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Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution

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The Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution initiated by Tang Emperor Wuzong reached its height in the year 845 CE. Among its purposes were to appropriate war funds and to cleanse China of foreign influences. As such, the persecution was directed not only towards Buddhism but also towards other foreign religions such as Zoroastrianism, Christianity etc. Only the native Chinese ideologies of Confucianism and Taoism survived the upheaval in one piece.

Reasons for the Persecution

Emperor Wuzong's reasons for persecuting the Buddhist organisations and temples throughout China were economic, social, and religious.

  • Economic reasons: In 843 the emperor's armies won a decisive battle against the Uyghur tribes at the cost of almost bankrupting the country. Wuzong's solution to the financial crisis was to go after the wealth that had been accumulated in the Buddhist monasteries. Buddhism had flourished greatly during the Tang period, and its monasteries enjoyed tax-exempt status. In 845, Wuzong closed many Buddhist shrines, confiscated their property, and sent the monks and nuns home to lay life.
  • Social reasons: Confucian intellectuals such as Han Yu railed against Buddhism for undermining the social structure of China. It eroded the loyalty of son to father, and subject to ruler, by encouraging people to leave their families and to become monks and nuns. Once they had been ordained, they stopped engaging in useful economic activity such as agriculture and weaving, and became a burden that had to be supported by the work of others. The persecution sought to return monks and nuns to the ranks of tax-paying commoners engaged in useful economic activity.[1]
  • Religious reasons: While Wuzong saw Buddhism as a foreign religion that was harmful to Chinese society, he became a zealous follower of Taoism, a faith which he regarded as native to China. Buddhism preached the attainment of non-birth or nirvana, which its critics equated with death, while Taoism promised immortality, a notion that increasingly captured the attention of the emperor as he grew older and less rational.[2]

An imperial edict of 845 stated the case against Buddhism as follows:

Buddhist monasteries daily grew higher. Men’s strength was used up in work with plaster and wood. Men’s gain was taken up in ornaments of gold and precious stones. Imperial and family relationships were forsaken for obedience to the fees of the priests. The marital relationship was opposed by the ascetic restraints. Destructive of law, injurious to mankind, nothing is worse than this way (Tao). Moreover, if one man does not plough, others feel hunger, if one woman does not tend the silk worms, others go cold. Now in the Empire there are monks and nuns innumerable. All depend on others to plough that they may eat, on others to raise silk that they may be clad. Monasteries and Refuges (Homes of ascetics, kuti in Sanskrit) are beyond compute.

All are as high as the clouds, beautifully ornamented; they take for themselves palaces as a dwelling.... We will repress this long standing pestilence to its roots ... In all the Empire more than four thousand six hundred monasteries are destroyed, two hundred and sixty thousand five hundred monks and nuns are returning to the world, both (men and women) to be received as tax paying householders. Refuges and hermitages which are destroyed number more than forty thousand. We are resuming fertile land of the first grade, several tens of millions of Ch’ing ( 1 ching is 15.13 acres). We are receiving back as tax paying householders, male and female, one hundred and fifty thousand serfs. The aliens who hold jurisdiction over the monks and nuns show clearly that this is a foreign religion.

Ta Ch’in (Syrian) and Muh-hu-fo (Zoroastrian) monks to the number of more than three thousand are compelled to return to the world, lest they confuse the customs of China. With simplified and regulated government we will achieve a unification of our manners, that in future all our youth may together return to the royal culture. We are now beginning this reformation; how long it will take we do not know.[3]

Events of the Persecution

The first phase of the persecution was one aimed at purifying or reforming the Buddhist church rather than exterminating it. Thus, the persecution began in 842 with an imperial edict providing that undesirables such as sorcerers or convicts were to be weeded out from the ranks of the Buddhist monks and nuns and were to be returned to lay life. In addition, monks and nuns were to turn their wealth over to the government; those who wished to keep their wealth would be returned to lay life and forced to pay taxes.[4] During this first phase, Confucian arguments for the reform of Buddhist institutions and the protection of society from Buddhist influence and practices were predominant.[5]

Gradually, however, the Emperor Wuzong became more and more impressed with the claims of Taoism, and came to develop a severe dislike for Buddhism.[6] The Japanese monk Ennin, who lived in China during the persecution, even suggested that the emperor had been influenced by his illicit love of a beautiful Taoist priestess.[7] In addition, as time went by the emperor became more irascible and less sane in his judgments. One of his edicts banned the use of single-wheeled wheelbarrows, since they break up "the middle of the road," an important concept of Taoism.[8] As a result, in 844 the persecution moved into a second phase the objective of which was the extermination rather than the reformation of Buddhism.[9] The emperor issued edicts that Buddhist temples and shrines be destroyed, that all monks (desirables as well as undesirables) be defrocked, that the property of the monasteries be confiscated, and that Buddhist paraphernalia be destroyed.[10] An edict providing that foreign monks be defrocked and returned to their homelands resulted in Ennin's expulsion from China.[11]

In 846, the Emperor Wuzong died, perhaps on account of the Taoist elixirs of life he had been consuming. Shortly thereafter, his successor proclaimed a general amnesty. The persecution was over.[12]

Effects on Buddhism

The suppression of monasteries and persecution of foreign religions was part of a reformation undertaken. The persecution lasted for twenty months—not long, but long enough to have permanent effects. Buddhism, for all its strength, never completely recovered. For centuries afterwards, it was merely a tolerated religion. The days of its greatest building, sculpture, and painting, and its most vital creative thought, were past.

Effects on other religions

In addition to Buddhism, Wuzong persecuted other foreign religions as well. He all but destroyed Zoroastrianism and Manichaeanism in China, and his persecution of the growing Nestorian Christian churches sent Chinese Christianity into a decline from which it never recovered.

Chinese records state Zoroastrianism and Christianity were regarded as heretical forms of Buddhism, and were included within the scope of the edicts. According to the report prepared by the Board of Worship, there were 4,600 monasteries, 40,000 hermitages (places of retreat), 260,500 monks and nuns. By the edict of AD 845 all these monasteries were abolished with very few exceptions. When the monasteries were broken up the images of bronze, silver or gold were to be handed over to the government:

As for the Tai-Ch’in (Syrian) and Muh-hu (Zoroastrian) forms of worship, since Buddhism has already been cast out, these heresies alone must not be allowed to survive. People belonging to these also are to be compelled to return to the world, belong again to their own districts, and become tax payers. As for foreigners, let them be returned to their own countries, there to suffer restraint.[13]


  • Reischauer, Edwin O. Ennin's Travels in Tang China. New York: Ronald Press, 1955.
  • Philip, T. V. East of the Euphrates: Early Christianity in Asia. India: CSS & ISPCK, India, 1998 (See here)


  1. Reischauer, p.221 ff.
  2. Reischauer, p.243 ff.
  3. Philip, p.125.
  4. Reischauer, p.237 ff.
  5. Reischauer, p.242-243.
  6. Reischauer, p.245.
  7. Reischauer, p.246.
  8. Reischauer, p.247.
  9. Reischauer, p.244, 253.
  10. Reischauer, p.253 ff.
  11. Reischauer, p.256 ff.
  12. Reischauer, p.270.
  13. Philip, p.123.

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