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The Spread of Buddhism to China: A Re-examination of the Buddhist Interactions between Ancient India and China

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by Tansen Sen

Baruch College,

The City University of New York and Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre,

Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapor

Recent studies have signifi cantly altered the ways in which the early history of Buddhism in China and the Buddhist interactions between ancient India and China were perceived. The accepted views about the route of the initial transmission of Buddhist doctrines, the early method of rendering Buddhist ideas into Chinese and the notion of a decline of Buddhism in China after the eighth century have all come under scrutiny. Using these

analyses and arguments, this essay attempts to reassess some of the key issues concerning the spread and successful establishment of Buddhism in China. In particular, it re-examines the contribution of India–China interactions to these processes and argues that the diffusion of Buddhism in China was an outcome of multi-ethnic collaborations and the ingenuity of Chinese and foreign monks in making the doctrine adaptable to Chinese society.

Keywords: Buddhism, India–China interactions, Buddhism in China, Brahmanism in China There are several issues regarding the spread, acceptance and the domestication/ transformation/assimilation/Sincisation of Buddhism in China that

still need detailed study. Recent scholarship has highlighted the complexities of these processes, demonstrating, for example, that the initial spread of Buddhism may not have been a simple linear transmission from South Asia through Central Asia to the Chinese hinterland (Zürcher 1990, 1999). Also increasingly questioned is the role of an India–China dialogue in the successful establishment of Buddhism in China (Sharf 2002). Similarly,

the view of a decline of Buddhism in China after the Tang period is no longer accepted (Sen 2003). Because of these studies, Buddhist interactions between India and China have to be re-examined and some of the misconceptions rectifi ed. Using these recent fi ndings, this essay argues that a

combination of factors such as the multicultural nature of the transmission of Buddhist doctrines, the ingenuity of the Chinese clergy to impart foreign teachings within a Sinitic framework, and even the fact that the Buddha and his basic teachings were initially misconceived by a large number

of Chinese lay followers contributed to the successful spread of Buddhism to China. The integration of Buddhist doctrines within Chinese culture and society and the subsequent creation of Buddhist pilgrimage centres within China, on the other hand, were important means through which Buddhism became recognised as one of the three main Chinese religions, and China emerged as one of the leading centres for the dissemination of Buddhist

ideas, texts and images. The focus on the spread of Buddhism to China often overshadows the fact that non-Buddhist ideas and beliefs were also important part of India–China exchanges during the pre-colonial period. Texts and ideas associated with Brahmanism, and later the Islamic networks between India and China, are examples of such neglected issues. Similarly, the possible spread of Daoist ideas to India is rarely investigated. In the conclusion to this article, one such issue, the possible reasons for the failure of Brahmanism to penetrate Chinese society, is discussed with the aim to highlight the astonishing success Buddhism, as a foreign religion, had in China.


The spread of Buddhism to China was a protracted process that involved people from different regions and ethnic groups. The credit should not all go to the ‘Indians’, nor should it be perceived as an outcome of the interactions between India and China.1 In fact, Buddhist missionaries from ‘India

may not have played a signifi cant role in the transmission of the doctrine before the fourth century (Zürcher 1999: 32). The famous story about the Han emperor Ming’s (r. 58–75 CE) dream about the Buddha, the subsequent arrival of the fi rst two Buddhist monks from India and the building

1 The terms ‘India’ and ‘China’ are diffi cult to explain in the pre-twentieth century context. There were several kingdoms and empires within the area that now forms the Republic of India. Some of these kingdoms, the Mauryan Empire, for example, extended beyond the borders of contemporary India. At other times, foreign empires, such as the Kus .a¯n .a, penetrated deep into the present-day Indian states. In this article, therefore,

India’ does not refer to a political entity, but the geographical region that now consists of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. ‘China’ denotes the areas ruled by the dynasties in Chinese history from the Shang to the Qing. The specifi c borders changed based on the expansion and contraction of these dynasties.

of the ‘fi rst’ Chinese Buddhist monastery called the Baimasi (White Horse Monastery) are fabrications. The story of Emperor Ming’s dream was meant to link the introduction of Buddhism with the Chinese court in an attempt to give legitimacy to the foreign doctrine. As argued below, the story must not be taken as a reliable historical record on how Buddhism fi rst entered China. There are other commonly accepted views regarding the path of the spread of Buddhism, the role played by eastern Central Asia in the initial transmission of the doctrine to China, and the use of Daoist terminology

by the early translators that have been re-examined by scholars. Some of these new analyses and interpretations have bearing not only on the early history of Buddhism in China, but also on the Buddhist interactions between ancient India and China. As recent as 2005, the story of Emperor Ming’s dream was used as a historical fact in a book entitled India and China: Twenty Centuries of Civilizational Interactions and Vibrations. The authors write:

The story begins with Han Emperor Ming dreaming of, in 64 A.D., a golden Buddhaying over his palace. This led to China’s extending an invitation for Buddhism to bless the country. This invitation mobilized Chinese offi cials and monks to brave the hazards and perils of a long journey to the Buddhist shrines in India. Then, this fl ow of pilgrims stimulated a counterfl ow of Indian Buddhist preachers towards China, for helping to establish Buddhist institutions. (Tan and Geng 2005: 93)

Despite the fact that this ‘story’ has been thoroughly discredited more than hundred years ago (Maspero 1901; see also Zürcher 2007 [1959]: 22), it is told and re-told by various authors, mostly by those based in India and China. The aim of many of these writers who continue to emphasise this story is to draw attention to, in their words, ‘the ancient bonds’ between India and China and use it in the contemporary diplomatic discourse

between the two countries.2 These writers seem to be unaware of the fact that the tales about Han emperors encountering legendary fi gures in their dreams and the subsequent interpretations of these dreams by court offi cials were common themes in the Han literary tradition (Strickmann 1988; Wagner 1988). In fact, the story of Emperor Ming’s dream related to the Buddha dates from the fourth century (Wagner 1988: 13) and does not refl ect

the historical introduction of Buddhist ideas in China. The undue attention given to the story and the attempt to credit the spread of Buddhism to a specifi c Han ruler and the Indian monks he invited conceals many signifi cant processes and unresolved issues related to the beginnings of Buddhism in China. The question about when Buddhism fi rst entered China has continued to

2 In fact, in order to commemorate this episode, the Indian government recently sponsored the building of an ‘Indian Hall’, modelled after the famed Sanchi stupa, at the White Horse Monastery.

perplex scholars. A fairly reliable record on this issue is also connected to Emperor Ming and the Han court. It concerns a cousin of Emperor Ming called Liu Ying , who had the title of the king of the Chu . Liu Ying is reported to have ‘observed fasting and performed sacrifi ces to the Buddha

at Pengcheng (in present-day Shandong Province) sometime in the year 65 CE (Hou Han shu 72: 1082; Zürcher 2007 [1959]: 26). An edict from Emperor Ming noted the Buddhist deeds and rituals performed by Liu Ying in the following way: The king of Chu recites the subtle words of Huanglao, and respectfully performs the gentle sacrifi ces to the Buddha. After three months of purifi

cation and fasting, he has made a solemn covenant (or: a vow) with the spirits. What dislike or suspicion (from Our part) could there be, that he must repent (of his sins)? Let (the silk which he sent for) redemption be sent back, in order thereby to contribute to the lavish entertainment of the upa¯sakas (yipusai ) and ´sraman .as (sangmen ). (Zürcher 2007 [1959]: 27)

This edict is found in the Hou Han shu (History of the Latter Han [[[Dynasty]]]) compiled by Fan Ye (398–445 CE) in the fi fth century. The earliest account of the event dates to the second century and is recorded in a work by Liu Zhen (53 BCE–18 CE) and others called Dongguan Han ji (Record of the Han [[[Dynasty]] Compiled at the] Eastern Pavilion). Additionally, the appearance of the word ‘sangmen’ in another Han-dynasty work called Xijing fu

(Rhapsody on the Western Capital) by Zhang Heng (78–130 CE) leads to the credence of the edict and its use of Buddhist terms in the middle of the fi rst century (Zürcher 2007 [1959]: 29). These records seem to confi rm that the Han court and Emperor Ming were aware of the existence of Buddhism at the Chinese capital. This presence of Buddhism in fi rst-century Han China, it must be stressed, had nothing to do with Emperor Ming’s dream mentioned

above. Erik Zürcher (2007 [1959]: 26–27) has suggested that Liu Ying’s interest in Huanglao and Buddhism may have been connected to the desire for bodily immortality.3 The interest in Buddhism as a source for immortality is also illustrated in some of the earliest images of the Buddha from

China. These images that date from the late Han period (second to mid-third century) are found in Chinese tombs at Mahao in Sichuan Province and at Hejiashan in Shaanxi Province (Rhie 1999; Wu 1986). It seems that the notion of the Buddha as the provider or god of immortality, both for the living and the dead, became popular in China in the fi rst and second century CE. One explanation for this perception of the Buddha among the Chinese might have

3 Huanglao was considered to be a combination of the tenets of the mythological Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) and the shadowy Laozi (the supposed founder of Daoism); this was a school of thought adhered to by a number of court members during the Western Han period.

do with the fact that they initially came into contact with Buddhist images used by foreign traders rather than religious preachers or philosophical texts. Examples of such early Buddhist images associated with foreign traders are on display at Mount Kongwang in Jiangsu Province, in the eastern coastal region of China (Rhie 1999). These images date from the late second century and are engraved on the boulders of the mountain. They include fi

gures of the Buddha in standing, seated and parinirva¯n .a postures. There are also representations from the Ja¯taka tales, foreign donor fi gures, other secular fi gures wearing foreign dresses (identifi ed as of Kus .a¯n .a style), and the traditional Chinese motif of moon and a toad. In addition to suggesting the presence of Buddhist beliefs among foreign traders in the region, these images also indicate the early amalgamation of Buddhist ideas with indigenous Chinese beliefs. Indo-Scythians and Parthian merchants, whose commercial networks stretched from northwest India to the Chinese

cities and ports, may have introduced these Buddhist images to China. Indeed, diplomatic and commercial interactions between Southern Asia and the frontiers of the Western Han Empire witnessed signifi cant growth after the collapse of the Xiongnu confederation in the fi rst century BCE. This can be discerned from the frequent embassies from Jibin (located in present-day Afghanistan–Pakistan) that mostly consisted of traders (Sen 2003: 3–4). Maritime trade between Southern Asia and the coastal regions of China also developed rapidly during the same period, with Hepu (in present-day

Guangxi Province) and Panyu (present-day Guangzhou) as the two main ports where merchants and merchandise from Southern Asia arrived regularly. In fact, during the fi rst century CE, the maritime route may have been an important conduit for the transmission of Buddhism due to military confrontations in Central Asia, partially caused by the withdrawal of the Western Han forces (de Crespigny 2007). The spread of Buddhism within Southern Asia in the second half of the fi rst millennium BCE, as scholars such as James Heitzman (1984) and Himanshu Prabha Ray (1994) have

demonstrated, was intimately linked to the movement of merchants along the trade routes linking urban centres. Liu Xinru (1988) has argued that the same process also facilitated the spread of Buddhism to China. However, rather than a relayed (or ‘contact’) transmission through Central Asia or Southeast Asia, Buddhism most likely reached China directly in form of ‘long-distance transmission’. This argument, in the case of the transmission of Buddhism through the overland routes, has been made by Erik Zürcher (1990, 1999; see also Neelis 2011). Zürcher aptly points out the lack of

archaeological evidence for monastic institutions in eastern Central Asia before the third century CE. How could, he asks, a region without monastic institutions play a major role in the transmission of Buddhism to China, where Buddhism appears to have made signifi cant inroads by the second century CE? The same question is valid for Southeast Asia as well, where there is also no evidence for monastic Buddhism before the fi fth century. In other words, eastern Central Asia and Southeast Asia may not have played the role of staging centres in the early transmission of Buddhist doctrines to China as is commonly perceived. They were mere ‘transit’ zones. Zürcher (1999: 13–14) notes that only in the middle of the third century, when the oasis towns witnessed increased agricultural production, population growth and commercial expansion, conditions were created in

eastern Central Asia for the establishment of monastic Buddhism. Only after this development, places such as Kucha and Khotan started contributing vigorously to the diffusion of Buddhism in China.4 By the middle of the third century, the leading foreign monks at the Han capital were Parthians,

Sogdians, Indo-Scythians from western Central Asia and a few Indians. Zürcher (1999: 31–32) suggests that because of this, the period between 150 CE and 270 CE could be termed as ‘the era of western Central Asian dominance’, with ‘modest infl ux from India’. One of the prominent Central Asian monks in China was the Parthian named An Shigao who reached the Han capital Luoyang in 148 CE. About two decades later, an Indo-Scythian called Zhi Loujiaqian (Lokaks .ema?) arrived at Luoyang. With him was the ‘Indian’ (indicating the region east and south of present-day Afghanistan) monk

called Zhu Shuofo . There was also a Sogdian named Kang Ju . Additionally, there were also Chinese monks who came from different parts of the Han Empire and aided the foreign monks in their translation work. A number of conclusions about this initial phase of the spread of Buddhism to China can be drawn from the discussion so far. First, it seems possible that Buddhist images started entering Han China sometime in the fi rst century CE, which

coincided with the establishment of the Kus .a¯n .a Empire and the expansion of foreign mercantile networks to coastal China and the Han cities. By the time Liu Ying performed his ceremonies and Emperor Ming wrote his edict in 65 CE, some Buddhist followers were already present in and around the Han capital Luoyang. Second, at the initial stage, the Chinese elite and the common people who saw Buddhist images perceived the Buddha primarily as

a deity capable of prolonging life. This misperception most likely facilitated the rapid inclusion of the Buddha into the Chinese popular religious tradition. Third, from the initial introduction of Buddhist images in the fi rst century CE to the arrival of the fi rst foreign missionaries and translators, the transmission process involved people from different ethnic groups, particularly those from western Central Asia, who reached Han

China either through the overland or the maritime route. In fact, the spread of Buddhism during the Han period was not an outcome of the exchanges between ‘Indians’ and ‘Chinese’, whatever these terms implied during that period. Rather, the credit for the initial transmission of the doctrine

should go to the monks and merchants from western Central Asia. Monks from Southern Asia start appearing in larger number in the late fourth century. ‘Around 380 CE’, as Zürcher (1999: 32) notes, ‘there is a sudden infl ux of prominent missionaries from northern 4 On the role of Southeast Asia and the maritime spread of Buddhist doctrines, see Sen (forthcoming).

India and especially from Kashmir; it marks the beginning of a period of large-scale input that lasts till the middle of the fi fth century’. At the initial stages, not only were monks and translators arriving in China from different regions of Central and Southern Asia, there was also no

organised transmission of the doctrine with preselected texts and proselytisers. Rather, for most part of its history, Buddhist ideas, images and texts spread to China in a haphazard way. The early Buddhist missionaries who worked mostly as translators did not force any doctrines or teachings upon the Chinese followers.5 In fact, these followers, as discussed later, freely moulded the Buddhist ideas fi ltering into China, produced their own

apocryphal or indigenous Buddhist scriptures and even created their unique Buddhist pilgrimage sites. The fl exibility of practicing and modifying the Buddhist doctrine should also be considered key reasons for the success of Buddhism in China. Finally, the timing and the historical setting in China

within which Buddhist ideas fi rst spread needs to be addressed. It is commonly believed that the initial success of Buddhism in China was (i) due to the political chaos at the end of the Eastern Han dynasty (in the late second and early third centuries); and (ii) because of the ideological vacuum

caused by the perceived failure of Confucianism. However, if, as noted earlier, Buddhist terms and ideas were indeed circulating at the Han capital in 65 CE, then it would imply that the fi rst Buddhist images and monks started entering China sometime during the fi rst century BCE or early fi rst century CE. In other words, Buddhism may have reached China not during the chaotic phase at the end of the Eastern Han dynasty, but when the Western

Han was collapsing and the usurper Wang Mang (r. 9–23 CE) was setting up a new regime. Also a chaotic era in Chinese history, it was marked by political disorder, rebellions, foreign invasions and natural disasters. It was certainly a period during which the validity of Confucian values and teachings would have been challenged. In other words, the conditions that supposedly facilitated the introduction of Buddhist ideas to China at the end of the Han dynasty already existed in the early fi rst century CE.


Within two to three centuries of the initial spread of Buddhist images and ideas to China, Buddhism had started to signifi cantly alter the lives of the Chinese. Vital to the successful integration of Buddhism in Chinese society were the remarkable translation

5 A word of caution must be inserted here. Erik Zürcher (1999: 4–6) has correctly noted the ‘limitations’ and ‘distortions’ in Chinese sources that preserve the biographies of ‘eminentmonks. These biographies usually belong to monks, especially ‘high-class translators’, who were ‘patronized by the secular elite and who were active at a few—often metropolitan and court-sponsored—monasteries’. They do not include information about many other Buddhist monks who may have gone to China to proselytise the doctrine but did not participate in translation activities or were associated with court Buddhism.

projects. Similar to the initial transmission of Buddhism, the translation of Buddhist texts (from both oral and written versions) was not undertaken in any planned fashion. The early translators do not seem to have a systematised way or pattern of selecting and translating Buddhist texts. Much depended on the texts available to the translators. The early translation process also underscored the multi-ethnic venture between foreign and

Chinese monks. Often more than four people were involved in the translation of a single Buddhist sutra. The fi rst person recited the text, either from memory or from a manuscript, the second translated it orally into Chinese, the third wrote down the Chinese translation and the fourth edited the written version of the Chinese translation. This method of translation of Buddhist texts, due to the limited availability of bilingual specialists, continued through to the tenth century (Sen 2002). There were also a number of works composed in China that used elements from different Buddhist texts and teachings. Additionally, a crucial role in the spread of Buddhism was played by apocryphal texts (Buswell 1990). These texts placed core Buddhist teachings within the framework of Chinese beliefs and traditions and contributed to the dissemination of Buddhism among the common folks.6 The Buddhists in China also faced challenges with organising and canonising the translated Buddhist texts, which reached and were rendered ‘in a piecemeal fashion’ (Lancaster 1999: 519). Lewis Lancaster has vividly outlined this dilemma of the Chinese Buddhists. He writes (1999: 519),

The question for the Chinese was how to give recognition to this new body of literature. It was important for them to give ‘it’ a name, to catalogue ‘it’ and to formalize the arrangement of the many titles. This was all part of the process of creating a canon, in the sense of a list of recognized works.

To accomplish this goal, especially in the absence of any direction from Indian monks who often adhered to distinct traditions, the Chinese clergy created their own model. Borrowing the term used for the prescribed texts for the Chinese examination system, they called the translations ‘jing’ , which were evaluated for authenticity, arranged according to chronological order (based on the date of translation), copied (later printed),

circulated and stored in libraries. Once the translations appeared in Chinese, they were handled, Lancaster (1999: 543) summarises, in a Chinese fashion. The original texts may have come from India and represented the developments of the thoughts and practices of the subcontinent, but the treatment of the translations was East Asian. When we look at the way in which the

6 These were considered to be spurious texts composed/written in China and not included in the Buddhist canon.

Chinese translations of these texts were named, housed, catalogued, and put into a canonic form, we can easily identify the impact of local customs. Indeed, the translation of Buddhist texts was a gruelling process, which not only involved several individuals, it also required additional efforts of the Chinese clergy before it started circulating in China. Some of the earliest translators who performed the arduous task of rendering the

Buddhist texts into Chinese included the Parthians An Shigao and An Xuan , the Indo-Scythians Zhi Loujiaqian and Zhi Qian , the Sogdians Kang Mengxiang and Kang Senghui , the Indian monk Zhu Shuofo and the Chinese monk Yan Fotiao . Initially, the translations consisted of basic Buddhist teachings and the Ja¯taka tales (the birth stories of the Buddha). Gradually, more philosophical works, belonging to the Thera¯vada, Maha¯ya¯na and

tantric traditions, the vinayas and other texts were rendered into Chinese. The importance of an early translation technique known as geyi , often used to explain the success of rendering Buddhist works into Chinese, has been called into question recently. Translated as ‘matching the meaning’,

geyi is described by Kenneth Ch’en in his oft-used book Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey in the following way, Since the Buddhist of this period were familiar with the external or Taoist literature, it is not surprising to fi nd them having recourse to Taoist texts for words and phrases to use in their translations. This practice of the Buddhist of searching through Chinese literature, mainly Taoist, for

expression to explain their own ideas is known as ke-yi (geyi), or the method of matching the meaning. This method was used especially by the translators of the Prajña¯ sutras for the purpose of making Buddhist thought more easily understood by the Chinese. (Ch’en 1964: 68) Almost every work, academic as well as non-academic, that outlines the techniques of early translation of Buddhist texts reiterates Ch’en’s

description. The use of allegedly Daoist terminology by the early translators is described in these works as evidence for Buddhism’s reliance on Daoism at the early stages. In his essay included in this issue of China Report, Victor H. Mair has challenged these two perceptions.7 Mair demonstrates that geyi was neither a common nor an important phenomenon in the translation process. By examining every occurrence of the term geyi in

the Chinese Buddhist cannon (where, according to Mair, it occurs ‘less than two dozen time’), the Daoist canon (where it fails to appear a single time), and other Chinese encyclopaedias and lexicons (where the word also fails to appear), Mair notes that (i) the English translation of geyi as ‘matching the meaning’ is incorrect since the Chinese character ‘ge’ rather than meaning ‘matching’ stands for ‘lattice’; (ii) geyi was meant to

deal with the numerical categories of Buddhist doctrines (shishu , lit. ‘enumeration of items’); (iii) geyi was not a translation technique but an exegetical method; and (iv) geyi was an extremely short-lived phenomenon. Mair also points out that many of the Chinese terms used by the early translators ‘cannot be characterized as “Daoist”’. These terms either did not occur in Daoist works (such as the word benwu [‘fundamental nothingness’], used for tathatha or ‘thusness’), or were not limited to Daoism (such as wuwei [non-action] used to render nirva¯n .a). Explaining the usage of the term wuwei, for example, Mair writes,

…[T]here is no indication that this was a part of a systematic, conscious policy to appropriate Daoist terminology that was allegedly known as geyi. Furthermore, wuwei is used to render more than half a dozen different Sanskrit terms, and the negative wu is used at the beginning of more than two thousand words translated from Sanskrit. It would be ludicrous to insist that any Buddhist text which used the terms wu or wuwei be branded as

Daoistic simply because they also occur in Daoist texts. (Mair, 2010: 248; see also p. 54 of this volume) From Mair’s arguments it is clear that the early translators had a more diffi cult task of rendering Indian ideas into Chinese than simply borrowing from or allying with the Daoists. While it is true that Buddhism and Daoism infl uenced each other, the notion that there may have been collaboration between the two religions, or a dependence on Daoism when Buddhism fi rst entered China, is most likely erroneous. It may be more prudent to look at

the similarities and contradictions between Buddhism and the Chinese popular beliefs and cults to understand the successful penetration of Buddhism into Chinese society. It is also important to examine the possible target audience for the translated texts. The use of vernacular language in some of the early translations (Nattier 2008: 17–19; Zürcher 1977), for example, indicates that the translators sought a wider audience than just the

Chinese elites. It is also crucial to look at the gaps that Buddhist teachings may have fi lled in the philosophical ideas prevalent among the elite members of the Chinese society, thus attracting them to the foreign religion. On this issue, Erik Zürcher (2007 [1959]: 92) has explained the contribution of the Buddhist theory of karma and rebirth, which, according to him, augmented and added a justifi cation to the pre-existing Chinese

concept of benfen (‘basic allotment’, that is, explaining why some people ‘are born as kings and others as beggars, some as sages and others as fools’). No matter what technique the early translators followed or who they targeted at the time of translation, these texts, when categorised, copied and circulated, played a signifi cant role in the wider diffusion of Buddhism in China. Stemming from these translations were the commentaries the Chinese clergy wrote to explain the complex Indic philosophical ideas, which at times seemed contradictory and often very different

from Chinese concepts and beliefs. Many of these commentaries were instrumental in the establishment of Chinese Buddhist schools, including Huayan and Tiantai. These translated works also stimulated the composition of apocryphal texts that, as mentioned earlier, tried to provide a Chinese framework and context to the Indic teachings. And, from a long-term historical perspective, these translations preserve Buddhist works that are no longer available in India.


For most ordinary Chinese, the painstakingly produced translated texts and commentaries composed by Chinese monks would have been too complicated and largely incomprehensible. The points-of-contact with Buddhism for these ordinary, non-elite and illiterate Chinese most likely were the roadside

storytellers, the paintings found in Buddhist caves such as those at Dunhuang , and the statutes and images of the Buddha and other Buddhist divinities. The models for many of these images and fi gures were usually imported from South or Central Asia. There were also instances when artists from these areas went to and worked in China (Sen 2003: 206). Moreover, Chinese pilgrims, such as Faxian and Xuanzang , are known to have brought

images and Buddhist relics with them from Southern Asia. Xuanzang, for example, brought back several golden, silver and sandalwood idols of the Buddha. All these prized possessions were displayed at the Hongfu Monastery in the Tang capital Chang’an for public viewing. According to Xuanzang’s biographer Huili , a huge crowd of common people and elite scholars turned out to view and venerate these sacred objects (Sen 2003: 206). The relics

of the Buddha in particular had special meaning for the Chinese Buddhists. These relics, including the so-called ‘bodily remains’ of the Buddha and the objects associated with his life, were supposed to have miraculous powers, often with the ability to heal and cure those suffering from illnesses. They also served to bring the pious believers in contact with the founder of the religion who had lived a long time ago in a land far

away. To give this sense of proximity to the Buddha and the sacred land in which he dwelled, the Chinese clergy created sites within China to which the pious followers could visit instead of making the arduous journey to Southern Asia. Mount Wutai, the perceived adobe of the bodhisattva Mañjus´rı¯, was perhaps the most important of such sites. Starting from at least the fi fth century, the Buddhist translators began adding references to

China in the Buddhist prophesy about the future appearance of Mañjus´rı¯. They also composed new texts that made comparisons between Mount Wutai and Mount Gandhama¯ndana in the Himalayan range, which is mentioned in the Maha¯parinirva¯n .a Sutra as the future adobe of Mañjus´rı¯. Apocryphal texts further popularised the legend by providing miracle stories about the appearance of Mañjus´rı¯ at Mount Wutai and the pilgrimages of South Asian monks to the mountain to venerate the Indian divinity now purportedly living in China (Sen 2003: 76–86). The legend of Mañjus´rı¯’s presence at Mount Wutai spread rapidly and the Chinese mountain become a key pilgrimage destination for South Asian and other foreign monks in the eighth and ninth centuries. The emergence of China as a pilgrimage centre for foreign (and especially South Asian) monks marks the transition in China’s position from a peripheral outpost to one of the core regions of the Buddhist world (Sen 2003: Chapter 2). Even with regard to doctrinal input, Chinese Buddhism was no longer depended on the teachings coming from Southern Asia. Instead, it had charted its own course with indigenous doctrines, many of which

infl uenced Buddhism in Korea, Japan and Vietnam. The decay of urban centres in South Asia that supported Buddhism and the subsequent deterioration of monastic institutions were no doubt also contributing factors for the emergence of China as one of the centres for Buddhist learning and pilgrimage. This does not mean, however, that Buddhist interactions between China and South Asia rapidly declined after the eighth century, as previously perceived. Rather, the exchange of monks, the translation of Indian Buddhist texts into Chinese and the import of Buddhist artefacts from Southern

Asia reached unprecedented levels under the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE). What had decayed after the eighth century, instead, was the intellectual connection between China and South Asia with regard to Buddhist doctrines (Sen 2003: Chapter 3). While the Buddhists in China opted to pursue their own doctrinal discourse, the Buddhists in South Asia mostly took on to the path of esoteric Buddhism. And while the Buddhists in South Asia, maintained intimate relationship with Tibet, the Chinese Buddhists had their own sphere of infl uence in East Asia. Despite this divergence, Buddhist

interactions between China and South Asia continued, albeit in far lesser intensity, during the Yuan dynasty. It is clear that the ‘Sinifi cation’ of Buddhism was a key factor for the survival of Buddhism and its recognition as one of the three major religions in China. The Buddhist practices in China today, from the belief in Guanyin (the female form of Avalokites´vara) to the emergence of the Chinese Buddhas Ruan and Liang,8 who are venerated in the Guangdong region and by the Chinese community in Calcutta (Zhang Forthcoming), are consequences of the Sinifi cation of Buddhism.

This Sinifi cation of Buddhism included the mixing of Chinese and Indic beliefs, the composition of indigenous Buddhist texts and commentaries, the establishment of Chinese Buddhist schools, the creation of unique Buddhist divinities and the establishment of pilgrimage sites within China. 8 Ruan Ziyu (1079–1102 CE) and Liang Cineng (1098–1116 CE) are venerated by the people in Sihui , Guangdong Province, as Buddhas. A temple dedicated to them was established in Calcutta in 1908 by immigrants from Sihui.

At the same time as Buddhism was being Sinicised, Buddhist teachings and other elements associated with them were transforming Chinese society. The Chinese concept of afterlife, the notions of hells and heavens, and their view of the universe changed dramatically after the introduction of Buddhism. Chinese art, literature, language, cuisine (introduction of sugar, for example), material culture and economy were also signifi cantly infl uenced by Buddhism. Buddhist ideas on renunciation, action and retribution, meditation, monastic life and millennial eschatology brought about fundamental changes to Chinese society. The practice of chanting, cremation, vegetarianism, etc., also had notable impact. An important aspect of Buddhist infl uence that is often overlooked relates to its impact on the diplomatic and trading relations between China and foreign kingdoms. The

transmission of Buddhism to China not only stimulated trade in objects used for Buddhist rituals, it also triggered the formation of new or the strengthening of existing commercial networks that linked China to the rest of Asia. Buddhism also became part of the diplomatic interactions between the Chinese dynasties and foreign courts. In fact, Buddhist monks sometimes occupied key positions in the diplomatic embassies sent by foreign kingdoms to China. The Chinese court, as in case of the Tang missions to the court of King Hars .a, also dispatched envoys to undertake Buddhist

venerations on behalf of the emperors (Sen 2003: 37–44). Within this context of China–foreign relations, Buddhism played a crucial role in challenging the Chinese perception of itself as the only civilised and cultured society in the world. This was primarily because the Buddhist texts and the records of Chinese pilgrims portrayed the Indic world as sacred, civilised and sophisticated. The Tang monk Daoxuan (596–667 CE) even argued that India and not China should be considered the centre of the world (Sen 2003: 9). Such depictions forced the ethnocentric Chinese scribes to give

India a special position in the Chinese world order. Buddhism even had a considerable impact on the Chinese concepts of kingship and statecraft. During the post-Eastern-Han period, many of rulers of the kingdoms that were established in northern and southern parts of China used Buddhism as state ideology and sometimes called themselves, similar to the title given to King As´oka, the chakravartin (‘universal’) ruler. Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty and Emperor Wen of the Sui dynasty are examples of Chinese rulers who used Buddhism, and the legends associated with King A´soka, to

legitimise their rule. Later in the seventh century, Empress Wu Zetian legitimised her usurpation of the Tang dynasty and her own leadership as China’s fi rst female ruler by portraying herself as the future Buddha Maitreya (a female Maitreya). The Qing rulers, on the other hand, were depicted as the reincarnation of Mañjus´rı¯. Beyond this interest in the symbolic value of Buddhism, the rulers of the Chinese dynasties were also keen to use Buddhist monks because of their perceived magical and miraculous powers. Thus, foreign monks and the member of the Chinese clergy who had been to foreign lands were called upon by the emperors to help ‘protect the nation’ by averting natural disasters or by securing victory in major battles.

Rather, the spread of Buddhism to China, as emphasised several times earlier, was a multicultural process that included people and cultural elements from regions beyond South Asia. It was undertaken by people from diverse ethnic and geographical backgrounds, who facilitated the fl ow of cultural elements from different parts of Asia that then mixed with Chinese ideas and beliefs and created a syncretic religion.


To underscore the remarkable success of monks, merchants, translators and others who participated in the spread of Buddhist ideas, images and artefacts, the concluding section of this article briefl y examines why Brahmanical ideas could not make similar inroads into China. Like Buddhism, Brahmanism also spread to other parts of Asia. In Southeast Asia, for example, it made signifi cant contribution to the development of statecraft and

fostered cross-cultural interactions with South Asia. In China, however, despite the presence of preachers, merchants and even ‘doctors’ and astronomers who adhered to Brahmanism, it did not have a comparable impact. On one hand, the failure of Brahmanical ideas to take root in China highlights the diffi cult process Buddhism as a foreign religion had to go through to penetrate Chinese society. On the other hand, it suggests an

intricate relationship between ancient China and outside world, where some foreign ideas were accepted, adapted and indigenised while others got rejected. People belonging to the Brahmanical tradition present in China were usually referred to as Poluomen , or Brahmans, although not all of the people may have belonged to that caste. Some of these Poluomen, such as a person named Naluoershapo[mei] (Na¯ra¯yan .as´va¯min?), worked on

concocting longevity drugs for the Tang rulers. At some point, it seems, Chinese rulers had realised that Buddhism was not the religion that would either advocate or bestow longevity, as was initially misperceived. As a result, a majority of the longevity ‘doctors’ in China seem to belong to the Brahmanical tradition. There were also Indian astronomers employed by the Tang court who introduced Brahmanical tradition of calendar making. Others

are known to have worked with the Buddhists in translation projects. Some Brahmans came to China with the express aim to propagate their faith. For instance, there is a mention of a certain Brahman from Sri Lanka who wanted to transmit Brahmanical doctrines to China during the time the famous Buddhist monk Kuma¯rajı¯va was active (fi fth century) in China. The Brahman is supposed to have asked: ‘If the winds of S ´a¯kya can spread to China,

then how come we can’t covert the Eastern Kingdom’. He is said to have come to China with Brahmanical texts and challenged the Buddhists to debate him. Kuma¯rajı¯va trained one of his Chinese disciples, who debated and defeated the Sri Lankan Brahman (Gaoseng zhuan T. 2059: 363c.3–24).

Chinese records and archaeological evidence also suggest the existence of Brahmanical temples in southern China. In Guangzhou, for example, three such temples are reported to have existed in the eighth century. Brahmanical images, probably from a local Brahmanical temple, have been found in Quanzhou in Fujian Province, along with a bilingual Tamil–Chinese inscription. Moreover, Meir Shahar (2009) has argued that one of the most popular Chinese deities called Nezha may have originated from the images of Kr .s .n .a found at this temple. Even stories from Ra¯ma¯yan .a and the fi gure of Hanuma¯n fi ltered into China. Despite all this, it is evident that Brahmanism as a religion had no real impact on China as it did in Central and Southeast Asia. There could be several reasons for this failure of Brahmanism compared to the success of Buddhism in China. In a recent article,

Johannes Bronkhorst (2011) has pointed out that Brahmans were key to the successful spread of Sanskrit and Brahmanical ideas in Southeast Asia. The people and rulers in Southeast Asia were, he writes (2011: 266), ‘made to accept a different vision of society, in which Brahmans are highest because they have access to the supernatural’. Carving out a similar place for Brahmans in Chinese social hierarchy would have been impossible due to the

well-entrenched social order where religious preachers had no designated status. It is true that some Chinese rulers, as noted earlier, used Buddhism to legitimise their political authority by extensively using Buddhist paraphernalia. It is also correct to credit Buddhism for signifi cantly transforming Chinese society, aesthetics, language and literature. However, Buddhism never replaced the existing Confucian-derived system of

statecraft or questioned the validity of the concept of mandate of heaven. Intimately linked to the foregoing issue is the use of Sanskrit in various rituals, ceremonies and other Brahmanical activities. Unlike in Southeast Asia where the ruling elites used Sanskrit extensively (Ali 2011; Pollock 2006), it would have been diffi cult to institute similar use of the Indic language in China. Even among the Chinese Buddhists, the knowledge and usage of Sanskrit was limited. The Buddhist chants and mantras, for example, had to be often transcribed into Chinese for the monks to recite. In other words, unlike Buddhism, the transmission of Brahmanism to China would have required either a complete overhaul of Chinese society or fundamental changes to Brahmanism itself. Neither, it seems, would have been possible given the rigidities involved. Buddhism, on the other hand,

turned out to be more receptive to local needs and temporal situations, not only in China, but elsewhere as well. In fact, the Buddha had advised his followers to ‘wonder the path for the benefi t and satisfaction of many people and out of compassion for the world’ (translated by Neelis 2011: 1). The early Buddhists proselytisers in China, many of whom were speakers of foreign languages and belonged to non-Indic social and political traditions, must have recognised the Chinese situation and readily helped localise Buddhism to ‘benefi t’ and ‘satisfy’ many of its followers. The success of Buddhism in China owes much to these non-Indian wanderers.


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