Though there were several historical records, showing the knowledge of Sakayamuni Buddha and Buddhism as early as the time of Confucius, the beginning of Buddhism was officially recognised to be in the first century.
Later Han Dynasty 25 A.D., Emperor Ming in Han Dynasty saw a golden figure of 16 feet high in the dream. He was puzzled after he woke up. The ministers told him that it matched with a prophecy in 1000 years ago regarding the teaching of a great saint from the west to China.
The Emperor then dispatched 12 officials to the west, who eventually came across two Indian Bodhisattvas, Kashyapa Matanga and Dharmaratna. They agreed to go to China with them. When they returned to the capital of Han Dynasty, Loyang, they brought with a picture of Sakayamuni Buddha and some sutras, on a white horse. There they started to translate the sutra in a temple, later called White Horse Temple. They translated 5 sutras, but only one still exists, i.e. "Sutra in 42 sections".
It was the first time that Buddhism was recognised by the government as an official religion in China. Thus Buddhism started to build up its foundation and organisation. Though Buddhism was well respected and worshipped by the King and his officials, it was also critized by the traditional Taoists in many areas. At that time, the Taoists requested the Emperor Ming to compare Buddhism and Taoism by burning their sutras in the courtyard of White Horse Temple. Emperor agreed. When the fire was set, the Taoist Sutras was burnt to ash, while the Buddhist sutras was illuminating. At that time, both Kashyapa Matanga and Dharmarathna showed their psychic power in the sky. After all, there were 628 Taoists converted to Buddhists at once. Some officials and nobles requested to become ordained monks and nuns. Emperor Ming ordered to construct ten temples inside and outside Loyang. From that time, Buddhism spread widely in China.
Following the decline of Han Empire in 220 A.C., Buddhism in China was ironically more popular, spreading more widely in China in the chaotic political situation. The traditional and official Conficism was no longer credible, and the mystical Taoism was overrided by the intellectural Buddhism. The profound teachings on the Four Noble Truths, the Three Seals, the Law of Dependent Origination inspired many intellectural and cultured elites in China.
Buddhism also gained its popularity in ground root class because the peasants were often suppressed by the landlords and suffered under the burden of heavy taxes. The need for spiritual consolation was obvious. Some peasants retreated to Buddhist temples to make offerings or go on pilgrimage.
Chinese Buddhism was developed into two different directions, one was sophisticated and philosophical and the other was superstitious and religious. Moreover, like all other religions, Chinese Buddhism often blended with other traditions and religions, which ultimately produced its own characteristics and features.
Buddhism originated in India, but flourished in China. People who are interested in the study of ancient Buddhism always make reference to the Chinese books. For instance, some sutras in Sanskrit or Bali are lost, but they still exist in Chinese version. Moreover, the history of four great holy places in India can only be found in the writings of a Chinese monk Huan-zang.
Apart from Emperor Ming in Han Dynasty, there were many emperors in
China, who were great patrons in Buddhism, e.g. Emperor Wu in Lang Dynasty,
Emperor Wu Ji-tian in Tang Dynasty. Buddhism was generally well-respected
and supported by the emperors because it served as a moral framework
for stability of the society. However, there were also emperors who
suppressed Buddhism e.g. Emperor Tai Wu in North Wei Dynasty, Emperor
Wu in North Zhou Dynasty, Emperor Wu in Tang Dynasty, Emperor Shi in
Late Zhou of Five Dynasties (907-960 A.D.).