The “Religion of Images”? Buddhist Image Worship in the Early Medieval Chinese Imagination

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Eric M. Greene



This paper explores how image worship was conceptualized and represented by Chinese authors during the first four centuries of Buddhist presence in China (to roughly 500 CE). Previous scholarship has argued that image worship was initially seen in China as a distinctively Buddhist practice, so much so that Buddhism was even known to the Chinese as the “Religion of Images” (xiangjiao 像教). By examining the history of the interpretation of this term, the evolution of stories about sacred images, and the presentation (or lack thereof) of image worship in debates about the compatibility of Buddhism with Chinese culture, I will argue that image worship was first seen as a distinctly Buddhist or non-Chinese practice only in the late fifth century. Ironically, image worship came to be seen or represented as “foreign” only long after it had already become part of most forms of Chinese religion.

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