Indology In China

Indology is the science about India, knowing and studying it from varied perspectives especially from art and culture, history and heritage, language and literature, philosophy and spirituality. It became a subject in Europe in the recent past beginning with Voltaire (1694-1778) an unrivalled French writer and philosopher who was enthusiastic for Asian civilization and Indian wisdom. He found that China did not owe anything to the Western world. He inspired Sir William Jones, the Chief Justice of Supreme Court in Calcutta during the British rule who translated Manusmriti, Abhijnana-Shakuntala and Ritusamhara. Jean Pierre another French scholar opened a new window in the history of Indo-Chinese cultural relations by writing the history of Khotan in 1820 and translating the travels of Fa-Hsien, a Chinese pilgrim. From then onwards scholars in large numbers embarked on the studies on Indology in China.

The earliest reference to search about India goes back to Ch’ang Ch’ien who came to know about India in Bactria when he was sent by the Chinese Emperor Wu of Han in 2nd century BCE. Later several missions were sent to India via land and sea routes. Taking the sea route they reached Kanchipuram and by land up to Kashmir. They began to acquire knowledge about India, its customs and products.

Over the centuries, fascinated by India, China built more monasteries than India and still preserves Sanskrit texts in original and translations, many of which are lost in India for ever. Indologists in China have been preserving the Buddhist heritage better than any other country in the world including India, sponsoring preservation and research projects on Sanskrit and Buddhism at a great scale. They have ever discovered a biography of the great Indian dramatist and poet Kalidasa and fragments of his drama Abhjnana-Shakuntala from China.

Fa-hsien, Hsuan-tsang, Wang Hsuan-tso and I-tsing - the Chinese scholar-pilgrims, Indologists in modern terms, are outshining in history who came to India and have bequeathed historic records. I-tsing has left short bio sketches of 60 eminent Chinese monks who visited India. In 964 AD, three hundred Chinese monks left for India. They set up five Chinese inscriptions at Bodhgaya.

Hsuan-tsang (602-664), the Prince of pilgrims to India stands out in the history of Indology. He had to face the most difficult situations, even risking his life, on his way to India. Once he was lost in desert for four days without water and was robbed several times. But he never gave up. On coming back Hsuan-tsang wrote “Records of the Western World”, a detailed account of his travels to India. When he showed his translation of Prajna-paramita to the Emperor, he said, “looking at these Buddhist works is like gazing at the sky or sea. They are so lofty that one cannot measure their heights, so profound that one cannot plumb their depths”.

All the items taken by Hsuan Tsang from India were carried through the streets of the then capital of China Ch’ang-an (modern Xian). The people thronged from far off and were falling one upon the other to have a look at the items and of course the great scholar Hsuan tsang who had come back from a journey to the Western Paradise - India. Hsuan Tsang introduced the technique of manufacturing sugar from India. Later a mission was sent from China to study it much more profoundly.

In the seventh and eighth centuries, the Chinese were fascinated by the new science of astronomy, calendrical knowhow and mathematics in Sanskrit texts which were known as the “P’o-lo-men or Brahmin books”. Indian astronomers served on the Chinese Imperial Board during the T’ang dynasty. In the seventh century three Indian astronomical schools were known: Gautama, Kasyapa and Kumara. The official history of the Sui dynasty, completed in AD 610, contains a catalogue of Sanskrit works on astronomy, mathematics, calendrical methods and pharmaceuticals under the generic caption of P’o-lo-men.

Sacred sciences were combined with secular knowledge. So along with Buddhism, milk products, technology of producing sugar and cotton cultivation were also introduced from Kashmir and Bengal to China in the second century BC. In India cotton was used for manufacturing paper also. But in Han China it was made out of silk. When Buddhist scriptures reached China, cotton also became a component of paper. And thus the silk radical of the character of paper was replaced by the radical for cotton. Sugar came to China with Hsuan Tsang. They called it shi-mi  ‘stone honey’ which renders the Sanskrit sarkara from ‘granules, stonelets’.  In AD 647 Emperor Tai-tsung sent a mission to Magadh to study the secrets of boiling sugar. This method was adopted by sugarcane growers of Yang-chou.

The researchers discovered that China began to study India when first translation of Indian scriptures occurred during 246-219 B.C., the reign of Chin dynasty, when eighteen wise men carried the scriptures from India to China. The official date of the first Indian teachers going to China is A.D. 67 when Kasyapa Matanga and Dharmaraksa reached there on an invitation of the King Ming Ti of the Late Han dynasty. From then onwards there was an unbroken tradition of teachers going to China. Loyang and Ch’ang-an can be called vibrant centers of Indology. In A.D. 224 an Indian Sramana, Vighna was active. During the rule of the Western Tsin dynasty, Indian intellectuals were active in the then-capital Loyang.

Bodhidharma, a Indian monk from Kancipuram, transmitted the philosophy of Dhyana, which became popular in China as Ch’an and in Japan as Zen.

The discoveries in Central Asian ruined Kingdoms gave an impetus to Indology in China when A.F. R. (Rudolph) Hoernle, Sir Aurel Stein, Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin von Le Coq from Germany and Representatives of Baron Otani and others went for explorations in Central Asia. The earliest manuscripts of the world are written in Sanskrit and discovered from the Xinjiang region of China. The first printed item of the world is a Sanskrit mantra in Chinese translation discovered from Beijing kept at the British Library. The only administrative and legal documents written in spoken Sanskrit (Prakrit) are discovered from Xinjiang. The only document establishing Sanskrit as an international language used for travelling is discovered from Xinjiang.    

Indology in modern history of China gained momentum with Chinese scholars going abroad to study and research. Feng Chengjun (1887-1946) translated several Indological works by European scholar like Chavannes, Sylvian Levi, Jean Przyluski, and Paul Peliot. Taixu. A Chinese Buddhist monk (1890-1947) actively worked for advancement of Buddhist studies in China through establishing prepared to establish World Buddhist Federation, founded Buddha Dharma Garden, established Buddhist Teaching College in Xuyun temple, associations, Jue societies, Wanchung Buddhist Institute and many more. He started a number of Buddhist journals. He was in Vishva Bharati in 1940 where he could meet Gandhiji, Tagore and Nehruji. Huang Chanhua (1890-1977) studied Sanskrit and Tibetan languages. His visit to Japan inspired him to study Indian, Tibetan and Western philosophies. He wrote a “General Outline of Buddhist Schools”, “Introduction to Buddhism”, “Outline of the History of Indian Philosophy” and  “History of Chinese Buddhism”.

Many Indologists studied Sanskrit and Pali languages. Tang Yongtong (1893-1964) was a Buddhist historian. After getting a degree in Master of Philosophy from Harvard University he returned to China and began teaching Indian Philosophy, Metaphysics, and Buddhism etc. He wrote “Brief History of Indian Philosophy”, “History of Sui and T’ang Buddhist Manuscripts” etc.

By mid-20th century there were several institutions in China for Buddhist studies like Chinese Inner Studies Institute, Institute of Philosophy Studies and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. There were departments in Universities to study philosophy, history and social sciences. Buddhist Association of China was founded in Beijing in 1953.  

Chinese had a growing interest in aesthetics. Lu Cheng has left monographs such as Introduction to Aesthetics and Ideal Trends of Modern Aesthetics. Out of his keen interest in Buddhism he wrote “Outline of Hetuvidya”, “Original Theory of Tibetan Buddhism”, and “Origin and Development of Indian Buddhism”. He knew Sanskrit, pali and Tibetan languages along with others.

As a poet and painter, scholar and writer Ms. Su Xuelin was an expert in cross cultural studies. She researched on parallels between Chinese and Indian legends, animal stories and myths. She was of the opinion that not only the monks but traders contributed towards spread of Indian culture in China.    

Many of the Chinese studied India from the view point of suppression by the colonial power. They were in support of Indian freedom movement. Wen Yiduo was a well-known poet, artist, scholar and political activist. He wrote an essay on the poetess Sarojini Naidu, highly appreciating her nationalistic spirit. He was much impressed by Rabindranatha Tagore because of his artistic and poetic talents.

Dunhuang caves are gems on the Silk Route preserving a rich collection of scroll paintings, manuscripts, mural, sculptures and so on. Hundreds of scholars have been researching, writing, editing, preserving and teaching there on Buddhist arts and literature. Zhou Shujia was involved in transcription of Buddhist scriptures. He founded Buddhist painting research Institute and Buddhist Association of China; compiled Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Rubbings of Fangshan Buddhist Classics, and undertook research on grottos and their arts all over China. His works include several Buddhist sutras such as Vaidurya-prabha-raja and Vijnnaptimatrata. Another expert on Dunhuang was Xiang Da (1900-1966). After returning from Europe he made great contributions towards writing a history of China’s international relations and Indo-Chinese cultural relations. His writings on “Dunhuang and Ch’ang-an under T’ang Dynasty” and “India’s contribution to Buddhism” opened up fresh avenues of research for the Chinese Indologists. He translated the biography of Gandhiji into Chinese.

An archaeologist, oriental art historian and a poet, Mr. Chang Renxia authored “History of Fine Arts Development in India and Southeast Asia”, “The Silk Road and Western Culture and Art”, “The Maritime Silk Road and Cultural Exchange” and many essays. He travelled on the path of Hsuan Tsang, visited Sarnath, Bodhgaya, Nalanda, Rajagrih, Patliputra and Ajanta etc. He collected abundant material and wrote several research papers on its basis- “Sino-Indian Art Exchanges”, “Records of Ajanta Grotto Art”, “Pilgrimage to Indian Ancient Buddhist Traces and Development and Education Characteristics of Indian Institute of World Art” and “History of Fine Arts Development in India and Southeast Asia”.

Vishva Bharati had become a centre for the Chinese Indologists to study and teach. When Fa Fang was there he had an opportunity to study Sanskrit and Pali. His major writings include “Chittamatrata and Philosophy”, “The Buddhist View of Life”, “Speeches on Prajnaparamita Diamond Sutra”, “A Procedure of Learning Buddhist Dharma”, and “Indian Intellectuals”. Dongchu had an in-depth knowledge of Indian customs and spiritual traditions of offering prayers at holy places.

Xu Fangcheng is a famous Chinese Indologist who systematically introduced 50 Upanisads into China by translating them in a poetic style classical Chinese.  He was a versatile scholar and a linguist well versed in Sanskrit, Latin, French and Greek. He proposed many unique ideas. He did a comparative study of Sanskrit and Changsha dialect from phonological perspective which demonstrates Influence of Buddhism on native Chinese languages.     

The period saw an increasing interest in Indian Epics. Mi Wenkai (1909-1983) was a commentator on Indian literature. He wrote “A brief Introduction to Indian Literature”, “Historical Tales of India”, “Appreciation of Indian Literature”, “Two Great Indian Epics”, His works on Indian culture comprise of 18 volumes.

Logic was another subject which attracted Chinese scholars. Yu Yu was an expert in this field who devoted the whole of his life to this subject. He wrote many books on it like- “Indian Logic’, “Chinese Logic”, “contribution of Hsuan Tsang to Hetu-vidya” and “Dharmakkrti’s Contribution to the History of Indian Logic’.

Studies and translation of the two epics - Ramayana, Mahabharata, the stories of Panchatantra and dramas by Kalidasa were another field of Indology in China for Ji Xianlin (1911-2009), a great Indologist, linguist, author, translator and a social activist, a renowned name in Chinese history. His translation of Ahijnana-shakuntalam and Vikrmorvashiyam by Kalidasa, inspired the Chinese youth to successfully perform Abhijnanashakuntalam in theatre. He translated Ramayana and wrote extensively investigating many questions related to life in ancient India. 

Jin Kemu is another name, shining as a star among Indologists after Ji Xianlin. As a poet, Indologist, essayist and a translator. He compiled a summary of Panini’s Aphorisms on Sanskrit grammar. Offering detailed discussions on his style, the system, and other aspects of his sutras. He wrote on fundamental problems of Sanskrit grammatical theories. His translation of Meghaduta and Shatakatraya by Bhartrihari on Indian ideals, life and emotions were classical achievements for a Chinese. “Selected Annotations of Mahabharata” a translation of excerpts from Mahabharata led to the publication of Adi Parva. He was the first to translate selections from ancient Indian classics on aesthetics - Natya-shastra, Kavya-darpana, Dhvani-aloka, Kavya-prakasha and Sahitya-darpana. He included Rigveda in his “The Analects of Indian Culture”. He even published an article on Vedanta-sara and Mandukya-upanishad. He expressed his views on ancient philosophy of Brahman and Shramana.

Jin Kemu and ji Xianlin produced the first batch of Chinese scholars in modern China. Tan Yun Shan was renowned in India. There is a long list of indologists and their astounding works representing their fascination and dedication for India resulting in long lasting cultural friendship.             

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