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

The Indian astronomers, such as Gautama or Kasyapa or Kumara, would not have gone to China except for the connections that were made possible by Buddhism, but their work can hardly be seen primarily as contributions to Buddhism.


The literature of cultures and civilizations includes much discussion of China’s alleged insularity and its suspicion of ideas that have come from elsewhere. This view has also been invoked in recent years to try to explain Chinese resistance to democratic politics. Such simple interpretations, however, cannot explain why China so readily embraced the market economy at home and abroad following the economic reforms of 1979, while its leaders firmly resisted political democracy. But it is also true that China has not, in fact, been as intellectually insular as is frequently assumed.

Here China’s relations with India are of particular importance. As it happens, India is the only country in the outside world to which scholars from ancient China went for their education and training; we have records of more than two hundred distinguished Chinese scholars who spent extensive periods of time in India in the second half of the first millennium. The Chinese primarily sought a knowledge of Sanskrit and of Buddhist literature, but they were interested in much else as well. Some Indian influences are evident, as with the use of key terms and concepts from Sanskrit such as ch’an or zen derived from dhyana, or meditation, as well as the themes of Chinese operas that drew on Sanskrit stories (such as The Heavenly Girl Scattering Flowers).6 As the American scholar John Kieschnick has shown, the Chinese construction of temples and bridges was much influenced by ideas that came from India through Buddhism.7

The movement of knowledge between China and India went, of course, in both directions. Joseph Needham attempted to provide a list of mathematical ideas that “radiated from China,” particularly to India, and he has argued that many more ideas went from China to India than moved in the opposite direction: “India was the more receptive of the two cultures.”8 In the absence of direct evidence of the movement of a particular idea in either direction between India and China, Needham assumed that an idea moved from the country where the first record of its use had been found. This procedure has been strongly criticized by other historians of science and mathematics, such as Jean-Claude Martzloff.9 It seems clear that an earlier record of use would have been much more likely to have been lost in India than in China.10 What is really important is that plenty of ideas in mathematics and science, as well as in other nonreligious subjects, moved in both directions.


The transfer of ideas and skills in mathematics and science remains central to the contemporary commercial world whether for the development of information technology or of modern industrial methods. What may perhaps be less clear is how nations learn from one another both in enlarging the scope of public communication and in improving public health care. As it happens, both were important in the intellectual relations between China and India in the first millennium and remain central even today.

As a religion, Buddhism began with at least two specific characteristics that were quite unusual, its agnosticism and its commitment to broad discussion of public issues. Some of the earliest open public meetings on record, aimed specifically at settling disputes over religious beliefs as well as other matters, took place in India in elaborately organized Buddhist “councils,” in which adherents of different points of view argued their differences. The first of these large councils was held in Rajagriha shortly after Gautama Buddha’s death 2,500 years ago. The largest of the councils, the third, was held in the capital city of Patna, under the patronage of Emperor Ashoka in the third century BCE. Ashoka also tried to codify and circulate what must have been among the earliest formulations of rules for public discussion—a kind of ancient version of Robert’s Rules of Order. He demanded, for example, “restraint in regard to speech, so that there should be no extolling of one’s own sect or disparaging of other sects on inappropriate occasions, and it should be moderate even in appropriate occasions.” Even when engaged in arguing, “other sects should be duly honored in every way on all occasions.”

Insofar as reasoned public discussion is central to democracy (as John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, and Jürgen Habermas, among many others, have argued), the origins of democracy can indeed be traced in part to the tradition of public discussion that received much encouragement from the emphasis on dialogue in Buddhism in both India and China (and also in Japan, Korea, and elsewhere). It is also significant that nearly every attempt at early printing in China, Korea, and Japan was undertaken by Buddhists.11 The first printed book in the world (or rather, the first printed book that is actually dated) was the Chinese translation of an Indian Sanskrit treatise, the so-called Diamond Sutra, which was printed in China in 868 AD. While the Diamond Sutra is almost entirely a religious document, the boldly inscribed dedication of this ninth-century book, “for universal free distribution,” announces a commitment to public education.

John Kieschnick has noted that “one of the reasons for the important place of books in the Chinese Buddhist tradition is the belief that one can gain merit by copying or printing Buddhist scriptures,” and he has argued that “the origins of this belief can be traced to India.”12 There is some ground for that view; there is also surely a connection here with the emphasis on communication with a broad public by such Buddhist leaders as Ashoka, who erected throughout India large stone tablets bearing inscriptions describing the qualities of good public behavior (including the rules on how to conduct an argument).

The development of printing, of course, had a powerful effect on the development of democracy, but even in the short run, it opened new possibilities for public communication and had enormous consequences for social and political life in China. Among other things, it also influenced neo-Confucian education, and as Theodore de Bary has noted, “women’s education achieved a new level of importance with the rise of…learning [during the Song dynasty] and its neo-Confucian extensions in the Ming, marked by the great spread of printing, literacy, and schooling.”13


The connections between India and China in public health care are both significant and little-known. After Faxian arrived in India in 401 AD, he took considerable interest in contemporary health arrangements. He was particularly impressed by the civic facilities for medical care in fifth-century Patna:

All the poor and destitute in the country…and all who are diseased, go to these houses, and are provided with every kind of help, and doctors examine their diseases. They get the food and medicines which their cases require, and are made to feel at ease; and when they are better, they go away of themselves.14

Whether or not this description was too flattering of the clinics in fifth-century Patna (which seems very likely), what is striking is Faxian’s desire to learn from the provisions for public health in the country he visited for a decade.

Two and half centuries later, Yi Jing also became interested in health care, and he devoted to it three chapters of his book on India. He was more impressed with Indian health practice than with Indian medical knowledge. While giving India credit for some medical treatments, mainly aimed at lessening pain and discomfort (e.g., “ghee, oil, honey, or syrups give one relief from cold”), he concluded, “In the healing arts of acupuncture and cautery and the skill of feeling the pulse, China has never been surpassed [by India]; the medicine for prolonging life is only found in China.” On the other hand, he wrote, there was much to learn from India about health care: “The Indians use fine white cloth for straining water and in China fine silk should be used,” and “in China, people of the present time eat fish and vegetables mostly uncooked; no Indians do this.” While Yi Jing returned to China pleased with his country of origin (he even asked rhetorically: “Is there anyone, in the five parts of India, who does not admire China?”), he still made a point of evaluating what China could learn from India.


Public health is a subject about which one country can learn from another, and it should be clear that India today has much to learn from China. Indeed, life expectancy has been longer in China than in India for many decades. However, the history of progress in extending life expectancy in the two countries tells a more interesting story. Shortly after the revolution, Maoist China made an early start in providing widespread health care, and there was nothing comparable in India at the time. By 1979, when Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms were first introduced, Chinese on average lived fourteen years longer than Indians.

Then, after the economic reforms of 1979, the Chinese economy surged ahead, growing much faster than India’s. Despite China’s much faster economic growth, however, the average rate of increase in life expectancy in India has, since 1979, been about three times as fast as that in China. China’s life expectancy is now about seventy-one years, while India’s is sixty-four years; the life-expectancy gap in favor of China, which was fourteen years in 1979 (at the time of the Chinese reforms), has now been halved to seven years.

Indeed, China’s life expectancy of seventy-one years is now lower than that in some parts of India, notably in the state of Kerala, which, with its 30 million people, is larger than many countries; Kerala has been particularly successful in combining Indian-style multiparty democracy (including public debates and widespread participation of citizens in public life) with improvements in health through state initiatives of the type that China undertook after the Revolution.15 The advantage of that combination shows itself not only in achievements in high life expectancy but also in many other fields. For example, while the ratio of women to men in the total population in China is only 0.94 and the Indian overall average is 0.93, Kerala’s ratio is 1.06, exactly the same as in North America and Western Europe. This high ratio reflects the survival advantages of women when they are not subjected to unequal treatment.16 The fall in the fertility rate of Kerala has also been substantially faster than in China, despite China’s coercive birth-control policies.17

At the time of the Chinese reforms in 1979, life expectancy in Kerala was sightly lower than in China. However between 1995 and 2000 (the last period for which firm figures for life expectancy in India are available), Kerala’s life expectancy of seventy-four years was already significantly higher than China’s last firm figure of seventy-one years in 2000.18

Moreover, since the 1979 economic reforms, the infant mortality rate in China has declined extremely slowly, whereas it has continued to fall very rapidly in Kerala. At the time of the Chinese reforms in 1979 Kerala had roughly the same infant mortality rate as China—thirty-seven per thousand. Its present rate is ten per thousand, a third of China’s thirty per thousand (which has not changed much over the last decade).

Two factors, both of which bear on the issue of democracy, help to explain the slackening of Chinese progress in prolonging life, notwithstanding the positive effects of China’s extremely rapid economic growth. First, the reforms of 1979 largely eliminated free public health insurance, and most citizens had to buy private health insurance (except when it was provided by the employer, which happens only in a small number of cases). This withdrawal of a highly valued public service met with little political resistance—as it undoubtedly would have in any multiparty democracy.

Second, democracy and political freedom are not only valuable in themselves; they also make a direct contribution to public policy (including health care) by bringing failures of social policy under public scrutiny.19 India offers high-quality medical facilities to the relatively rich, including foreigners who come to India for treatment, but the basic health services in India are poor, as we know from the strong criticisms of them in the Indian press. But intense criticism also provides opportunities to make amends. In fact, the persistent reports on the deficiencies of Indian health services, and the resulting efforts to improve them, have been a source of India’s strength, reflected in the sharp reduction in the gap between China and India in life expectancy. This strength is reflected as well in what Kerala has achieved by combining democratic participation with radical social commitments. The link between public communication and health care can also be seen in the terrible effects of the secrecy surrounding the SARS epidemic in China, which started in November 2002 but was kept secret until the following spring.20

So while India has much to learn from China about economic policy and also about health care, India’s experience with public communication and democracy could still be instructive for China. It is worth recalling that the tradition of irreverence and defiance of authority that came with Buddhism from India to China was singled out for particularly strong criticism by the Chinese in the early denunciations of Buddhism.

Fu-yi, a powerful Confucian leader, submitted in the seventh century the following complaint about Buddhists to the Tang emperor. It has, in fact, some similarity with the recent attacks on the Falun Gong:

Buddhism infiltrated into China from Central Asia, [in] a strange and barbarous form, and as such, it was then less dangerous. But since the Han period the Indian texts began to be translated into Chinese. Their publicity began to adversely affect the faith of the Princes and filial piety began to degenerate. The people began to shave their heads and refused to bow their heads to the Princes and their ancestors.21

Fu-yi proposed not only a ban on Buddhist preaching but a new way of dealing with the “tens of thousands” of activists rampaging in China. “I request you to get them married,” Fu-yi advised the Tang emperor, and “then bring up [their] children to fill the ranks of your army.” The emperor, we learn, refused to use this approach to eliminating Buddhist defiance.

With stunning success, China has become a leader of the world economy, and from this India—like many other countries—has been learning a great deal, particularly in recent years. But the achievements of democratic participation in India, including Kerala, suggest that China, for its part, may also have something to learn from India. Indeed, the history of China’s attempts to overcome its insularity—especially during the second half of the first millennium—has continuing interest and practical usefulness for the world today.22

This Issue

December 2, 2004