Sept. 16 – The concept of India as China’s intellectual mentor goes back 2,000 years, with a strong foundation in China’s history. Two thousand years ago, while world history was being shaped around the Mediterranean, China was shut off in the far eastern corner of Asia. With warring and invasive Mongols to the north, no sign of culture in the Americas, and warring tribes to the west, China was largely cut off from civilization. Culture that came to China at that time came from one source, China’s southwest. While India was well advanced, nature had not been kind to the intercourse between the two great countries: a vast desert and a huge mountain range separated the two, just as they continue to do so today. So when did India and China begin to communicate with each other?
According to Indian records, King Asoka sent a number of Buddhist monks to China. Chinese records themselves recognize this, the Chinese Emperor Qin (whose tomb in Xi’an is inhabited by the Terracotta Army) imprisoned and executed ten Indian monks in what is now Xi’an. In later years, records on both sides show increasing numbers of traveling monks, with 24 Hindu scholars traveling to China in the year 67, and some 187 Chinese scholars making the trip to India in the year 265. Some of these have become famous, the Indian scholars known as Tamosola, Chen Ti and Chu Shien, and the Chinese scholars and monks Fa Hien, Yuan Chuang and I Tsing have all passed down in the annals of history. Later, Xuanzang’s Journey to the West – the account of the Chinese monk’s travels to India to collect sutras – became one of the great classics of Chinese literature.
India and China lived, as is commonly described, as “affectionate brothers” for close to 800 years, with mutual respect for each other’s cultures. Mentoring China was no easy task, yet Buddhism took root and is still the dominant religion in China today. Moreover, the intellectual gifts that India bestowed on China can also be counted. These can be categorized as follows:
India taught China the concept of embracing absolute freedom, the fundamental freedom of the mind, which enables the Chinese to shake off the shackles of tradition and habits, and ancient customs, and that spiritual freedom casts off the enslaving forces of material existence. It is through the emancipation of the self through which men attain great liberation, great ease and great fearlessness.
India taught China the idea of absolute love, pure love for all livings things. This eliminates all obsessions of jealousy, anger, impatience and disgust, which themselves express pity and sympathy for the foolish, the wicked and the sinful. The Ta Tsang Jen, a Buddhist classic, writes of “the equality of friend and enemy,” and “the oneness of all things.” It summarizes love as “cultivating sympathy and intellect, in order to attain absolute freedom through wisdom and absolute love through joy.”
India provided China with invaluable assistance in the fields of literature and art. Initially, Indian literature came to China via the sage Si Yu, then directly from the Indian sages who came directly to China seeking audiences with the Emperor. Chinese scholars returning home from India also brought with them a great number of valuable manuscripts, many are still to be found in temples and monasteries throughout China and Tibet today. One of the most important is the biography of Tuan Chuang.
The Indian influence on Chinese classical music came indirectly through Si Yu. Much is lost of ancient Chinese music, after the demise of China’s Southern and Northern Dynasties, much of it degenerated and was lost. The roots of Chinese classical music today come from Xinjiang and Gansu Province, however these were heavily influenced by India at the time (part of both were then Tibetan lands). Curiously much of this ancient music is now preserved within the Japanese royal household. The history of the Tang dynasty is littered with references to the role that Indian classical music had in shaping the nature and sounds of Chinese instruments and music today.
The Indian influence on China in architectural terms is well documented, with the now lost Cha Lam Temple in Louyang, in addition to the beauty and grandeur of the temples of Yung Pin (perpetual peace) and Tsze (material grace). The Chinese pagoda is also in fact Indian in origin. In Beijing, the city’s oldest standing architecture is the pagoda in front of the Temple of Heavenly Peace, built in the sixth century.
That Indian heavily influenced Chinese art is beyond doubt. Ancient Chinese artists such as Kuo Tan Wei and Kou Hu To both borrowed heavily from Indian influences and styles, and in particular in paintings related to the Buddha and Buddhism. One only has to visit temples and monasteries in China to see the influences continuing today. The art of the Kakemono (scroll paintings) originated in India. The inventory of the Chinese monk Yuen Tsang reveals a number of Kakemono bought back to China by him from India.
Chinese three dimensional sculptures did not exist in the country until the influence of Indian masons began to penetrate China. From the Book of Famous Monks we learn that the Indian monk Tai An Tao was also a sculptor, he and his brother worked upon a large image of the Buddha which was famous in its day. Unfortunately, much early influential pieces were destroyed both by several Chinese civil wars (and later the Cultural Revolution). However, the rock sculptures at Lo Yang and Lung Men still exist. Interestingly, much of the styles were said to have come from Afghanistan, the Gandhara style, which in itself was a meeting of Indian and Greek culture.
At this juncture I should point out that the above claims are not of my own initiative, but were researched and openly recognized by the great Chinese scholar Liang Qichao, in his opening remarks to welcome the Indian Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore to Beijing in 1924. Tagore had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for his collection of 103 poems, known as the Gitanjali, and was invited by Liang to provide a lecture to the Beijing Lecture Association.
Liang was born in Guangdong Province in 1873, and carved out a career as a journalist, scholar, philosopher and reformist during a period of great upheaval for China. He was also a monarchist, and yearned for the return of the Emperor system after the abdication of Pu Yi in 1912. Both this, and his urging for media freedom in China, made him an unpopular figure both with Dr. Sat Yun Sen and the emerging Communist Party. However, notable scholars of the day much admired him, including Lin Yutang, who called Liang “the greatest personality in the history of Chinese journalism,” and Joseph Levenson who described him as “a brilliant scholar, journalist, and political figure.”
What is striking compared to modern China is the openness, honesty and recognition that Chinese scholars of the time had in their feelings towards their nation’s relationship with India. Of the “gifts” that Liang writes India as having presented to China, some now have been superseded. India has long considered Freedom of paramount importance, and in quoting Liang’s statement of a “fundamental freedom of the mind” and acknowledging that “spiritual freedom casts off the enslaving forces of material existence” indicate just how much China has lost in the years since his speech. Latter day Indians regard Chinese as having given up their freedom, and are openly disdainful of the concept of the one party state, despite the political problems that has plagued India in the evolution of the democratic process over the past few decades.
The love, respect, and admiration that Liang had for Tagore, and for India, shines through in his comments as a beacon. It is too simple to compare those days of yesteryear with contemporary China, but should one wish to indulge the exercise, it is apparent something crucial has been lost. Tagore’s visit and lectures in China were highly controversial, and somewhat tempestuous. I shall discuss his lectures, and the reactions to them in China next week. But for now it is enough to absorb Liang’s introductory words and dwell on what once was, and the work that needs to be put in to recover such lost ground between the two nations.
Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the founding partner of Dezan Shira & Associates and lived in China for 21 years. He is now based in Mumbai.
His PowerPoint presentation on the ancient China-India trade routes can be downloaded here.