing claimants.

Reign 18 (840-846):
Emperor Wǔzōng Attacks Buddhists and Eunuchs
(And Dies Seeking Daoist Immortality)

When they brought the sixteen-year-old Emperor Wǔzōng 武宗 (reign 12a-18) to the throne in 840, the eunuchs probably got a lot more than they bargained for. For one thing, he forced the doddering but still malign Qiú Shìliáng into retirement and dismantled his political machine. In the interest of promoting Confucian orthodoxy, Wǔzōng had the Confucian Canon inscribed in stone at the imperial academy, making it clear where orthodoxy was supposed to reside.

But Confucianism, however convenient as a doctrinal basis for imperial authority, was apparently not of compelling personal interest to him. He became more and more attracted to Daoism, and especially to elixirs of immortality.

In 842 Emperor Wǔzōng launched an attack upon institutional Buddhism, stimulated in part by his affection for Daoism (and probably for various court Daoists) and in part by the fact that his predecessors had allowed a large part —some say about 40%— of the country's land to fall into the hands of untaxable monasteries.

Wǔzōng's attack began with an attempt to outlaw all religions other than Daoism. By 842, 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.

In 845 tens of thousands of additional Buddhist clerics were sent back to lay life, and only one Buddhist monastery was to be allowed per city. (Small numbers of other religious institutions also existed in China —Jews, Zoroastrians, and Nestorian Christians all had a presence— and they too were ordered to shut down.)

The persecutions are today believed to have dealt Chinese Buddhism a blow from which it never really recovered. Perhaps it would have been extinguished completely if Wǔzōng had reigned longer. However in 846, a year after the restriction of Buddhist temples to one per city, he was experimenting with Daoist elixirs of immortality and poisoned himself. His successor was not one of his very young sons, but a son of Xiànzōng (reign 12a-14), the unpopular reformer mentioned earlier. The new Emperor was called Xuānzōng 宣宗 (12a-19), not to be confused with Emperor Xuánzōng 玄宗 (reign 12a-9, 712-756), who ruled a century earlier.

Reign 19 (846-859):
Emperor Xuānzōng Restores Buddhism & Dies Seeking Daoist Immortality

Xuānzōng immediately lifted the prohibitions on Buddhism, although the damage had largely already been done, and in any case he was not about to restore the massive tax and labor exemptions that had been both the basis of earlier Buddhist power and a large part of the appeal of monastic life. Xuānzōng himself, however, was a Daoist, and ironically, like his predecessor Wǔzōng, he died from an experimental elixir of immortality.

Reign 20 (859-873):
Emperor Yìzōng Restores Corruption

Also ironically, his son Yìzōng 懿宗, the next emperor (reign 12a-20), was an ardent if unpredictable Buddhist, eager to restore Buddhism. However he was given to governing by whim, and in any case was politically too weak to pursue rational policies even if he had chosen to do so. Meanwhile both corruption and popular dissent spread.

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