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India-China Civilisation Contacts and Their Meaning to Bilateral Ties in the Modern Era

It is said that India and China are ‘cultural twins’ from the same cradle- the cradle of trans-Himalayan region; Ramipithecus, the ape ancestor of humanity was found in the region, 1.8 million years ago as per estimates; a large quantity of related fossils were discovered in Yunnan province.[1]

It is another matter that the twins grew independently, albeit under a common condition – the agriculturally rich regions surrounding rivers, the Ganges in India and Yellow River in China, provided strengths for the development of their respective civilizations

Undeniably, Buddhism has mainly been responsible for the phenomenal growth of civilization ties between India and China for a period of nearly 1500 years since the year 217 BC, when the first contact among them took place under China’s Qin dynasty rule. However, cultural similarities between the two seem to have even existed in the pre-Buddhist period, for e.g the closeness between the Indian concept of ‘purusha’ and the Chinese vision of ‘heaven-earth creator’ and the apparent link between the Indian notion of ‘Nagaraja’ and its Chinese counterpart ‘ Dragon King’ (Long Wang). Also, the Indians are believed to be first foreigners to do trade with China, i.e in fourth century BC, much before the period when Buddhism entered China through trade along the Silk route[2] . The existence of Hindu temples in South East China[3] , the ruins of which are visible even today, may possibly have to be seen in the context of that trade.

A chronological account of India-China civilization contacts is at Annexure given at the end of this paper. From that the uninterrupted interface between the two nations through Buddhism for several centuries and mutual benefits gained in that process, come out prominently. China played host to Indian Buddhist monks without any hesitation and the latter played a key role in shaping the Chinese thoughts, paving the way for establishment of Buddhism in China, a country already nurturing indigenous philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism.

The Indian monks who contributed significantly to Buddhism in China included Kashyapa Matanga, Kumarajiva and Bodhi Dharma; symbols of their endeavors can easily be seen in the White Horse monastery, Lotus Sutra and Dhyan/Chan/Zen Buddhism respectively. ‘Bodhisattvas’ or enlightened beings, like Manjusri and Avalokitesvara, are being revered in China. “Brahmana books” (Puluomen Tian Wen Jing), authored by Indian monks well versed with astronomy, trigonometry and calendar making, were well known in Sui-Tang period[4] in China. .

Equally remarkable have been the roles played by Chinese travelers like Fa Xian, Xuan Zang and Yi Jing, who all spent long years in India, not to mention the imperial patronage given to Buddhism by Chinese emperors. They could bring precious ‘sutras’ in original Sanskrit into China and their translations led to access of the Chinese population to the quintessence of Buddhist thought. Some view the spread of Indian Buddhism in China as a conquest; it may be true, but the fact that Chinese in return, readily embraced it, cannot be forgotten. The benefits to India and China through Buddhism need to be seen under a two way process- for India, the Chinese language material available in China provided a window to understand its own history. Also, the Chinese experience very much-influenced India’s appreciation of Mahayana Buddhism. For China, the spiritual advantages gained by it through Indian Buddhism, have been very important for the enrichment of its civilization. In material terms, if India introduced astronomy and sugar technology to China, the latter in return transmitted the art of pottery to India.

Interesting would be the question as to why Indian Buddhism could enter and penetrate Chinese society. In the main, the introduction of Buddhism into China would not have been possible without that country establishing full control over regions bordering Central Asia and opening trade through these regions with the Roman world; Buddhism came to China along with trade. Four trade routes were opened by China. – (1) North route across Tarim Basin, via Lopnor, Karashar, Kucha and Kashgar, (2) South route across the Tarim basin via Lopnor, Niya, Khotan, Yarkand and Kashgar, (3) Sea route from Luoyang via Tonkin near Haiphong[5] and (4) route from Sichuan via Yunnan, Northeast India, Northwestern India and Iran[6] .

The Chinese society’s attraction to Buddhism was also due to the Buddhist revelation of a new spiritual world, which the traditional Confucianism and Taoism could not offer. Moreover, China was able to ‘sinify’ Buddhism, by fusing it with Confucian and Taoist thoughts. During the neo-Confucian movement of Sung dynasty, such a trend was strong, for e.g the Chinese philosopher Zhang Cai, was able to synthesize the thoughts of all three schools- Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.[7] The spread of Indian Buddhism in China was however not smooth, mainly due to the attitude of the Confucianists at different stages considering Buddhism as a foreign religion which threatened their supremacy over matters of state (for e.g the position enjoyed by the Confucian Commission of Scholars as a body of State in China in 70AD). Chinese scholars like Han Yu of Tang period, condemned Buddhism (as well as Taoism) as ‘anti-social and anarchic’. If Buddhism was never accepted as a state religion in China despite the support to it by Chinese emperors in different periods, the same can be attributed to Confucian reservations.[8]

Both India and China are now modern nation states, rising simultaneously in the global arena. Are past civilisational contacts impacting on the contemporary Sino-Indian bilateral relations? This question assumes importance, as China and India, as emerging powers, are poised to play a big role in the 21st century world politics.

One has to begin with China’s historical concept of India. The former believes that India, called by it as ‘the Western Heaven’, is the only nation, which could share place with China in heaven; other countries are only under heaven and the Emperor of China was the son of heaven. China sees a definite connection between the concept and the Indian influence on its civilization.[9] Undoubtedly, such views on Sino-Indian partnership ‘in heaven’ provide a philosophical background to current bilateral relations, which remain stable in an overall sense. Politically, contacts between the two at high political leadership levels have grown tremendously; also, marking big improvement in economic relations, bilateral trade is gathering momentum.

Prima-facie, the civilization contacts seem to have no relevance to the status of contemporary Sino-Indian relations. The two nations face areas of mutual distrust and suspicion- the boundary issue, Tibet factor, India’s ties with the West, China’s military modernization, China’s role in India’s neighborhood and China’s lack of enthusiasm in giving a greater role for India in the regional economic integration process. On all these issues, the nation-state factor is influencing both the sides; it is natural that strategic interests are getting the priority of each, relegating the utility of civilization contacts to the background. Border talks among them are in progress to find a framework for finding a final solution; the two now agree to make progress in bilateral relations looking beyond the border dispute. Interesting is the fact that China no longer follows its traditional position that it has no idea of ‘territory’ and that all the people and the areas, in which they live, belong to the Emperor. Beijing now claims that it recognizes and accepts international principles as part of the global system, giving up its traditional view of ‘All Under Heaven’ (Tianxia), auguring well for the solution of the biggest bilateral issue- the border problem.

If the two nations are jointly taking initiatives to iron out their differences, howsoever difficult that process appears to be at the moment, the same look a result of their ‘real politics’ approach, not because of any civilisational influence. The noted scholar Tan Chung had pointed out that the moment has come when India and China are required to factor their civilization strength in promoting bilateral ties and that their success in this regard would pave the way for the 21st century’s emergence as an Asian century. Will the two nations do it, is a big question. For both India and China, strategic interests have become supreme as modern nation states and they may find no use in past civilization contacts in developing their ties in modern era. For analysts in general, recalling history may thus serve only academic purposes; it will be a futile exercise for them in the matter of assessing the future prospects of Sino-Indian relations.

(This formed the basis of a paper, submitted by Mr D.S.Rajan, Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India, at the XXV International Conference On History and Historiography of Asia and Africa, St. Petersburg, Russian Federation, 22-24 April 2009).


[1] Professor Tan Chung, “ Across the Himalayas”, India Gandhi National Centre for Arts, New Delhi, 1998 [2] -ibid- [3] Speech of Yuan Xianji, member of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), CP, Ramaswamy Iyer Foundation, Chennai, India, 27 March 1984 [4] Dr Lokesh Chandra, Chairman, International Academy of Indian Culture and Member of Indian parliament. [5] Rise and Splendour of the Chinese Empire, by Rene Grousset, University of California Press. 1952 [6] As in 4 above [7] As in 1 above [8] As in 6 above [9] Speech of Dr Wang Yiwei, Associate Professor, Fudan University, Shanghai, China, at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, India, 23 July 2007


Civilisational Contacts Between India and China: A Chronological Account

Earliest period of history: – India was in contact with South Western regions of China from the earliest period of history (as found in the account of Chinese Buddhist traveller Fa Xian who stayed in India for a decade from 402 AD, quoted by Dr Subramanian Swamy in his book “ India’s China Perspective”, Konark publications, 2001).

4th Century BC: Indians are earliest foreigners to trade with China; the term ‘cinapatta’ figures in Kautilya’s Arthasastra (4th century BC)

217 BC: Indian Buddhist scholars make first contact with China, under Qin dynasty.

138 BC: Chang Qian, son in law of emperor Wu Di, came to India, called Xi Yu- western world; returned to China (Changan) in 126 BC along with Indian musical instruments.

65 AD: Chola king sent emissaries to China. Wang Mang, Chinese ruler, sent presents to Indian King at Kanchipuram.

67 AD: Under Emperor Ming Ti’s invitation, Indian monks Dharma Raksha and Kashyapa Matanga, visited China. They arrived in White Horses with scriptures and relics. First Buddhist monastery (White Horse monastery) was built for them- Bai Ma Si., constructed by Han dynasty in 68AD, located at Luoyang, Western Henan province

148 to 170 AD: Indian Buddhist community’s significant presence in China under Han dynasty

251 AD: Kang Senghui wrote Ramayana in Chinese

366 AD: Indian monks construct First Dunhuang cave.

394 – 414 AD: Fa Xian came to India for a ten-year stay

401-412 AD: Kumarajiva, Indian Buddhist monk, educated in Kashmir and Kashgar was in Changan. He stayed in Gansu for 16 years. He translated 106 Buddhist works in Chinese. 56 out of them are still available. His work included one on Lotus sutra. Between 67 to 412 AD, at the times of Matanga and Kumarajiva, Indian culture penetrated into China. Kumarajiva was an expert in Vedas, and knew Sanskrit, and thus an ideal interpreter of Indian culture.

FourthCentury AD : Bodhisatvas, elightened beings of Mahayana Buddhism, became popular in China. Wu Tai mountain (Shanxi) is believed to be the abode of one of them Manjusri. The worshipping of other, Avalokitesvara, in female form Guanyin in China, also became popular; his abode is believed to be in Mount Putuo in Zhejiang.

Fifth Century AD: Bodhi Dharma propagated Dhyan/ Chan/Zen Buddhism in China. He was the youngest son of king of Kanchipuram, India. He meditated in Shaolin monastery in China. Chan tradition was handed over to Bodhi Dharma by Mahakasyapa, a disciple of Buddha. Bodhi Dharma gave it to Hui Ke (487-593). “History of Chan Buddhism”, a record of Chan Buddhism, was discovered in Dunhuang caves.

629-644 AD: Xuan Zang, Chinese Buddhist traveller, came to India. Passed through Central Asia. His Chinese translations led to China’s access to the entire heritage of Indian thought.

647 AD: Delegation of Buddhist scholars from China came to India. Emperor Tai Zong, sent a mission to Indian Magadha to study boiling sugar.

671-695AD: Chinese traveler Yi Jing, hailing from Hebei, came to India and stayed for 24 years . He recorded the stay in India by 60 Chinese monks and their five inscriptions in Chinese in Bodhgaya, India

719 AD: Indian Buddhist monk Vajra Bodhi came to China

7- 8th Century AD: During Sui-Tang periods, scientific works called Brahmana books ( pu luo men tian wen jing) were prevalent. They were noted in the Chinese “ Sui Shu”, the official history of Sui dynasty, for their listing Sanskrit words on astronomy, trigonometry, mathematics. In 650 AD,Kashyapa Xiaowei and Gautama Siddha were prominent authors of such scientific works including in calender making. In the Tang period, Indian astronomers served on the Imperial board.

8thCenturyAD: Hindu temple was discovered at Quan Zhou (Fu Jian), a well known port during Tang era. Remnants with Tamil inscriptions were found outside Tonghuai gate in Quanzhou. This temple may have been destroyed during transformation from Yuan to Ming dynasty. (Source- Quanzhou Zongjiao Shi Ke, “ Religious Inscriptions of Quanzhou”, by Wu Wenliang, Ke Xue Chu Ban She, 2005).

9th Century AD: Indian monk Dharmadeva of Nalanda visited China; received in China by the emperor

1364- 71 AD: Indian Buddhist monk Sahajsri visited China; received by Yuan/Ming emperors

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