Bridging a divide

Print edition : November 14, 2014

A depiction of the Chinese monk Xuanzang (602-664) on his journey to India. Photo: Wikimedia

A depiction of the Chinese pilgrim Faxian (337-ca 422) at the ruins of Asoka's palace. Photo: Wikimedia

A depiction of Yijing (635-713), a Chinese monk who visited India. Photo: L. Joo/Wikimedia

The book is a collection of erudite essays on various facets of India’s contribution, largely through Buddhism, to all aspects of Chinese religious, cultural, artistic and material life in the first centuries C.E.

“INDIA is a country with which China has been friendly for thousands of years,” Assistant Chinese Foreign Minister Liu Jianchao said in Beijing on September 9. Not long ago a Chinese diplomat told this writer that his country’s thinking had been moulded by Confucianism, Buddhism and communism, and Buddhism it owes to India.

The dust jacket of this book has a masterpiece of Chinese portraiture, “Arhat”, by the famous court painter Liu Songnian’s (ca 1155-1218). He depicted in it an Indian Buddhist saint ( arhat) as he had imagined him to appear. Since he had never met an Indian, he exaggerated the facial features that the Chinese had long associated with foreigners from the West: prominent nose, bushy eyebrows, bulging eyes and a bearded chin. The Indian saint is in complete harmony with the surrounding nature. “His concentrated gaze is directed far into space—or into the recess of his own soul. Having shed all worldly concerns, he has achieved transcendence,” the editors write in the introduction. The twin aspects of this book are the Indian impact on the Chinese creative imagination and the Chinese imaginings of India.

“Beginning in the first century C.E., the Buddhist faith brought to China Indian saints and gods, demons and ghouls that were to change forever the Chinese mental landscape. The Buddhist arhats (Chinese: luohan), for example, became a favourite topic of Chinese fiction and visual arts, celebrated in statues, paintings, and novels down to modern times. At the same time, the Buddhist influx of Indian philosophy and mythology, art and material culture led inquisitive Chinese minds to ponder their source. For almost two millennia, Chinese thinkers and novelists, artists and architects have been recreating India within their own borders. Paintings such as Liu Songnian’s reveal to us India and its inhabitants as fancied by the Chinese: India in the Chinese imagination.”

Beginning in the first centuries C.E., India contributed—largely through the vehicle of Buddhism —to all aspects of Chinese religious, cultural, artistic and material life. Chinese notions of transcendence had been radically transformed by the Buddhist notion of liberation, just as the Chinese heavens and hells had been populated by gods and demons of Indian descent. Chinese paintings and sculptures drew heavily on the Indian. Chinese philosophy had been forever altered by the substance and style of Indian epistemological and ontological discourse. The Chinese diet was transformed by the adoption of the sugar and the rice gruel that had been consumed by Indian Buddhist missionaries. Even Chinese furniture had been fashioned after Indian precedents. Before the advent of Buddhism, the Chinese sat on mats, whereas following the example of Indian monks they began sitting on chairs, the editors record.

But how much of this is known in India? We are grateful to the two scholars who have produced this collection of erudite essays on various facets of the subject by scholars in universities in the United States, France (Paris), Israel (Tel Aviv) and Turkey. They have discussed, among other subjects, Indian mythology and the Chinese imagination, Indian influences on Chinese mythology, and Indian myth’s transformation in Chinese apocryphal text. John Kieschnick is the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Professor of Buddhist Studies at Stanford University. Meir Shahar is Associate Professor of Chinese Studies at Tel Aviv University.

For centuries, India and China interacted through Silk Route intermediaries in lieu of first-person encounters. From their introduction to Indian culture in the first centuries C.E., Chinese thinkers, writers, artists and architects imitated India within their own borders, giving Indian images and ideas new forms and adapting them to their own culture. Yet India’s impact on China has not been greatly researched or well understood. This work repairs the omission. It is focussed particularly on three aspects of the historic encounter: the impact of Buddhism and its literature on the Chinese mind; the Chinese imagining of India; and the Chinese recreation of India within its own borders.

Interaction was indirect and confined to a few. “Records of embassies from India to China and from China to India demonstrate that a select few did interact with their counterparts, but such exchanges were the exception rather than the rule. The same was true even for Buddhism, India’s most famous and successful import to China. From the first century to the thirteenth, some intrepid Indian monks did make their way to China, and on the Chinese side, pilgrims went to India, came back to China, and wrote about their experiences, most notably Faxian (337-ca 422), Xuanzang (602-664), and Yijing (635-713). But these pilgrims are famous in part because they were exceptional. Even among the most accomplished Chinese monks, few ever even expressed an intention of making the trip to the land of the Buddha; the journey was considered too treacherous, the obstacles—including the Taklamakan desert, the Himalayas, and the sea—too great…. And while the accounts of India by Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing remain valuable for understanding India in the medieval period, they were written for a particular Chinese audience and reflect the way these three talented Chinese pilgrims wanted their trips to be perceived in China. In other words, as sources for literate Chinese to understand India, the travel accounts of the Chinese pilgrims provided only indirect access to India, tied up with preconceptions of both the authors and what the authors assumed their Chinese readers wanted to know. From the second century to the eleventh, a handful of Indian monks were active in China….”

There was a massive programme of translation of Buddhist writings into Chinese. One hopes selections from the records of both embassies will be published. The editors’ incisive analysis in the introduction prepares the reader for the able essays that follow.

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