Has Uighur Buddhism been historically part of Chinese Buddhism?

Chinese government historians and archaeologists have declared that the history of Buddhism in the pre-Islamic Uyghur region is part of Chinese Buddhism and Buddhist tradition, and even state that some of the Buddhist sites in the region belong to Chinese dynasties. The relationship between Buddhism and Chinese dynasties, and especially the origins of Uyghur Buddhism, are controversial. In promoting this view, Chinese government archaeologists present the ruins of the Mora Buddhist Temple, 4.5 km from the village of Mor within the boundaries of the village of Bashkelam in Kashgar, as one of the archaeological vestiges that are typical of this view.

According to the news posted on the social media platform of the Chinese channel “China Road”, several archaeological excavations carried out at the Mora Buddhist Temple since 2019 have revealed that the early form of the temple, built in the 3rd century AD, was based on local architectural features of Central Asia, India and Kashmir, but then gradually began to change into Chinese architecture, especially reflecting these features in the period from the 7th to the 10th centuries, claiming that Chinese Buddhism became prevalent at this place.

According to the report, archaeologists found that the temple’s Chinese Buddhist architectural style reflects the main hall built in the late 7th century, and historians suggest that there are historical records that the temple was built by order of Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty and managed by Chinese monks. However, Western archaeologists and Buddhist researchers believe that Buddhism began to spread in the Uyghur region during the Kushan period, and that Buddhist temples and centers in the region, such as Khotan, Kucha, and Karanagara, began to fall into disrepair after the 9th century, during the Karakhanid period. Gandhara Buddhism, which belongs to the Indo-Greek Buddhist culture of the time, is the source of Buddhism and has been proven to have a close connection with Buddhism.

The Chinese government archaeologists’ presentation of Uyghur Buddhism as part of Chinese Buddhism comes at the same time that the Chinese government’s efforts to sinicize the Uyghur region have intensified since 2017, and the reevaluation of Uyghur history is becoming widely accepted as part of a sense of “federal Chinese nations.” However, Johan Elberskog, professor of history and religion at Southern Methodist University in the United States and author of “The History of Uyghur Buddhism,” denies that the Han or Tang dynasties spread or expanded Buddhism in the Uyghur region.

Johan Elberskog points out that while historical documents show that Buddhism spread to the Uyghur region from Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, there is no evidence in Iranian documents that Khotan adopted Buddhism as its state religion in the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. Many religious texts were translated into Khotanese at that time, highlighting the major role that the ancient Khotanese state played in the spread of Buddhism in the region.

Johan Elberskog spoke about this in an exclusive interview last week: “At the time, they (the temples) were very supportive of the emergence of Buddhism in the region. Of course, the Chinese claim that Buddhism started here during the Han dynasty, which ruled the region for a time, but the Chinese also came into the region during the Tang dynasty, but this came for military reasons. The Chinese occupation of these places was for ‘colonial agriculture’, to cultivate barren land that was used to support the military. So the Chinese never built real Buddhist temples in the region.”

Johan Elberskog pointed out that although Empress Wu Zetian, a famous queen during the transitional period of the Tang dynasty, supported Buddhism, the Tang dynasty at that time would not have been able to build temples in a country like Western Diyar. “Of course, the famous Empress Wu Zetian at that time deliberately supported Buddhism, but that doesn’t mean that she supported Buddhism in a country like Xinjiang. It would have been impossible for the Tang dynasty at that time to build temples in a country like Western Diyar,” Johan Elberskog said.

However, Chinese state media claims that historians say that Empress Wu Zetian, an empress of the Tang Dynasty in the late 7th to early 8th century, ordered the construction of four “Dayun Temples” in Anxi, one of which is the Mora Buddha ruins near Bashkelam, Kashgar. However, Dr. Kahar Barat, an American Buddhist culture researcher, emphasizes that the Buddhist cultures of Khotan, Kashgar and Kucha in Qatar are fragments of Hindu and Greek Gandharan Buddhist cultures that existed in what is now Pakistan from the 3rd century BC to the 12th century AD.

Kahar Barat believes that there is “no Chinese influence at all” in the Buddhist culture of these places. In fact, he said that the architectural style of Buddhist temples in the Tang Dynasty was modeled on that of India, and that it is an exaggeration to say that the Mora Buddha ruins are modeled on the Tang Dynasty temple architectural style. However, Chinese state media claims that “Buddhism flourished in Sreg (Kashgar) during the Han and Tang Dynasties, and Buddhism and Han Buddhism flourished in the Theravada sect.” However, Professor Johan Elberskog said that it is clear that the architecture of the Mora temple is Indian, not Chinese.

“If you look at the architecture of the Moravian temples, it’s clear that it’s not Chinese,” says Johan Elberskog. It’s clear that Northwest Indian is prominent in this architecture. This place is the main source of Buddhist culture, especially Khotanese Buddhism. They didn’t translate Buddhist texts from Chinese. So Buddhist iconography (pictorial art) is absolutely modeled on Northwest Indian.

But the pre-Islamic history of China’s Uighur region, particularly its Buddhist period, has been given more emphasis since Xi Jinping’s call to build a “common consciousness of the Chinese nation” by linking Uighur Buddhism with Han and Tang Buddhism and restoring many Buddhist sites and turning them into famous tourist destinations. Analysts say Chinese authorities are using the region’s Buddhist past as a “spiritual common ground” to build a “common consciousness of the Chinese nation.”

Xia Ming, a professor of political science at the City University of New York, said China’s interpretation of Uighur historical Buddhism as linked to Chinese Buddhism reflects the Communist Party’s tendency to seek current legitimacy from Chinese dynasties dating back thousands of years.

Professor Xia Ming said in an interview on June 17: “In fact, the Chinese Communist Party seeks its legitimacy from feudal dynasties. Their idea that their creations are thousands of years old, or eternal, is a fundamental denial of human nature. From that perspective, any view of the Chinese Communist Party goes against human nature.”

Xia Ming pointed out that this is the highest point in the 200 years of Chinese Communist Party rule and shows the regime’s lack of legitimacy.

As a result, Professor Xia Ming said, the CCP arbitrarily uses aspects of Chinese history that are convenient for it. “Looking at China’s thousands of years of history, we can see that the CCP picks out and talks about whatever historical events are convenient for it. For example, the CCP frequently emphasizes that the Qin Dynasty unified China, and that the Han and Tang Dynasties brought prosperity,” he said.

Xia Ming pointed out that the Chinese Communist Party views the relationship between the Han and Tang dynasties and neighboring countries and regions as a kind of “conquer and conquer” relationship.

Experts point out that Uyghur Buddhism originated in India, but Al Alimdali, China’s director of ethnic affairs, points out that Chinese culture is the most important guiding factor in the region. On June 12, at an international conference titled “The History and Future of Xinjiang,” Pan Yue, director of China’s National Commission on Ethnic Affairs, spoke and explained to participants the starting point for understanding the history and culture of the Uyghur region. “Xinjiang’s cultures are diverse but unified, and the most important factor that unifies them is Chinese culture,” Pan Yue said. He emphasized that to understand the history and culture of the Uyghur region, “it is necessary to study Xinjiang from the perspective of the common history of the Chinese nation and the multipolar unity of the Chinese nation, and to understand Xinjiang from the perspective of a region where many cultures and religions coexist and ethnic groups live together.” However, Professor Johan Elberskog described the terrible events that have taken place in Xinjiang since 2017, as well as the attitude of the Chinese government toward the history of the region, as “historical terrorism” or “rewriting the history of the region.”

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