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Passage to China


The intellectual links between China and India, stretching over two thousand years, have had far-reaching effects on the history of both countries, yet they are hardly remembered today. What little notice they get tends to come from writers interested in religious history, particularly the history of Buddhism, which began its spread from India to China in the first century. In China Buddhism became a powerful force until it was largely displaced by Confucianism and Taoism approximately a thousand years later. But religion is only one part of the much bigger story of Sino-Indian connections during the first millennium. A broader understanding of these relations is greatly needed, not only for us to appreciate more fully the history of a third of the world’s population, but also because the connections between the two countries are important for political and social issues today.

Certainly religion has been a major source of contact between China and India, and Buddhism was central to the movement of people and ideas between the two countries. But the wider influence of Buddhism was not confined to religion. Its secular impact stretched into science, mathematics, literature, linguistics, architecture, medicine, and music. We know from the elaborate accounts left by a number of Chinese visitors to India, such as Faxian in the fifth century and Xuanzang and Yi Jing in the seventh,1 that their interest was by no means restricted to religious theory and practices. Similarly, the Indian scholars who went to China, especially in the seventh and eighth centuries, included not only religious experts but also other professionals such as astronomers and mathematicians. In the eighth century an Indian astronomer named Gautama Siddhartha became the president of the Board of Astronomy in China.

The richness and variety of early intellectual relations between China and India have long been obscured. This neglect is now reinforced by the contemporary tendency to classify the world’s population into distinct “civilizations” defined largely by religion (for example Samuel Huntington’s partitioning of the world into such categories as “Western civilization,” “Islamic civilization,” and “Hindu civilization”). There is, as a result, a widespread inclination to understand people mainly through their religious beliefs, even if this misses much that is important about them. The limitations of this perspective have already done significant harm to our understanding of other aspects of the global history of ideas. Many are now predisposed to see the history of Muslims as quintessentially Islamic history, ignoring the flowering of science, mathematics, and literature that was made possible by Muslim intellectuals, particularly between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries. One result of such a narrow emphasis on religion is that a disaffected Arab activist today is encouraged to take pride only in the purity of Islam, rather than in the diversity and richness of Arab history. In India too, there are frequent attempts to portray the broad civilization of India as “Hindu civilization”—to use the phrase favored both by theorists like Samuel Huntington and by Hindu political activists.

Second, there is an odd and distracting contrast between the ways in which Western and non-Western ideas and scholarship are currently understood. In interpreting non-Western works, many commentators tend to ascribe a much greater importance to religion than is merited, neglecting the works’ secular interests. Few assume that, say, Isaac Newton’s scientific work must be understood as primarily Christian (even though he did have Christian beliefs); nor do most of us take it for granted that his contributions to scientific knowledge must somehow be interpreted in the light of his deep interest in mysticism (important as mystical speculations were to him, perhaps even motivating some of his scientific work). In contrast, when it comes to non-Western cultures, religious reductionism tends to be a powerful influence. Scholars often presume that none of the broadly conceived intellectual work of Buddhist scholars, or of followers of Tantric practices, could be “properly understood” except in the special light of their religious beliefs and customs.


As it happens, relations between China and India almost certainly began with trade, not with Buddhism. Some two thousand years ago the consumption habits of Indians, particularly of rich Indians, were radically influenced by innovations from China. A treatise on economics and politics by the great Sanskrit scholar Kautilya, first written in the fourth century BCE, though revised a few centuries later, gives a special place to “silk and silk-cloth from the land of China” among “precious articles” and “objects of value.” In the ancient epic Mahabharata there are references to Chinese fabric or silk (cinamsuka) being given as presents, and there are similar references in the ancient Laws of Manu.

The exotic nature of Chinese products was captured in many Sanskrit literary works in the early part of the first millennium, as in the fifth-century play Sakuntala by Kalidasa (perhaps the greatest poet and dramatist in classical Sanskrit literature). When King Dusyanta sees, in the middle of a hunting expedition, the stunning hermit-girl Sakuntala and is overwhelmed by her beauty, he explains his passion by comparing himself to the way a banner made of Chinese silk flutters in the wind: “My body goes forward,/But my reluctant mind runs back/Like Chinese silk on a banner/Trembling against the wind.” In the play Harsacarita by Bana, written in the seventh century, the beautiful Rajyasri is portrayed at her wedding as gorgeously dressed in elegant Chinese silk. During the same period there are also plentiful references in the Sanskrit literature to other Chinese products that made their way into India, among them camphor (cinaka), vermilion (cinapista), and high-quality leather (cinasi), as well as delicious pears (cinarajaputra) and peaches (cinani).

While China was enriching the material world of India two thousand years ago, India was exporting Buddhism to China at least since the first century AD, when two Indian monks, Dharmaraksa and Kasyapa Matanga, arrived in China at the invitation of Emperor Mingdi of the Han dynasty. From then on until the eleventh century, more and more Indian scholars and monks came to China. Hundreds of scholars and translators produced Chinese versions of thousands of Sanskrit documents, most of them Buddhist works. Translations were going on with astonishing rapidity. Although the flow of translated work came to an end in the eleventh century, more than two hundred further Sanskrit volumes were translated between 982 and 1011 AD.

The first Chinese scholar to write an elaborate account of his visit to India was Faxian, a Buddhist scholar from western China who went in search of Sanskrit texts, intending to make them available in Chinese. After an arduous journey through the northern route to India via Khotan (which had a strong Buddhist presence), he reached India in 401 CE. Ten years later, Faxian returned by sea, sailing from the mouth of the Ganges (not far from present-day Calcutta), and going on to visit Buddhist Sri Lanka and to see Hindu Java. Faxian spent his time in India traveling widely and collecting documents (which he would later translate into Chinese). His Record of Buddhist Kingdoms is a highly illuminating account of India and Sri Lanka. Faxian’s years in Pataliputra (or Patna) were devoted to studying Sanskrit language and literature in addition to religious texts, but, as will be seen, he was also greatly interested in contemporary Indian arrangements for health care.

The most famous visitor to India from China was Xuanzang, who traveled there in the seventh century. A formidable scholar, he collected Sanskrit texts (translating many of them after his return to China), and traveled throughout India for sixteen years, including the years he spent in Nalanda, a famous institution of higher education not far from Patna. At Nalanda, in addition to Buddhism, Xuanzang studied medicine, philosophy, logic, mathematics, astronomy, and grammar. On his return to China he was greeted by the emperor with much pomp.2 Yi Jing, who came to India shortly after Xuanzang’s visit, also studied in Nalanda, combining his work on Buddhism with studies of medicine and public health care.


Yi Jing’s translation of Buddhist works included texts by practitioners of Tantrism, whose esoteric traditions placed a strong emphasis on meditation. Tantrism became a major force in China in the seventh and eighth centuries, and since many Tantric scholars had a strong interest in mathematics (perhaps connected, at least initially, with the Tantric fascination with numbers), Tantric mathematicians influenced Chinese mathematics as well.

Joseph Needham notes that “the most important Tantrist” was Yi Xing (672 to 717), “the greatest Chinese astronomer and mathematician of his time.”3 Yi Xing, who was fluent in Sanskrit and was familiar with the Indian literature on mathematics, was also a Buddhist monk, but it would be a mistake to assume that his mathematical work was somehow specifically religious. As a mathematician who happened to be also a Tantrist, Yi Xing dealt with a variety of analytical and computational problems, many of which had no particular connection with Tantrism at all. He tackled such classic problems as “calculating the total number of possible situations in chess.” He was particularly concerned with calendrical calculations, and even constructed, on the emperor’s orders, a new calendar for China.

Indian astronomers who were living in China in the eighth century were particularly occupied with calendrical studies, and made use of developments in trigonometry that had already emerged in India (and that went far beyond the original Greek roots of Indian trigonometry). This was also around the time when Indian astronomy and mathematics, including trig-onometry, were influencing the mathematics and the sciences of the Arab world, through the translation into Arabic of Aryabhata, Varahamihira, and Brahmagupta, among others.4

Chinese records show that several Indian astronomers and mathematicians held high positions in the Astronomical Bureau at the Chinese capital during this period. Not only did one of them, Gautama, became president of the Board of Astronomy in China, he also produced the great Chinese compendium of astronomy, Kaiyvan Zhanjing, an eighth-century scientific classic. He adapted a number of Indian astronomical works for publication in Chinese, among them the Jiuzhi li, which draws on a particular planetary calendar in India and is clearly based on a classical Sanskrit text, produced around 550 CE by the mathematician Varahamihira. This work is mainly an algorithmic guide to computation, estimating, for example, the duration of eclipses based on the diameter of the moon and other relevant parameters. The techniques involved drew on methods established by Aryabhata in the late fifth century, and then further developed by his followers in India, including Varahamihira and Brahmagupta.

Yang Jingfeng, an eighth-century Chinese astronomer, described the mixed background of official Chinese astronomy:

Those who wish to know the positions of the five planets adopt Indian calendrical methods…. So we have the three clans of Indian calendar experts, Chiayeh [Kasyapa], Chhüthan [Gautama], and Chümolo [Kumara], all of whom hold office at the Bureau of Astronomy. But now most use is made of the calendrical methods of Master Chhüthan, together with his “Great Art,” in the work which is carried out for the government.5

  1. 1

    In spelling Chinese names in English, I am using the “pinyin” system, which is now standard, even though the literature cited also uses many other spellings. Faxian has also been referred to as Fa-Hsien and Fa-hien; Xuanzang as Hiuan-tsang and Yuang Chwang; and Yi Jing as I-tsing and I-Ching, among other variations.

  2. 2

    Two insightful recent books draw on Xuanzang’s travels and their continuing significance today: Richard Bernstein, Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment (Knopf, 2001), and Sun Shuyun, Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud (HarperCollins, 2003).

  3. 3

    Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 2 (Cambridge University Press, 1956), p. 427.

  4. 4

    An interesting example of the transmission of mathematical ideas and terms can be seen in the origin of the trigonometric term “sine.” In his Sanskrit mathematical treatise completed in 499 AD, Aryabhata used jya-ardha (Sanskrit for “chord half”), shortened later into jya, for what we now call “sine.” Arab mathematicians in the eighth century transliterated the Sanskrit word jya into the proximate sound of jiba and then later changed it to jaib (with the same consonants as jiba), which is a good Arabic word, meaning a bay or a cove, and it was this word that was later translated by Gherardo of Cremona (circa 1150) into its equivalent Latin word for a bay or a cove, viz., sinus, from which the modern term “sine” is derived. See Howard Eves, An Introduction to the History of Mathematics (Saunders, sixth edition, 1990), p. 237. Aryabhata’s jya was translated into Chinese as ming and was used in such tables as yue jianliang ming, literally “sine of lunar intervals.” See Jean-Claude Martzloff, A History of Chinese Mathematics (Springer, 1997), p. 100.

  5. 5

    See Needham, Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 3, p. 202; see also pp. 12 and 37. A general account of Indian calendrical systems is presented in my “India Through Its Calendars,” The Little Magazine, No. 1 (Delhi, 2000).

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