Religious Policies of the Yuan

views updated

Religious Policies of the Yuan


Shamanism. Originally, Mongol religion was a form of shamanism, the religious practices of certain native peoples of northern Asia who believed that good and evil spirits pervaded the world and could be summoned or heard through inspired shamans (priests) acting as mediums. Kublai Khan had performed its rituals before his occupation of China.

Tolerance. The Mongol tolerance of foreigners extended to their religions. The early khans supported religious debates at their courts and granted tax exemptions to all religions. Nestorians, Muslims, Christians,

and Jews were welcomed. The religious policy of the Yuan (1279-1368) government consecutively supported different sects, following the interests of the moment, and handed over to them the general direction of religious affairs of the dynasty. The Yuan empire, famous for its religious freedom, did not impose Mongol religious beliefs on the Chinese.

Daoism. After the Daoist master Qiu Chuji visited Genghis Khan in Central Asia, his faith was particularly favored by the ruler. The emperor belonged to a sect founded in Shandong by Wang Chongyang, who attempted to purify Daoism. Genghis respected Qiu Chuji and made him patriarch of all religious orders in the Mongol empire and later authorized Daoists to answer all religious questions in 1223.

Buddhism. Kublai Khan, who succeeded his grandfather Genghis and established the Yuan dynasty, promoted

open discussion between Buddhists and Daoists, who were involved in a bitter rivalry. Influenced by the monk Haiyun, the Mongol emperor transferred his preference to the Chan school of Buddhism after 1242. Buddhism enjoyed a dominant position in the Khitan, Tangut, and Jurchen empires and its influence increased within the Mongol empire.

Great Debate. While Lamaism, a form of Mahayana Buddhism that incorporated elements of Tantrism and shamanism, enjoyed the favor of the Mongols, Daoists and Buddhists fought a series of great religious debates at court. Daoists used wartime chaos as an opportunity to occupy Buddhist temples and began to distribute pamphlets claiming that Lao Zi, the founder of Daoism, had “civilized” and converted Buddha himself. When Buddhists complained, the Mangu Khan organized several court meetings (1255 to 1258) to consider the Daoist-Buddhist charges and counter-charges. The last meeting, directed by Kublai Khan, was a great event that gathered about three hundred Buddhists, two hundred Taoists, and two hundred Confucian scholars. The Daoist assertions were pronounced untrue in all cases, possessions appropriated from Buddhist plaintiffs were returned, libelous Daoist books on the Buddha were destroyed, and several chief Daoists were forced to with-draw and take Buddhist pledges.

Suppression. After this famous debate it became obvious that many Daoists were not remorseful, and Kublai ordered in 1281 that since the Buddhists had won the com-petition, Daoist excesses should be restricted. During this persecution the millennium-old dispute over the sequential priority of Lao Zi and Buddha vanished steadily; Daoists lost their reputation and riches, and their power declined. Daoism did not disappear, although Buddhism became popular in the Mongol empire. The emperors continued to tolerate Daoism and Chinese Buddhism, although they favored the faith of Tibetan lamas.

Lamaism. After the Mongols invaded Tibet, their interest in Chinese Buddhism soon surrendered to an energetic interest in Tibetan Buddhism, which played a significant religious role in the Yuan empire. After receiving the obedience of Tibetans, the Mongols employed a Tibetan abbot to rule on their behalf over Tibet. Lamaism was more complicated and worldly than the native shamanism of the Mongols. Impressed by the Lamaist methods and charms infused with magic power to heal or harm, Mongol emperors thereafter engaged in the Tibetan religion as a form of Buddhism.

Phags-pa. The Tibetan lama Phags-pa went to Beijing in 1253; in 1260 he invented an alphabetic script for the Mongolian language. As a result, Kublai appointed him as imperial mentor and state tutor. As Kublai’s intimate adviser, Thags-pa began to introduce lamas into government service in China and became responsible for the affairs of all Buddhist monks. In return, he recognized Kublai as the universal emperor of the Buddhist tradition.

Senge. A multilingual Uighur lama called Senge became Kublai’s religious supervisor and favorite monk. The power of the lamas in China enabled them to take advantage of religious communities. Engaging in financial speculation and forced exaction of funds, Senge was later found guilty of plundering and of committing several murders.

Yanglian Zhenjia. After occupying southern China, the Yuan established a new office of religious affairs at Hangzhou. Beginning in 1277 the Mongols trusted a Tibetan monk called Yanglian Zhenjia, who became famous for his bad behavior. His most terrible crime was to open the tombs of the Southern Song (1127-1279) emperors in an effort to possess their treasures. After this period the government, as did Kublai’s heirs, favored Lamaism. In 1309 the Yuan court issued an edict that anyone caught beating a lama would have his hand cut off; anyone convicted of affronting a lama was sentenced to lose his tongue.

Confucianism. The Mongol emperors’ stance toward Confucianism was more cautious. Since Kublai did not understand the written Chinese language, he had little knowledge of the Confucian texts. Recognizing the importance of the philosophy, however, he hired Confucian officials and encouraged the translation of the classics into the Mongolian languages. When Ayurbarwada came to the throne (1311), for the first time a Mongol emperor had a knowledge of written Chinese. He reintroduced Confucianism to the state and society to modify the Mongolian culture, but Confucian elements remained superficial. Early in Toghon Temur’s reign (1333-1368), when Chancellor Bayan controlled the government, Confucian scholars were disappointed by his attempt to turn the tide of sinicizing (making things more Chinese) by repealing civil service examinations as a route of entry into government service. After the fall of Bayan in 1340 Confucianism recovered some of its ideological supremacy, and the Yuan government restored the examination system, offering the opportunity not only to Chinese applicants but also to Mongols as part of a common objective and commitment to establishing a unified state.

Dilemma. In Yuan times Confucians were put in a dilemma. Some scholars claimed that their Confucian obligations required them to serve the Mongols in order to civilize them, while other intellectuals declined to condone the Mongol presence in China and refused to compromise or accept any government positions. Liu Yin was a distinguished example; in 1291 he turned down an offer to become an academician at the Imperial Academy. His refusal to commit himself to public service was regarded as an instance of Confucian eremitism, a removal of intellectuals from worldly affairs as a protest against the Mongol regime. Another type of resistance by the Confucians emerged through drama; they wrote plays that contained protests against the Mongol presence, and the popular response to their productions in part resulted in the down-fall of the Yuan empire.

Islam. Central Asia was converted to Islam during the Tang period (618-907), and many Muslims settled in the western part of China Proper during Yuan times. The Mongol emperors favored the introduction of Islam into China. In the Yuan era, Islamic communities were founded in northern China and the Yunnan province, to which a Muslim governor had been appointed since 1274. Some of these Muslim communities gradually combined with the local Chinese, while others tried to preserve their own personality, showing a marked trend toward autonomy. Thou-sands of Chinese in northern China were converted to Islam during this period.

Influence. Islamic Iran had a significant impact on the Chinese world during the Mongol era. Mongols built a Muslim temple in Beijing, and there were many examples of Islamic architecture in Mongolia and China. Mosques were established in Yunnan, Gansu, and Guangzhou. Mongols began to translate Arabic texts at the Islamic Academy, founded during the reign of Kublai Khan, and they set up a Muslim observatory in Beijing. Yuan emperors tolerated all religions and coped kindly even with representatives of Islam, Nestorianism, and Christianity.


Kung-Chuan Hsiao, A History of Chinese Political Thought, translated by F. W. Mote (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).

Charles O. Hucker, China s Imperial Past: An Introduction to Chinese His-tory and Culture (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1975).

Frederick W. Mote, Intellectual Foundations of China (New York: Knopf,1971).

About this article

Religious Policies of the Yuan

Updated About content Print Article