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Buddhism and the State in Medieval China


Admission requirements

No specific requirements are needed, but basic knowledge of Buddhism and East Asian languages is beneficial for your understanding of the topic. The main readings will be in English, with supplementary materials in English and other languages.


Have you ever wondered why most Chinese monastics are vegan, while their Japanese or Tibetan colleagues can often eat meat freely? Why do modern Chinese monastics hoist the flag and sing the national anthem inside the monastery? Or why does the Chinese government have a “visible hand” in religious affairs, including those of Buddhism?
We are not going to answer these questions in the seminar. Nevertheless, this course will explore the historical background to such questions. It will focus on the relationship between Buddhism and the state in medieval China (220—907 CE). In this course, we will discuss several major aspects of this complex relationship, including state control and persecution of the Buddhist community, the political role of the Buddhist clergy, the ideological use of Buddhism, the monastic economy, the initiative of the state in the production and circulation of Buddhist texts. While focusing on the “central state” (Zhongguo 中國), we will also not neglect these aspects in the periphery, such as Tibet, the Uyghur kingdom, and Nanzhao 南詔. Studying the relationship between Buddhism and the state in medieval China will yield important insights into several aspects of Chinese Buddhism today.

Course objectives

  • You will gain an understanding of the evolving concepts of “Buddhism” and “state,” and their relationship reflected in different case studies

  • You will grasp the basic discourses in Buddhism and non-Buddhist writings concerning the state-church relations

  • You will learn how to distil information from historical materials and secondary literature, and analyse it critically

  • You will practise writing longer academic papers in English effectively


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method


Attendance and participation (15%):
You should try your best to participate in each session and contribute your views to the discussion. The participation and contribution should be based on a thorough understanding of the assigned mandatory readings. You are also encouraged to connect the mandatory readings with the supplementary ones.
This component will be graded according to the following criteria: 0=if you miss the class with no reasons; 0.5=if you show up yet did not do the readings; 1=you attend and do the readings. Your absence will be allowed up to two times for good reasons.

Reading Responses (35%):
Before each session (except for the first), you will write a 300-350 word reading response on one or more of the reading materials. This does not mean that you should only read one of the readings. You should submit the response to Brightspace 24 hours before the beginning of our class (i.e. every Thursday before 11 a.m.). I will create the submission entries. The title should be Your surname_Reading Response_Session x. You will be allowed to miss the response up to two times for good reasons.
In the response, you should briefly summarise the topic of the reading and the author’s main argument(s). Then, you have three options to choose from:
point out why you agree or disagree with one or several points in the reading,
or demonstrate your understanding of the topic by relating the reading to the other readings of the session, or relate the reading to what we have discussed previously.
Writing a reading response instead of a midterm paper is, first of all, to lessen your burden during the midterm. Secondly, it motivates you to read more carefully and critically, and helps you prepare better for the in-class discussion. Thirdly, during the writing process, you may be able to discover points or topics that interest you, and formulate ideas for your final paper.

Final paper (50%):
You will write an academic paper of 3000-3500 words (excluding the title page and bibliography, but including notes and citations). In the paper, you can investigate in detail topics about the relationship between Buddhism and the state in medieval China. You can discuss your paper topic with the course instructor by appointment.

N.B. For all the assignments, it is recommended to cite your sources following The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition. Other reference systems are allowed as long as you use them correctly. The layout of the assignments should be in Times New Roman (12 pt.), 1.5 spacing, and should include page numbers. The file name should always be your surname_your student number_title of the assignment_submission date (for example, Bai_1234567_Oh dang assignment_11Jan2022). For non-Windows users, please make sure your file is compatible with Windows, such as in *.doc (instead of *.docx) or *.pdf format, to avoid unpleasant surprises. The grading criteria for the assignments will be uploaded to Brightspace separately.


Attendance and participation (25%): You are required to be present in every session and contribute your views during the discussion. Unexcused absences will only be allowed up to two times, and absent students should write a short review/summary on the readings of that session.

Midterm paper (35%): You will need to write a 1200-word academic paper (excluding the title page and bibliography). You can use this opportunity to either discuss a specific question that interests you or review a book in the syllabus that intrigues you.

Final paper (40%): You are required to write a longer academic paper no less than 3000 words (excluding the title page and bibliography). In this paper, you can investigate in detail topics about the relationship between Buddhism and the state in medieval China. You can discuss your paper topic with the course instructor by appointment.


You are only allowed to take a resit if your paper is below the satisfactory mark (5.50). In that case, the course instructor may set a new deadline.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

Before the course, students are strongly recommended to browse the following introductory materials:

  • Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction

  • John Strong, Buddhisms: An Introduction (electronically available in the library)

  • Jonathan A. Silk, “Mahayana” (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mahayana) and the hyperlinks in the article

  • Paul Williams, Mahāyāna Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations

Course readings will be provided via Brightspace.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory. General information about uSis is available on the website.

Registration Studeren à la carte en Contractonderwijs

Registration Contractonderwijs.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: De Vrieshof.


It is not possible to write your thesis within this course