The Creation of an East Asian Community
Sui/Tang China (581-907)

Despite the bloody way in which he gained the throne ... Tang Taizong is remembered as one of the most outstanding emperors in all of Chinese history. The reign of Taizong became a time of peak Chinese political and military power, and Taizong also presided over an age of exceptionally glorious cosmopolitanism. This cosmopolitanism extended to the Tang imperial family itself, which was of culturally mixed descent. ... If the Tang began as a militarily expansive, culturally mixed, and “self-consciously multi-ethnic empire,” however, it ended three hundred years later, in 907, as a much more “self-consciously mono-ethnic empire united by significantly more homogenous Chinese culture.” The Tang Dynasty was “perhaps the crucial period in the formation” of a Chinese ethnic, and even proto-national, identity. The aborigines who had lived scattered throughout south China, and who had made up a substantial portion of the total population of the Southern dynasties, largely disappeared during the Tang — absorbed into the general Chinese population (although a considerable number can still be found even today, especially near the frontiers). Many descendants of the Xianbei and of the other non-Chinese groups who had ruled north China from 304 until 581 also lost their separate identities and simply became Chinese during the Tang era. ... Despite the fact that some degree of multilingualism was probably only normal throughout much of the premodern world, this was less true of Tang Dynasty China. Within the geographic place we call China, the Chinese language had triumphed. (HEA, 98-100)
Education is a particularly powerful tool for promoting a common cultural identity. Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty had to a large extent, first defined the Confucian canon and established Confucianism as state orthodoxy when he appointed teachers and established an Imperial Academic in the second century BCE. Now, in 624, the Tang founder ordered every province and country in the empire to establish schools. By 738, at least on paper, there were nineteen thousand official schools in Tang China. ... Tests had been used in the selection of Chinese officials since at least the beginning of the empire, but only as part of a selection process that was driven mostly by personal recommendation. ... In the early sixth century, however, one Southern dynasty emperor asserted the radical idea that officials should be selected purely based on ability as demonstrated through examination, without regard to family background. ... Under the growing authority of Empress Wu Zetian (624-705) in the late seventh century, anyone who believed they had talent — even commoners — were encouraged to recommend themselves for advancement, and the practice of testing candidates anonymously may have first been introduced.
       The civil service examination system, which reached full maturity only after the Tang, became perhaps the defining institution of late imperial China (until it was abolished in the name of modernization in 1905). Although the system always had its critics, it may be said that it did promote a relatively fluid and apparently meritocratic social and political order, and it was certainly a powerful force for cultural homogenization. 
(HEA, 102-4)


By the end of the Tang Dynasty in 907, although modern nationalism and the nation-state were still far in the future, something like an emergent Chinese national identity may have already been prefigured. The economy was highly commercialized and largely market based. The social order was becoming surprisingly fluid, with a nonhereditary meritocratic elite increasingly determined by anonymously graded performance on written tests. Even the technology of woodblock printing was beginning to have an impact. The obvious contrast is with what was happening in Western Europe, where, although Charlemagne was anointed “Emperor of the Romans” in 800 and promoted a justly famous “Carolingian renaissance,” Charlemagne himself was scarcely literate, the former unity of the Roman Empire throughout the Mediterranean was never restored, status was becoming rigidly hereditary, and there had been a long-term decline in the production and commercial exchange of material goods. This was a time in human history when Western Europe became a relative backwater, and China, which may have contained one-third of the world’s total population by the tenth century, strode to global center stage. (HEA, 113-4)
 The Buddhist Transformation of China
& the Chinese Transformation of Buddhism
Buddhism changed as it traveled from India to China, but this should not be surprising. Not only were the cultural backgrounds very different but an enormous linguistic gulf existed between the languages of India, in which the concepts of Buddhism were first articulated, and Chinese. ... Over time, a number of Chinese pilgrims went to India itself and other western destinations to study Buddhism at its source. The most famous early Chinese pilgrim was Faxian, who traveled throughout South Asia in 399-412 and left an important record of his journey. Even going to India did not lessen the language barrier, however. There was simply no way to avoid having to use Chinese words to translate (or at least explain) Indian concepts — in the process, inevitably involving preexisting Chinese ideas. ... Although Mouzi drew on Confucian principles, and most Chinese Buddhists were at pains to emphasize the fundamental compatibility of Buddhism with Confucianism, in the long run it was Daoist terminology that was most influential in translating the Indian Buddhist ideas and shaping Chinese interpretations of Buddhism. For example, nirvana was sometimes translated into Chinese using Laozi’s favorite expression wuwei (nonaction). ... By the sixth century, a number of distinctively Chinese forms of Buddhism began to emerge, which were largely without precedent in India. In addition, approximately one-third of all the scriptures in the Chinese Buddhist canon are thought to be apocryphal, meaning that they are original Chinese compositions rather than translations from Indian texts. Buddhism, in other words was being domesticated, and becoming Chinese. ... China changed Buddhism, but Buddhism also greatly changed China. ... By the end of the Age of Division, there were thousands of Buddhist temples throughout China, and by some reports millions of monks and nuns. ... By the late sixth century, copies of the Buddhist scriptures were said to have been more numerous in China even than the Confucian Classics. As a final example of the pervasiveness of Buddhism in sixth-century China, the great emperor who would finally reunify China in 589 (Yang Jian, 541-604) was born in a Buddhist monastery and raised as a child by a Buddhist nun, who gave him a Sanskrit baby name. (HEA, 77-9)

From the early Chinese conviction that there was a Buddha Nature in every person, it began to be supposed that this Buddha Nature was everywhere and that salvation could be attained in this life merely through realization of this truth. In Chan Buddhism, enlightenment may be sought not by escaping from the world but by awakening to the reality of the world around you. The word Chan literally means “meditation” (from the Sanskrit dhyana), and meditation was central to Chan: not merely as a way to enlightenment but as enlightenment itself in practice. Chan meditation — the stripping away of thoughts and sensations and the elimination of superficial distinctions to realize the fundamental unity of all things — was aided by characteristically enigmatic riddles intended to stimulate awakening. The study of scripture, on the other hand, was said to be useless, because ultimate truth simply cannot be reduced to words. Chan Buddhism famously has been described as “a special transmission outside the scriptures, not founded upon words and letters” but rather “pointing directly to [one’s] mind.” Appropriately enough, the renowned Sixth Chan Patriarch Huineng (638-713) began life as an illiterate firewood seller and apparently never learned to read.
By the end of the Tang Dynasty, and especially under the next dynasty (Song, 960-1279), Chan had become perhaps the mainstream of Chinese Buddhism. Chan, by this time, was quite thoroughly Chinese, and most of its actual development can be traced back to that Chinese Sixth Patriarch Huineng. Even with Chan, however, a legendary Indian origin was still obligatory. According to tradition, the Chan transmission had passed through twenty-eight generations in India, starting from Sakyamuni Buddha himself, until an Indian Brahman known as Bodhidharma brought it to Chan sometime around the year 500. This Bodhidharma was a real historical figure, but most of the legends associated with him developed only later. He is best known for supposedly introducing the meditative technique of “wall watching” as a method of calming the mind. Bodhidharma is regarded as the First Chan Patriarch. (HEA, 105-6)