The Chinese Roots of Japanese Art and Buddhism: 500,000 BCE to 664 CE.



For students of Japanese art and Buddhist history, it is important to have a basic running knowledge of China’s cultural history leading up the the reign of Prince Shotoku, and the dawning of the first great age of Buddhism in Japan. So I have created a basic outline of Chinese technological and artistic development that will (hopefully) help anyone interested in such scholarship.


Pre-History to 664 CE

500,000 BCE:            Peking Man utilizes fire and flake tools

20,000:                        composite tools and projectile points in use.

10,000:            food gathering to food producing as well as plant cultivation and domestication of animals. Coarse pottery made from paste decorated impressions of cord-wrapped sticks.

7,000 – 6,000:            Yang-Shao culture – villages divided into dwelling areas, hand-painted red pottery with rudimentary designs.

5,000:            Lung-Shanoid culture produces wheel-spun pottery (red/gray/black)

4,000;            Coastal Lung-Shan culture produces hard, lustrous pottery with ridges and incised patterns; paddle and anvil techniques; works decorated with chord and basket markings.

2000:            Lung-Shan culture (interior/coastal regions) gives birth to Shang Dynasty.

Throughout Chinese history, civilization has been defined in terms of wen hua, the “transforming influence of writing.” Thus, the written has carried more weight than the spoken, giving rise to a great many famous Chinese calligraphers, and relatively few famous orators. Even as late as the 1930’s Beijing garbage pails carried the admonition to respect and spare paper with writing on it (ching hsi tzu chih). Discarding writing showed disrespect to writing. 

1850 – 1100:            Shang Dynasty produces writing on bones and shells; oracle bones, tortoise shells, and an organized society with a ruling class. Zoomorphic T’ao – T’ieh monster designs appear on bronzes: glazed pottery.

1766:            King T’ang establishes capital at Po.

1100 – 770:             Fall of Shang Dynasty; official costumes and banner designs; new rituals and music created: colors now have symbolic meaning. Western Chou ceremonial vessels become increasingly curvilinear with flowing outlines: inscriptions become long and frequent.

900 – 800:             Court historian Shih Chou creates large seal script; glass is now being made.

770 – 200:            Lacquered bronze mirrors, wooden ware, and carvings; bronze and marble sculpture, jade carvings, etc.

600:             Lao Tzu writes the Tao Te Ching.

551 – 479:            Confucius.

500 – 200:             Tso Commentaries – recording events from 722 – 468 BCE, ink on silk drawings appear.

470 – 391:            Mo Ti.

372 – 289:            Mencius.

369 – 286:            Chunag Chou: author of witty essays – the Chuang-Tzu.

343 – 277:             Chu Yuan, China’s first renowned poet.

298 – 238:            Hsun Kuang, author of Hsün – Tzu.

280 – 208:             Li Ssu establishes small-seal script.

220 – 120:            The poetic essay in Fu Style dominates Han poetry.

150:             Discourses on philosophy and alchemy by Huai-nan Tzu edited by Prince Liu (179 – 122).

140 – 87:            Emperor Wu of Han begins a Bureau of Music; collects folk songs and commissions music and dance.

120 – 90:            Ssu-Ch’ien works on the “Shih Chi,” the first history document with a systematic structure.

117:             Stone sculpture of a horse trampling a barbarian at the tomb of Ho Ch’ü-ping.

100:            Jade shroud with golden threads used in the burial of Prince Liu Sheng and his wife.

50 BCE – 20 CE:            Existing literature classified into six main divisions, and 13,269 volumes by 596 authors edited by Liu Hsiang and his son Liu Hsin.

2 BCE – 4 CE:             Dated lacquer vessels found in Korea and Ulan Bator.

33 CE:                        Crucifixion of Jesus Christ in Roman Occupied Jerusalem.

100 – 121 CE:            First Chinese lexiconography: 9,353 characters plus 1,163 with double use, compiled by Hsü Shen.

105 CE:             Paper invented by T’sai Lun.

147 – 168:            Engraved designs on Wu family funerary stones.

175:            Calligraphy in official script by T’sai Yung is engraved on the stones of Confucian classics.

196 – 220:            Eminent poet T’sao T’sao and the “Chinese Seven” appear; Chung Yu creates the regular script, and the Han Period sees the development and export of silk textiles.

  1. 250:            Juan Chi writes eighty-two poems on his inner thoughts. He and six others (the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove) engage in Neo- Taoist dialogue.

276:            Wu stele calligraphy is attributed to Huang Hsiang.

280 – 290:            Lu Chi (261-303) writes the Wên Fu – the first essay on the theory of literature.

281:            (Discovery of) Bamboo-slip books on history in 3rd century BCE tomb.

c.300:            Ko Hung (253-333) writes the Pao-p’u Tzu – principles of popular Taoism.

348:            Indian orchestra of twelve musicians comes to Northwest China.

353:            Wang Hsi-Chih (321 – 379), regarded as the greatest calligrapher, writes the Orchid Pavilion Preface.

366:            Cave temples started at Tun-Huang.

410:            Hsieh Ling-yün (385-433) creates landscape poetry.

460:            Colossal Buddhas in Yü-Kang cave temples begun.

500:            Hsieh Ho – portrait painter, writes the Classification of Painters, stating his famous Six Principles: spirit resonance, bone method, correspondence to the object, suitability to type, division and planning, and transmission by copying.

525:            Hsiao T’ung (501 – 31) compiles the Anthology of Poetry.

550:            Hsü Ling (507 – 83) compiles the Yü-T’ai Hsin-Yung, an anthology of love poetry: he also writes poems the occasionally erotic ‘Palace Style.’

570:             Yü Hsin (513 – 81) writes the Lament For The South – a passionate example of Fu style poetic prose.

581:            Restoration and construction begun on the Great Wall and Buddhism temples. Cave temples are created at Tun-Huang, Lung-mên, and Mai-chi Shan.

583:            New design and construction of capital Ch’ang-an. It’s structure is later adapted by the Japanese in building the cities of Nara (710) and Kyoto (794).

600:            Invention of wood-block printing; refined white stoneware appears. Painted and lead-glazed earthenware and “feldspathic” stoneware leads to the invention of porcelain by the 9th century.

538 – 552             the Korean kingdom of Paekche sends the Japanese Emperor some Buddhist images and sacred writings.

572 – 622:             the rule of Prince Umayado (later known as Prince Shotoku) in Japan; the first significant patron of Buddhism and the instigator of the first major Japanese Buddhist religious and artistic engagement.


A major influence on Chinese Buddhism was Hsüan-Tang (c. 596 – 664), a monk who undertook a secret journey to India to resolve his doubts about the teachings of the Buddha. He evaded frontier guards and escaped murder by his first guide, before crossing an open desert and being captured by a Turfan monarch. He was soon released after impressing the monarch with his sincerity, and eventually made his way to the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.

He then went to Nalanda Temple to perfect his knowledge, and eventually prostrated himself at the feet of the Emperor Harsha Vardhana. A grand assembly was convened for 18 days to test Hsüan-Tang in debate, and the monek emerged victorious. He is then allowed to return home accompanied by escorts from Harsha’s kingdom, and is welcomed by Emperor T’ai-tsung, who thus supports a translation project initiated by Hsüan-Tang.

The Four Pre-Eminent Schools of Buddhism in China’s T’ang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE) that become the basis for much of Japanese Buddhism developing in the Nara Era.


  • a synthesized version of all Buddhist teachings in a single, whole system and/or doctrine of universal Salvation via the inherent Buddha-nature in all sentient beings.


  • The nature of things is explained through the revelation of the inseparability of phenomena and principles; all things represent the Supreme Mind of the Blessed One (Buddha).

Pure Land

  • The promise of the Western Paradise to anyone who says the Holy Name of Amitabha (Japan: Amida). Pure Land also includes the popular enlightened Saint (bodhisattva) of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara.


  • Zen: mediation/taming the mind to see into one’s original (enlightened) nature. Northern Ch’an = sudden revelation; Southern Ch’an = gradual enlightenment. This non-analytical system was in stark contrast to the analytical Chinese scholarship.



4 thoughts on “The Chinese Roots of Japanese Art and Buddhism: 500,000 BCE to 664 CE.

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