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The long perspective
Zhou and Qin
Intermediate times
     Period of Disunion
     Sui dynasty

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Period of Disunion: 3rd - 6th century AD

The centuries after the collapse of the Han dynasty are a time of chaos. The Chinese Standard Histories identify no fewer than ten dynasties and nineteen separate kingdoms during this period. It is often known now as the Six Dynasties (from six in succession which had their capital at Nanjing), or more accurately as the Period of Disunion. As in many chaotic times, much is achieved. One such achievement is the flourishing of Chinese Buddhism.

The first Buddhists have reached China, along the Silk Road, in the 1st century AD. They flourish partly because they are warmly welcomed by a well-established indigenous religion, Daoism.


The Daoists see the Buddhists as kindred souls, and with good reason. Both religions have priests, monasteries and some form of religious hierarchy. Both believe in a withdrawal from the everyday business of life. Both differ profoundly from the Chinese alternative to Daoism - the practical, commonsense, worldly philosophy of Confucianism.

Soon the two religions become so closely linked that a new Daoist theory evolves. The Buddha is actually Lao-Tzu, who was given this other name when he made a secret journey to bring the truth to India.


Centuries later, when Buddhism is favoured above Daoism by Chinese rulers and when the great wealth of Buddhist monasteries provokes jealousy, the Daoist legend becomes neatly reversed. If the Buddhists are Daoists under another name, why should they enjoy any special treatment and such spectacular success? Such arguments underlie the eventual persecution of Buddhists, in the 9th century.

Meanwhile their success is indeed astonishing. Buddhist carving in China stands as visible proof of their wealth and energy.


In sheer quantity, if in nothing else, Buddhist carving in China would be a phemonenon in the history of sculpture. One site near the ancient capital of Loyang, at the eastern end of the Silk Road, makes the point very effectively. Any visitor to Long-men will be struck by the profusion of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and Arhats and their guardians. But exactly how many statues are there?

In 1916 a local magistrate attempts to count them. He arrives at a total of 97,306 separate figures. A more recent study suggests that 142,289 may be nearer the mark.


The Sui dynasty: 589-618

The man who reunites China in 589, forming the Sui dynasty, is an enthusiastic patron of Buddhism. He takes as his title Wen Ti, meaning the Cultured Emperor, and devotes much effort to building Buddhist stupas throughout the land. The local version of a stupa develops into a specifically Chinese form, that of the pagoda.

His son, Yang Ti (the Emblazoned Emperor), undertakes an even more ambitious project, requiring so much forced labour that it contributes to the rapid end of this brief dynasty. But it has economic value and is a stupendous achievement. Yang Ti constructs the Grand Canal, linking the Yangtze to the Yellow River and thus to the twin capitals of Loyang and Xi'an.


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