Philosophy, Religion and Culture in Medieval China

This article covers philosophy, religion and culture in medieval China, a period during which Confucianism was confirmed as the leading ideology in China.


Philosophy and Religion

Late Han dynasty and after

Sui and early Tang dynasties

Late Tang and Song dynasties

The Mongol period


From the fall of the Han to the early Tang

Late Tang to the Mongol period







The Late Han period and after


Confucianism had been the official ideology of the Han dynasty, and it retained this status in all the Chinese states which succeeded the Han. It remained the focus of the officials’ educational curriculum and continued to shape the outlook of the elite.

However, in the troubles which accompanied the fall of the Han dynasty and the violent struggles which followed, the hold of Confucianism was weakened as a personal belief system.

Confucianism focussed mainly on how to live a good life within the world of people, and offered no deep hope beyond this. The upheavals of the period, and the widespread suffering that these caused, led many Chinese, in all ranks of society, to search for a deeper meaning beyond the life of the here and now.


This search for meaning led many Chinese to turn to Daoism. In the 3rd century, some writers set out to harmonize Daoism with Confucian teaching. For example they interpreted the Daoist concept of non-action, an anathema to Confucians, to mean taking no inappropriate action. “Clarifications” such as this made it possible for people to follow Daoism whilst pursuing an official career, and so made it much more popular with many educated people.  Daoism also began to spread amongst the common people. In the centuries following the fall of the Han it became an organized religion, with its own temples and priesthood.

A by-product of the spread of Daoism was an upsurge in what could be called the “proto-sciences”. The search for immortality, a central concern of Daoist devotees, stimulated the study of medicine and alchemy. In later centuries this would lead to major scientific and technological breakthroughs, such as the compass and gunpowder.


Buddhism also, with its message of eternal salvation, began to spread through all ranks of Chinese society.

Buddhism had come to China (in its Mahayana form, which would ever after be the most popular form of Buddhism in China) from northern India and central Asia in the 1st century AD. At first it was practiced by only small communities of foreign traders and monks. The alien religion was treated with hostility by most educated Chinese, not only as it was a foreign import but also because some Buddhist doctrines were opposed to Confucian teachings. Notably, Buddhism preaches renunciation of worldly things, including family ties; Confucianism on the other hand holds that the family is of paramount importance.

Gradually, however, some native Chinese began to convert. In the late Han period Buddhist scriptures began to be translated into Chinese, though at this time the work was carried out by foreign missionaries rather than by Chinese Buddhists and the translations were later regarded as suspect.

After the fall of the Han, the spread of Buddhism speeded up. The non-Chinese conquerors of northern China, who had no prior devotion to Confucianism, were especially open to conversion to the alien religion, but Chinese too adopted Buddhism at an increasing rate. This was all the more true as the divide between Chinese and non-Chinese began to blur. Buddhist monasteries and temples proliferated, and many Chinese began were becoming monks – a remarkable thing for Chinese to do, with their devotion to family ties.

The spread of Buddhism caused a widespread hunger for accurate translations of Buddhist texts. The Northern Wei established government translation bureaus, originally staffed by foreigners but increasingly by Chinese, to translate Buddhist scriptures. One of the most famous Buddhist monks of the time, Faxian (337-c.422), even visited India in his desire to obtain accurate texts, spending 16 years on his travels. When he came back he spent the rest of his life translating what he had acquired; but he also wrote an account of his travels, which offers a highly valuable glimpse of Indian society and religion at this time.

As it spread in China, Buddhism gradually changed, particularly as it came under influence from Daoism. The outstanding example of this at this time was the rise of the Pure Land sect, which may have had its roots in India or central Asia but soon acquired distinctly Chinese characteristics, with meditation techniques imported from Daoism. Sometime in this period, probably in the early 5th century, a Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma arrived in China, perhaps from central Asia, perhaps from India, and stressed the importance of deep meditation. His teaching would become the inspiration for the later rise of Chan Buddhism.

The rise of Buddhism in China of course aroused the hostility of Confucianist officials, who at times were able to cause trouble for the Buddhists. While some emperors were devout Buddhists, others were anything but. This was especially true of the Northern Wei, under whom Buddhism was virtually a state religion at times, but at other times suffered persecution.

In south China at the time of Jin empire, the spread of Buddhism was equally apparent. Many educated people who had been attracted to Daoism, with its rejection of worldly values, were ready converts to Buddhism.

The Sui and Early Tang period

By the middle of the 6th century Buddhism was firmly established in China, from the royal courts down to the villages. Such was its popularity that when he reunited China under a single regime, the founder of the Sui dynasty, the emperor Wendi, went out of his way to present himself as a Buddhist monarch, patronizing Buddhist temples and monasteries and promoting Buddhism as the religion of the common people.

Buddhism increased its hold on all levels of Chinese society under the early Tang – indeed it was at this time that this religion reached its peak of influence in China, particularly amongst the ruling classes.

During Taizong’s reign, a famous Buddhist traveller, Xuanzang, followed Faxian’s example by going on a mission to India, from whence (17 years later) he brought back many Buddhist texts (as well as relics and statues). Like Faxian he spent the rest of his life in a monastery translating them into Chinese. His were the most accurate translations up to that date, and, along with his commentaries, considerably raised the Chinese understanding of Buddhist teaching.

Buddhist monasteries continued to grow in wealth during the early Tang period. They received extensive landed estates as grants from emperors. Nevertheless, Confucianism remained the official ideology of the imperial government, as it had under the Sui; and Confucian texts remained the primary subject for study for official exam candidates.

Throughout all the centuries of division, however, Confucianism had retained its status as the medium of education and the official ideology of government. Senior government personnel were expected to have a good grounding in Confucian philosophy, and remained broadly Confucian in their outlook even while practicing Buddhism in their private lives. To keep the loyalty of his administrators, the Sui and Tang emperors ensured that they presented himself as ideal Confucian rulers as well as Buddhist ones. For example, they made sure that knowledge of Confucian writings was tested in the civil service examinations.

From the Late Tang to the Song period

Buddhism had reached a peak of influence in China in early Tang times, and continued its dominance for many years into late Tang times. However, little by little forces began moving against the religion. Most importantly, the vast wealth which the Buddhist monasteries had come to control became too tempting a target for a cash-strapped government.

Buddhism was persecuted on a national scale in the years from 841 to 845. The vast majority of monasteries throughout China were closed, and their monks and nuns (a quarter of a million of them) returned to ordinary life. Their lands returned to the tax registers.

Buddhist public institutions never recovered from this attack. However, Buddhism had gained too firm a hold on the hearts and minds of ordinary people to be snuffed out so easily. It remained a popular religion in the towns and villages of China right down to the 20th century (and remains so to this day). Nor should it be thought that Buddhism suddenly lost its hold completely on the educated elite. Indeed, the greatest printing project of the Song era, and one of the greatest of Chinese history or indeed in world history, was the publication of the complete set of Buddhist scriptures in more than a thousand volumes.


Perhaps linked to the decline of institutional Buddhism, the late Tang saw the first stirrings of a revival of Confucianism (see above).

Ancient Confucianism had been a set of teachings about society, and the individual’s place within it. With the rise of Daoist and Buddhist thought in the 3rd century CE, people had turned to these for solace in troubled times, and for teaching about how to live a good life. Though continuing to act as the official state ideology, Confucianism had ceased to hold the hearts of educated Chinese: as a source of spirituality or intellectual interest it had long been dormant.

The reinvigoration of Confucianism was the work of a succession of thinkers over a period of two centuries or so. In the process they introduced new elements into Confucian teaching such that modern scholars give their philosophy the label “Neo-Confucianism”.

The Neo-Confucianist thinkers borrowed metaphysical and cosmological elements from Buddhism and Daoism and, applying crucially distinctive twists to them, turned Confucianism into a system of belief which could exert a deep hold over both the hearts and minds of educated people. In contrast to Daoism and Buddhism, the basic message of Neo-Confucianism was that human fulfillment is to be the found in this world, in social activity. By participating fully in society, and not standing aloof from it (Daoism) or rejecting it (Buddhism), everyone has the potential to realize their potential and live the “good life”. Neo-Confucianists should devote themselves to social and political reform – making the world the best it could be – and to self-cultivation – making oneself as knowledgeable as one could be.

Neo-Confucianist thinkers taught that social and political reform should center around reviving the family as the basis of society. They also stated that the state should be imbued with a strong sense of social welfare activism. They enjoined their students to exercise compassion for others through the practice of charity.

Such propositions were very congenial to the scholar-official class, whose raison-d’être was public service.  From being a rather dry set of scholarly doctrines, Confucianism was transformed into the dominant belief-system of the elite, in which a man’s place in the wide context of this world was defined by his positive contribution to it.

Such was the success of these efforts to revive Confucianism (albeit in a form which Confucius might have struggled to recognize) that, under the Song dynasty, Confucian teaching became much more central to the civil service examination system than it had been before. No longer were there questions of current affairs and practical government, as there had been under the Sui and Tang, but instead the exams were restricted to the Confucian “classics”.

The Mongol period

The Mongol period was notable for its religious tolerance. The Mongols had originally practiced a form of shamanism, but they made no attempt to impose this on their subjects. In due course they tended to adopt the faith of their subjects. In western Asia this meant Islam, but in China they preferred Daoism and Buddhism to Confucianism. Both Daoism and Buddhism were officially sponsored by the Mongol court – the Mongols liked the Daoist emphasis on divination and the Buddhist emphasis on colorful ceremonial. Tibetan Buddhism was especially favored by the Mongols.

The Mongol attitude to Confucianism had originally been one of baffled contempt. Once they had conquered the whole of China, however, Kublai Khan’s policy of presenting himself as a legitimate Chinese emperor led to the re-establishment of Confucian rites at court. He and some of his successors especially valued Confucian-educated officials.


From the fall of the Han to the end of the early Tang (220 to 755 AD).

Unlike in western Europe, where the fall of the Roman empire was followed by a dramatic decline in literacy rates, there was no such occurrence in China after the fall of the Han empire. This was particularly true of southern China, which remained largely at peace under a succession of native Chinese dynasties: levels of education and literacy seem to have been largely unaffected by the political upheavals of the time. Even in northern China, divided and ravaged as it was, the elites continued to be able to educate their sons, and literacy, though more restricted than it had been under the Han, certainly continued in a way that it did not in western Europe of the “Dark Ages”.

This situation enabled the development of Chinese literature to continue without interruption.


The prose of ancient China had shown a marked economy; it was concise and to the point. In the post-Han era prose tended to become less sparse and more descriptive, though perhaps less forceful. As time went by it became more and more ornate and refined, especially in southern China. This could have a beautiful effect with a gifted writers, but tended to become artificial and over-flowery in the hands of lesser talents.

The main form of non-fiction in these centuries was history, which has always been the most highly esteemed of prose writing in China for the guidance it offers. Histories of previous dynasties were produced, sometimes under court patronage. Under the Tang, a government commission was established to write the history of the Sui dynasty, along the lines set out by Sima Qian in the Han dynasty. All later dynasties followed this example. Other works of history were produced by private individuals, especially less formal narrative histories of previous dynasties.

Another genre of non-fiction writing was the lives of Buddhist and Daoist saints. Some of these reached a high level of dramatic quality. Works of literary and art criticism also began to be produced in southern China in the post-Han era, and became an important strand in Chinese non-fiction literature ever after.


The poetry of the post-Han era inherited the Shih (short and highly disciplined) and Fu (longer, more florid and ornate) formats from the Han period. In the late and post-Han period poetry became more free-form and more rhythmic. Perhaps in reaction, at some point during the period of division, in the south, the “regulated Shih” form appeared – that is, Shih-style verses with more and more rules imposed on the rhythms and rhymes of the verses.

The mid-Tang period is traditionally regarded as the time when Chinese poetry reached its peak. The great poets of the era were masters of the understated, impressionistic Shih style, setting a scene or establishing a mood in just a few words, allowing the reader to build on these with his own imagination and thoughts. They did not adhere slavishly to the rules of the “regulated Shih” form, but used them or not as suited their purpose.

During early and mid-Tang times music from central Asia had a large impact on Chinese poetry. Much verse was originally written to fit song tunes, and though later these tunes were gradually forgotten, the tonal patterns they inspired remained as the standard for much Chinese poetry in later times.

The cultivated Tang emperor Xuanzong was a noted patron of poets, and presided over perhaps the most intellectually brilliant court in Chinese history. A group of poets known as the “Eight Immortals”, who recited poetry together over cups of wine, were installed at the imperial court and enjoyed the favor of the emperor. Amongst their number were two of the most famous poets in Chinese literature, Li Bai (701-62 – a wild spirit , wrote on all subjects and as a master of all styles, sometimes melancholic, often joyous) and Du Fu (712-70 – noted for his great learning but loved for his sympathy for the plight of those in distress – he witnessed much suffering in the An Lushan rebellion).

Many other poets flourished at this time, making the Tang dynasty a glorious period for Chinese literature.

Late Tang to Yuan dynasty (755-1368)

From Song times onwards, the spread of printing, centuries before the West, acted as a great stimulus to the production of literature of all kinds. It facilitated the spread of education, and allowed works to be circulated immeasurably more widely than before. Book collecting became almost a necessity for the wealthy: every gentleman had his library.

Many gentlemen had been active in writing – poetry or history, mostly – since Han times, but now it became much more a part of their normal everyday life; and it became common for scholar-officials, or their families and friends, to publish collections of their work. Hundreds of such collections survive from the Song period alone (the number is in the thousands for Ming and Qing times).

Much of this writing is mediocre; and Western scholars have criticized much of the better material for being imitative. However, “imitativeness” in the Chinese context, at least in the hands of gifted writers (of which there were a huge number), is more properly regarded as “improvisation”, in that later Chinese writers sought to express themselves in the ways of earlier periods but give the earlier style a new twist in some way, or apply it to new subject matter. Originality for its own sake was not highly esteemed.


A reaction against the florid and ornate style which had come to characterize Chinese prose (see above) set in under the later Tang, when a scholar called Han Yu (768-824) began writing again in the simple, uncluttered prose of ancient times. He did so with such effect that this style was no longer held in contempt (it should be noted that this was not a move towards writing in everyday language; in fact it was the reverse). The example he set was followed by others, notably Ouyang Xiu (1007-72), whose writing possessed such force and clarity that it firmly established this style as standard for prose until the 20th century.

Historical writing became more sophisticated in Song times, and more varied. Works included official dynastic histories, compilations of laws and regulations (invaluable as source material), specialist studies of institutions, and of eras and major episodes, the history of different topics, local histories, memoirs, gazetteers (histories and geographies of particular localities and regions), and encyclopedic compendiums on many subjects.

Sima Guang (1019-86) was the outstanding historian of the period. He compiled an integrated narrative of Chinese history from ancient times to the start of Song dynasty, and set new standards of sophistication and objectivity. He took the analysis of sources to a new level in Chinese – and therefore world – historiography.


We have seen that the mid-Tang period was an outstanding period for Chinese poetry. Later Tang poetry, however, became more complex in language and impressionistic in content, sometimes to the point of being nearly impossible to understand (especially for non-Chinese readers). In Song times, a reaction inevitably set in. Poetry became less suggestive and more realistic. As in earlier times the Shih in its different forms was the norm, but the ornate Fu style was still used when deemed appropriate. Poets strove to imitate their great Tang predecessors, but paid greater attention to the details of everyday life.

“Landscape” poetry had been an important genre since before Tang times, but under the Song it became very popular indeed. The poet Su Shih (1037-1101), who was also famed as a painter  and calligrapher, popularized one of the most distinctive elements within Chinese art, and one that has captivated Western aficionados: inscribing short landscape poems in beautiful brushstrokes onto landscape paintings.

Under the Mongols, new song forms from central Asia came into China, and, just as they had in Tang times, stimulated the rise of new patterns of rhythm and rhyme, freer and more colloquial than earlier forms. These were particularly used to express strong emotions such as love or grief.


Short, simple stories such as fables, anecdotes and ghost stories had been written down and collected since before Tang times, but in the late Tang, collections of formal short stories or novellas involving realistic scenarios and characterization began the appear,. These were written by scholars for scholars in a literary style, very different from colloquial everyday speech of common people.

From time immemorial there had been a rich oral tradition of story telling in colloquial speech in China, which had begun to be written down in the post-Han era. In Song times there was the gradual development of fiction as a literary genre in colloquial Chinese; indeed the stories are written as if they are spoken, and use the traditional story-tellers’ techniques for maintaining interest and moving the plot forward. This is the case even in new works.

Such works of fiction became more popular under the Mongols than they had previously been, and this period also saw the rise of a new kind of popular literary entertainment, theatre.


Public entertainments expanded greatly in Song times, to meet the demands of a growing class of educated, comparatively well-off people. At first these took the form of emotional romantic narrations that were performed by courtesans in tea houses and high class brothels, but they soon developed into narrative song-cycles performed in public. Meanwhile, open air performances of jugglers and acrobats began to include short comedy sketches, which became longer and longer, and began to include song-cycles. Finally, in early Mongol times in northern China, they finally evolved into musical dramas in their own right.

These dramas, as their ancestry suggests, combined speaking and singing with stylized action, somewhat like a pantomime in the West. The plots ere traditionally adapted from the repertoire of traditional story tellers. They were melodramatic, and had a happy, or at least uplifting, ending, with good triumphing over bad. The songs were normally considered the finest literary elements within the dramas.

Drama became firmly established in Chinese life under the Mongols. It was written in the vernacular style, not the classical. It was popular with all ranks of society, and came quickly to maturity – the most famous play in Chinese drama, the Romance of the West Chamber, was composed early in 13th century Beijing.



Sculpture had not been an important art form in ancient China. Large, clunky carved lions and other animals were often stationed along the roads to imperial tombs and palaces. In the post-Han period, however, Buddhist sculpture came into its own. The outstanding works of the era were the great series of Buddhist statues found in grottoes in northern China.  One Buddha image at Yungang is 45 feet high, and others not much smaller. The earlier images show Indian influences in their sensuousness and naturalism; later images show more Chinese sensibilities, being more linear and formal.

This form of art reached a peak in Tang times, when it reached a perfection of technique; thereafter, as the influence of Buddhism waned (at least with the elite), sculpture declined in status and quality.


Descriptions from the Han and post-Han periods tell us that palaces and monasteries of the time were decorated with naturalistic frescoes and murals, and by realistic portraits. None survive, but they were apparently much admired. Ceramic images found in tombs suggest that styles of the period emphasized graceful lines and a strong sense of movement.

In the period of division painting an important moment in the history of Chinese art was reached when the canons by which all later paintings would be judged were established. These canons consisted of

  1. a striving to depict the inner essence of a subject;
  2. the central importance of brushwork;
  3. faithfulness to reality;
  4. the use of colors appropriate to the subject matter;
  5. careful planning of composition; and
  6. the use of techniques learnt from prior masters.

Whereas in the west artists tended to use tough canvases and thick oil paints, which could be scraped off if need be, Chinese artists traditionally painted on silk or paper with watercolor paints or sooty ink. This meant that they could not experiment with a painting until they were satisfied; they had to have a clear idea what they wanted the finished work to look like from the outset. This put a premium of careful planning, and it also meant that much painting was highly intellectual in content rather than being copied directly from life.

Just as in poetry, artists strove for simplicity and clarity, suggesting rather than depicting what was going on. To the Chinese, skillful use of brush and ink was hugely important, and the quality of the brushwork was key to the aesthetic appeal of a painting. They felt that this could say much about what the artist was feeling or aiming at – was it hesitant or bold, delicate or crude, relaxed or vigorous? The brushwork therefore revealed the spirit and personality of the painter, and allowed the viewer to think about the painting in a more empathetic way. This was as important in enjoying a work as was the subject matter.

This emphasis on brushwork made calligraphy into a fine art in its own right. As in much else, the mid-Tang period was a time of pioneering achievement for this form, and, along with painting and poetry, established it among the most highly esteemed of the arts.

But it was landscape painting which came into its own in China from late Tang times onwards, and Song landscapes are appreciated as amongst the finest artworks ever produced.

Artists strove for a balance between realism and design, and as tastes changed so the balance shifted between these two elements. Under the late Tang, painters tried to give them equal weight, but in early Song times landscapes tended to become more naturalistic: monumental scenes of rugged mountains tinged with mist were a particular favorite.

Later, Song landscapes became more simplified and impressionistic, sometimes almost abstract, suggesting a scene rather than depicting it in detail.

In the Southern Song period, landscapes became more refined and more detailed. This was followed, in the Yuan (Mongol) period, by a transition to a more experimental style, with artists trying out new brush techniques to create sweeping views with crisp clarity.


During the period we are looking at (220 AD to 1368) craftsmanship reached ever higher levels of skill in a range of crafts, including jade carving, textiles and lacquerware. Above all, though, it was in the manufacture and design of ceramics that Chinese craftsmanship achieved a level unmatched anywhere else in the world.

After centuries of development, the techniques for producing high-fired, hard-glazed porcelain were perfected in Song times; at the same time ceramic design reached its finest form in the graceful, monochrome Song porcelains. This was produced in abundance for a customers ranging from emperors to common shopkeepers, and increasingly for export – Chinese porcelain was in high demand right around the Eastern Hemisphere.

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