Buddhism had already arrived in China during the mid of Han Dynasty and brought up one of its first parishes in southern China at the court of the Prince of Chu 楚. Among a nobility that was more inclined to nature oriented Daoism, the new religion quickly gained many followers that first were simple believers, then monks and nuns. Buddhism filled a metaphysical gap that the sterile and old-fashioned Confucianism was unable to fill. There was a need among the population for a belief with spiritual meanings, thirst for a real religion.
At the end of Han Dynasty, two directions of Buddhism were prevalent: the Small Vehicle dhyāna (chan 禪; meditation) thought that laid emphasis on the control of mind, concentration and the suppression of passions. It was based upon the translations of the Parthian An Shigao 安世高. Unfortunately, his translation of the Sutra in 42 Sections is only preserved in its Tang Dynasty shape which is quite alterned to the original. The second teaching was that of the Great Vehicle prajñā ("knowledge, wisdom") tradition, that emphasized the task of the believer to see the conditioned facts of reality and the elements how they really are, that is to say, void or empty and determined by something else. The Enlightened One does not assert his self to other beings or influences, and there exists no dualism between subject and object: they are one and the same and dependent on each other. Translating the Sanskrit scriptures into Chinese, Dharmaraksha (Zhufahu 竺法護) and Daoan 道安 were the great promoters of the "Perfection of Wisdom" with the Prajñāpāramitā-sūtra Banruo[bolomi(duo)]jing) 般若波羅蜜多經 and the Heart Sutra (Xinjing) 心經 and Diamond [Cutter] Sutra (Jingangjing; Vajracchedika-sūtra) 金剛經. The monk that combined Neo-Daoist philosophy (especially that of Zhuangzi) and Buddhism, was Zhidun 支遁. Xi Chao 郗超 transformed the Daoist thinking into a Buddhist form by his book Fengfayao 奉法要 "Rules for observing the dharma". The Confucian-Daoist natural order li 理 was interpreted as a transcendental absolute principle. One of the most famous Buddhist monks in the south was Huiyuan 慧遠 whose teachings focused on meditation to achieve enlightenment and entrance into the Pure Land (sukhāvatī; jingtu 淨土), the Western Paradise, and he introduced the veneration of the Amitabha Buddha (Namo Amituofo 南無阿彌陀佛). Widespread Buddhist writings were the Nirvana Sutra (Niepanjing) 涅盤經 that assumed that every sentient being would gain enlightenment one day and the Hinayana book Satyasiddhi-śāstra (Chengshilun) 成實論 "Completion of truth" that teaches the difference between ordinary truth (the temporarity of all beings) and the supreme truth that every existence is unreal and empty. The greatest translators and commentators of the Great Vehicle books in south China were Jizang 吉藏 and the Indian Paramartha (Zhendi 真諦).
Already during the Eastern Jin Dynasty, Buddhism gained may followers among the nobility. The court did not only worship the Buddha, but the emperor protected monasteries and sponsored them. The young emperor Xiaowudi 晉孝武帝 even allowed monks and nuns meddling in state affairs. A great problem for the buddhist community was the question of autonomy from worldy government. Among the courtiers who favoured Buddhism was the poet Xie Lingyun 謝靈運 who during the Liu-Song Dynasty even took part in translations of books discussing the possibility of sudden enlightenment. During the Qi Dynasty, Prince Jingling 竟陵太子 tried to connect the disciplinary rules of the Buddhists monasteries with the Confucian teachings on righteousness. The greatest sponsor of Buddhism during the Liang Dynasty was Emperor Wudi 梁武帝 who dissolved all Daoist monasteries in favour of the Buddhist communities. But the emperor who tried to gain control over the Buddhist church encountered opposition from the monk circles. Writers among the nobility like Fan Zhen 范縝 (wrote Shenmielun 神滅論 "The mortality of the soul") and Xun Ji 荀濟 protested against the state protected accumulation of wealth in the Buddhist monasteries and assumed that Buddhism was undermining the construction of the Confucian state: an early sign of Confucian revival that eventually developed during the later part of Tang Dynasty.
The Non-Chinese rulers of the Tuoba-Wei Dynasty quickly adopted the Non-Chinese religion as their vehicle of state religion, an instrument of imperial power and broad way to Heaven: "Foreign rulers with a foreign religion". Monks served as political advisors, and not all of them were philosophs, but especially the early monks like Fotudeng 佛圖澄 were simple magicians. To solve the problem that monks should not serve any human, the monk advisor Faguo 法果 created the doctrine that the Tuoba ruler was a personification of the Tathāgata Buddha. Other monks engaged in translating the Sanskrit scriptures into Chinese, like Kumārajīva 鳩摩羅什 and his disciple Sengzhao 僧肇. The first had a crucial role in establishing the teaching of mādhyamika "Doctrines of the Middle" (zhonglun 中論 or zhongguan 中觀) with its Three Books (Sanlun 三論) that teach that all things of the phenomenal world are constituted by relations and conditions of each single element, and only the comprehension of these relations can lead to sage wisdom (zhihui 智慧, prajñâ). While the first translators of sutras had been foreigners, during the 4th century, more and more Chinese monks translated the Buddhist books, like Daoan 道安 who promoted the Maitreya cult (Milefo 彌勒佛), Huiyuan 慧遠, the great promotor of the Amitabha cult (Amituofo 阿彌陀佛) and of meditation practice, and his disciple Daosheng 道生. In 399, the monk Faxian 法顯 left China to bring back the original vinaya writings ("Rules of Discipline"; chin. jielü 戒律), among them the Lotus Sutra (Miaofa lianhua jing) 妙法蓮花經, the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa-sūtra (Weimojing) 維摩經, and the Mahāparinirvāna-sūtra (Da banniepan jing) 大般涅盤經. By the end of Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), the most important Great Vehicle writings were translated into Chinese. The forged "Sutra on Trapusha and Bhallika" (Tiwei Boli jing 提謂波利經) encouraged a new, gradual classification of the Buddhist teachings, including the short teachings (āgama 聖教), teachings of Higher Subtleness (abhidharma, wubifa 無比法) and the Completion of the Truth (satyasiddhi 法成). Popular works of the Northern Wei time were the Daśabhūmika-sūtra (Shidijing 十地經) "Sutra of the Ten Stages", the Avata.msaka-sūtra (Huayanjing 華嚴經) "Garland Sutra", both encouraged by the translator and commentator Bodhiruci (chin. Daoxi 道希), and the idealistic text Mahāyāna sam.parigraha-śāstra (She Dasheng lun 攝大乘論) "Absorbing the Great Vehicle", the foundation text of the Pure Land sect. The sixth century in north China saw also the begin of the two great sects of Pure Land (Jingtu 淨土) and Chan 禪 (in the West better known with the Japanese pronunciation Zen). Buddhism was not seen as benefit for the state under every ruler. Persecutions of monks took place under emperor Taiwudi whose advisors were more inclined to Confucianism as state doctrine. Some rulers wanted to show themselves as worthy rulers of China by expelling the foreign religion. Other persecutions took place between 574 and 577 under the guidance of Wei Yuansong 衛元嵩.
The Daoists did not rely on a quiet and unpolitical life in northern China. After a debate in 520, Buddhist and Daoist scholars forged Classics and Sutras, both to prove that the founder of their religion was anterior to the other. While the Daoists saw Buddha as a reincarnation of Laozi after he had disappeared in the west (e.g. the Daoist classic Laozi kaitian jing 老子開天經 "Classic of Laozi opening Heaven" or Laozi huahu jing 老子化胡經 "Laozi converted the Barbarians"), Buddhists saw Laozi only as a disciple of Buddha side by side with his foremost disciple Mahākāśyapa (Mohejiaye 摩訶迦葉; with the sutra Qingjing faxing jing 清淨法行經 "Sutra to propagate the Clear and Pure Law" as the true interpretation of the Daoist classic Qingjingjing 清淨經).