The cultural relations between India and China can be traced back to very early times. There are numerous references to China in Sanskrit texts, but their chronology is sketchy. The Mahabharata refers to China several times, including a reference to presents brought by the Chinese at the Rajasuya Yajna of the Pandavas; also, the Arthasastra and the Manusmriti mention China. According to French art historian, Réné Grousset, the name China comes from “an ancient” Sanskrit name for the regions to the east, and not, as often supposed, from the name of the state of Ch’in, the first dynasty established by Shih Huang Ti in 221 BC. The Sanskrit name Cina for China could have been derived from the small state of that name in Chan-si in the northwest of China, which flourished in the fourth century BC. Scholars have pointed out that the Chinese word for lion, shih, used long before the Chin dynasty, was derived from the Sanskrit word, simha, and that the Greek word for China, Tzinista, used by some later writers, appears to be derivative of the Sanskrit Chinasthana. According to Terence Duke, martial arts went from India to China. Fighting without weapons was a specialty of the ancient kshatriya warriors of India. Both Arnold Toynbee and Sir L. Wooley speak of a ready made culture coming to China. That was the Vedic culture of India.
Until recently, India and China had coexisted peacefully for over two thousand years. This amicable relationship may have been nurtured by the close historical and religious ties of Buddhism, introduced to China by Indian monks at a very early stage of their respective histories, although there are fragmentary records of contacts anterior to the introduction of Buddhism.
Gerolamo Emilio Gerini (1860 -1913) has said: «During the three or four centuries, preceding the Christian era, we find Hindu dynasties established by adventurers, claiming descent from the kshatriya potentates of northern India, ruling in upper Burma, in Siam and Laos, in Yunnan and Tonkin, and even in most parts of south-eastern China». The Chinese literature of the third century is full of geographic and mythological elements derived from India. «I see no reason to doubt, — comments Arthur Waley in his book, The Way and its Power, — that the ‘holy mountain-men’ (sheng-hsien) described by Lieh Tzu are Indian rishi; and when we read in Chuang Tzu of certain Taoists who practiced movements very similar to the asanas of Hindu yoga, it is at least a possibility that some knowledge of the yoga technique which these rishi used had also drifted into China».
Chinese early religion was based on nature and had many things in common with Vedic Hinduism, with a pantheon of deities.
«Never before had China seen a religion so rich in imagery, so beautiful and captivating in ritualism and so bold in cosmological and metaphysical speculations. Like a poor beggar suddenly halting before a magnificent storehouse of precious stones of dazzling brilliancy and splendorr, China was overwhelmed, baffled and overjoyed. She begged and borrowed freely from this munificent giver. The first borrowings were chiefly from the religious life of India, in which China’s indebtedness to India can never be fully told». (D. P. Singhal, India and World Civilization).
Arnold Hermann Ludwig Heeren (1760-1842) an Egyptologist and author of Historical researches into the politics, intercourse, and trade of the Carthaginians, Ethiopians, and Egyptians observes that «the name China is of Hindu origin and came to us from India».
«M. de Guigues says that Magadha was known to the Chinese by the name Mo-kiato, and its capital was recognized by both its Hindu name Kusumpura, for which the Chinese wrote Kia-so-mo-pon-lo and Pataliputra, out of which they made Patoli-tse by translating putra, which means son in Sanskrit, into their own corresponding word, tse. Such translation of names has thrown a veil of obscurity over many a name of Hindu origin. Hindu geography has suffered a great loss». (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Volume V).
Lin Yutang (1895-1976) author of The Wisdom of China and India wrote: «The contact with poets, forest saints and the best wits of the land, the glimpse into the first awakening of Ancient India’s mind as it searched, at times childishly and naively, at times with a deep intuition, but at all times earnestly and passionately, for the spiritual truths and the meaning of existence — this experience must be highly stimulating to anyone, particularly because the Hindu culture is so different and therefore so much to offer». Not until we see the richness of the Hindu mind and its essential spirituality can we understand India». «India was China’s teacher in religion and imaginative literature, and the world’s teacher in trigonometry, quadrantic equations, grammar, phonetics, Arabian Nights, animal fables, chess, as well as in philosophy, and that she inspired Boccaccio, Goethe, Herder, Schopenhauer, Emerson, and probably also old Aesop».
Sir William Jones (1746-1794) came to India as a judge of the Supreme Court at Calcutta. He pioneered Sanskrit studies. His admiration for Indian thought and culture was almost limitless. He says that the Chinese assert their Hindu origin.
Amaury de Reincourt (1918 - ) was born in Orleans, France. He received his B.A. from the Sorbonne and his M.A. from the University of Algiers. He is author of several books including The American empire and The Soul of India, he wrote: «The Chinese travellers’ description of life in India… reveals great admiration from all concerned for the remarkable civilization displayed under their eyes».
«India sent missionaries, China sending back pilgrims. It is a striking fact that in all relations between the two civilizations, the Chinese were always the recipient and the Indian the donor». «Indian influence prevailed over the Chinese, and for evident reasons: an undoubted cultural superiority owing to much greater philosophic and religious insight, and also to a far more flexible script» (Amaury de Riencourt, The Soul of India).
It is well known that in the Mahabharata the Cinas appear with the Kiratas among the armies of king Bhagadatta of Pragjyotisa or Assam. In the Sabhaparvan this king is described as surrounded by the Kiratas and the Cinas. In the Bhismaparvan, the corps of Bhagadatta, consisting of the Kirtas and the Cinas of yellow colour, appeared like a forest of Karnikaras. It is significant that the Kiratas represented all the people living to the east of India in the estimation of the geographers of the Puranas. Even the dwellers of the islands of the Eastern Archipelago were treated as Kiratas in the Epics. The reference to their wealth of gold, silver, gems, sandal, aloe-wood, textiles and fabrics clearly demonstrates their association with the regions included in Suvarnadvipa. Thus, the connection of the Kiratas and Cinas is a sure indication of the fact that the Indians came to know of the Chinese through the eastern routes and considered them as an eastern people, having affinities to the Kiras, who were the Indo-Mongoloids, inhabiting the Tibeto-Burman regions and the Himalayan and East Indian territories, the word Kirata being a derivation from kiranti or kirati, the name of a group of people in eastern Nepal.
In early Indian literature China is invariably shown to be connected with India by a land-route across the country of the Kiratas in the mountainous regions of the north. In the Vanaparvan of the Mahabharata the Pandava brothers are said to have crossed the country of the Cinas in course of their trek through the Himalayan territory north of Badri and reached the realm of the Kirata king Subahu. The Cinas are brought into intimate relationship with the Himalayan people (Haimavatas) in the Sabhaparvan also. The land of the Haimavatas is undoubtedly the Himavantappadesa of the Pali texts, which has been identified with Tibet or Nepal. In the Sasanavamsa this region is stated to be Cinarattha. Thus, it is clear that China was known to the Indians as lying across the Himalayas and was accordingly included in the Himalayan territories. In the Nagarjunikonda inscription of Virapurusdatta, China (Cina) is said to be lying in the Himalayas beyond Cilata or Kirata. These references to the proximity of China to the Himalayan regions, inhabited by the Kiratas, show that there were regular routes through the Tibeto-Burman territories, along which the Indians could reach China.
Some such land-route is implied in the remark of the Harsacarita of Banabhatta that Arjuna conquered the Hemakuta region after passing through Cina. Of course, the route across Central Asia is perhaps alluded to in the itinerary of Carudatta from the Indus Delta to China across the country of the Hunas and the Khasas, described in the Vasudevakindi, and there is probably a reference to the sea-route, passing through Vanga, Takkola and Suvarnadvipa, in the Milindapanho. But there is no doubt that in a large number of ancient Indian texts China is mentioned near the eastern Himalayan regions, through which regular routes, connecting this country with India, passed from fairly early times. It was along these routes that India came into contact with China for the first time and developed commercial relations with her, that are referred to by Chan K’ien in the second century BC.
In Yunnan there is a large number of old pagodas. Some of them are the oldest and most beautiful in China. Their cornices and corner decoration, showing rows of pitchers (mangala ghata), betray unmistakable Indian influence. Many bricks of these pagodas bear Sanskrit inscriptions, containing Buddhist mantras and formulae in a script, which is identical with that current in Nalanda and Kamarupa in the 9th century. The beautiful bronze statue of Avalokitesvara from the pagoda of Ch’ung Sheng Ssu near Ta-li is an index to the high standard of culture and craftsmanship attained by the Buddhists of Yunan.
In earlier times, the people of the east, Magadha and Videha, were in contact with Yunan, as the traditions of Purvavideha show. The two names, Purvavideha and Gandhara, seem to represent these two successive eastern and western streams of Indian colonial and cultural expansion in this region.
Henry Rudolph Davies says that Besides Buddhism, Shaivism was also popular in Yunan as is manifest from the prevalence of the cult of Mahakala there. This ancient Indian colony in the south of China was the cradle of Sino-Indian cultural relationship for a long time.
It was an important outpost of Indian cultural expansion along the eastern land-routes, which Colonel Gerolamo Emilio Gerini (1860 -1913) author of Researches on Ptolemy’s geography of eastern Asia (further India and Indo-Malay archipelago) has described as follows: «During the three or four centuries, preceding the Christian era, we find Indu (Hindu) dynasties established by adventurers, claiming descent from the kshatriya potentates of northern India, ruling in upper Burma, in Siam and Laos, in Yunnan and Tonkin, and even in most parts of south-eastern China. From the Brahmaputra and Manipur to the Tonkin Gulf we can trace a continuous string of petty states, ruled by those scion of the kshatriya race, using the Sanskrit or Pali language in official documents or inscriptions; building temples and other monuments after the Indu (Hindu) style and employing Brahmana priests for the propitiatory ceremonies, connected with the court and state. Among such Indu (Hindu) monarchies (Theinni) in Burma, of Muang Hang, C’hieng Rung, Muang Khwan and Dasarna (Luang P’hrah Bang) in the Lau country; and of Agranagara (Hanoi) and Campa in Tonkin and Annan». «The names of peoples and cities, recorded by Ptolemy in that region, however few and imperfectly preserved, are sufficiently significant to prove the presence of the Indu (Hindu) ruling and civilizing element in these countries, undoubtedly not so barbarous as the Chinese would make them appear». «It is evident through the medium of those barbarians that China received part of her civilization through India».
Among these colonies Tagong and upper Pugan were called Mayura; Prome was Sriksetra; Sen-wi (Theinni) was Sivirastra; Muang Hang, Chieng Rung and Muang Khwan were the three divisions of Ching Rung kingdom, which the prince of Yong, named Sunandakumara, united under Mahiyagananagara; Luang P’hrah Bang was Dasarna; Hanoi was Agranagara; Tagaung was Brahmadesa (P’o-o-men), where a Sanskrit inscription, dated in Gupta era 108 – 426 A.D. refers to Hastinapura, situated in that country; and, of course, Yunana was Purvavideha or Gandhara. Thus, from Arakan, where the Mrohaung inscriptions attest the efflorescence of Indian culture, language and literature, to Yunnan, whose history we have traced above, Indian culture made a triumphant advance in ancient time.
China, like Southeast Asia too, was colonized to some extent by the ancient Hindus. The religion and culture of China are undoubtedly of Hindu origin. According to the Hindu theory of emigration, Kshatriyas from India went and established colonies in China. India was known as T'ien-chu to the Chinese.
Colonel James Tod (1782-1835) author of Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan: or the Central and Western Rajput States of India has written: «The genealogies of China and Tartary declare themselves to be the descendents of ‘Awar’, son of the Hindu King ‘Pururawa’.
According to the traditions noted in the Schuking, the ancestors of the Chinese, conducted by Fohe, come to the plains of China 2,900 years before Christ, from the high mountains Land which lies to the west of that country. This shows that the settlers into China were originally inhabitants of Kashmir, Ladakh, Little Tibet and the Punjab, which were parts of Ancient India».
Kakuzo Okakura, speaking of the missionary activity of Indian Buddhists in China, says that at one time in the single province of Lo-yang there were more than 3,000 Indian monks and 10,000 Indian families to impress their national religion and art on Chinese soil.
Hu Shih, (1891-1962), Chinese philosopher in Republican China. He was ambassador to the U.S. (1938-42) and chancellor of Peking University (1946-48). He said: «India conquered and dominated China culturally for two thousand years without ever having to send a single soldier across her border».
Court Bjornstjerna (1779-1847) author of The Theogony of the Hindoos with their systems of Philosophy and Cosmogony says: «what may be said with certainty is that the religion of China came from India».
Chinese authors, too, according to Mountstuart Elphinstone (1779-1859) noted Indian ambassadors to the court of China.
How China was part of the Indian Vedic empire is explained by Professor G. Phillips on page 585 in the 1965 edition of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. He remarks, «The maritime intercourse of India and China dates from a much earlier period, from about 680 B.C. when the sea traders of the Indian Ocean whose chiefs were Hindus founded a colony called Lang-ga, after the Indian named Lanka of Ceylon, about the present gulf of Kias-Tehoa, where they arrived in vessels having prows shaped like the heads of birds or animals after the pattern specified in the Yukti Kalpataru (an ancient Sanskrit technological text) and exemplified in the ships and boats of old Indian arts».
Chinese historian Dr. Li-Chi also discovered an astonishing resemblance between the Chinese clay pottery and the pottery discovered at Mohenja daro on the Indian continent. Yuag Xianji, member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, speaking at the C. P. Ramaswamy Aiyar Foundation, Madras, March 27, 1984 said, «Recent discoveries of ruins of Hindu temples in Southeast China provided further evidence of Hinduism in China. Both Buddhism and Hinduism were patronized by the rulers. In the 6th century A.D. the royal family was Hindu for two generations. The following Tang dynasty (7th to the 9th century A.D.) also patronized both Hinduism and Buddhism because the latter was but a branch of Hinduism. Religious wars were unknown in ancient China. There was extensive maritime trade and religious exchanges between India and China at this period (Ad 1-600) and the massive expansion of Indian influence into southern China through Jih-nan and Chiao-chih, in what is now northern Vietnam.
Albert Etienne Terrien de Lacouperie, author of Western Origins of Chinese Civilization states that the maritime intercourse of India with China dates from about 680 B.C. when the sea traders of the Indian ocean whose “Chiefs were Hindus” founded a colony, called Lang-ga, after the Indian name Lanka, about the present gulf of Kiaotchoa… And throughout this period the monopoly of the sea borne trade of China was in their hands».
India had contact with China from the early period through three routes. One was through the Central Asian region, the second was through Yunan and Burma. The third was by sea to the South Indian ports. The Arthasastra, the Mahabharata, and the Manu-Smriti show knowledge of China. Through all these routes trade and Hindu culture passed to China. Indian arts and sciences were carried to China along with Buddhism. Images, rock-cut caves and the fresco paintings show distinctly Indian influence on the Chinese art. Indian astronomy, mathematics and medicine were spread in China by the scholars who visited it. Several Sanskrit works on these sciences were translated into Chinese.
Chushu-King, a Chinese monk started for India in 260 A.D. But he returned from Khotan. Fa-hien, the first Chinese pilgrim to India stayed here during the Gupta period for some years. Che-mong another monk accompanied by a few others spent 20 years (404-424) in the pilgrimage of India. Hieun Tsang and I-Tsing during the 7th century are well-known. On his return to China, Hiuen Tsang was given a great national welcome by his emperor and the people as well.
The famous Shao-lin style of boxing is also attributed to Indian influence. Bodhidharma, (8th century AD) who believed in a sound mind in a sound body, taught the monks in the Shao-lin temple this style of boxing for self-defence for rejuvenating the body after exacting meditation and mental concentration.
According to the History channel martial arts were introduced in China by an Indian named Bodhidharma, who taught it to the monks so that they could defend their monasteries. He was also said to have introduced the concept of vital energy or chi (prana corresponds to this). This concept is the basis acupuncture.
The University of Nalanda built in the 4th century BCE was one of the greatest achievements of ancient India in the field of education. The Chinese scholar and traveller Hiuen Tsang (600-654 AD) stayed at the Nalanda University in the 7th century, and has left an elaborate description of the excellence, and purity of monastic life practiced here. He found Indians “high-minded, upright and honourable”.
China received Mahayanic Buddhism and Sanskrit texts from the Central-Asian provinces of India in 67 A.D. After that China became Hinduized not only in theology and metaphysics, but in every department of thought and activity. Thousands of Hindus lived in Chinese cities, eg. at Changan in the N.W. and at Canton on the sea, as priests, teachers, merchants, physicians, sculptors and "interpreters." The name of Chinese tourists, students, philosophers, and translators, also, in India is legion. The Chinese founded their drama on Hindu precedents, imported musical instruments (stringed) from India, and introduced even some of the acrobatic feats, dances and sports prevalent among the Hindus.
During his Indian tour the great Itsing (634-712) mastered Hindu medicine at the University of Nalanda. Hindu mathematics and logic were cultivated among the intellectuals of China; Sanskrit treatises on painting and art criticism, eg. Sadamga (six limbs of painting) in Vatsayana's Kamasutra (erotics), Chitralaksana (marks of painting), etc. furnished the canons of the Chinese art during its greatest epoch (Tang and Sung Dynasties 600-1250); and the traditional Confucianism had to be reinterpreted, eg. by Chu-Hsi (1130-1200) in the light of the imported Hindu philosophy. China became a part of “Greater India” in poetry, aesthetics, folk-festivals, morals, manners, and sentiments. The “Augustan Age” of Chinese culture, the age of the mighty Tangs and brillant Sungs, was the direct outcome of the ‘holy alliance’ for centuries between India and China.
In conclusion, it can be said that China was more influenced by India than India by China. Whilst Chinese monks came to acquire knowledge and take it back, the Indian monks went to China on specific religious missions to impart knowledge. There is hardly any evidence that the Chinese monks brought with them any work which was translated into an Indian language. It seems that during this period of Sino-Indian contact, the psychological atmosphere was one in which India was naturally accepted as the giver and China as the taker. Whilst the best in Indian thought was carefully studied and carried back to China, Chinese ideas filtered through India whether they represented the best of their culture or not.
According to Jawaharlal Nehru in his book The Discovery of India
«The most famous of the Chinese travellers to India was Hsuang Tsang who came in the seventh century when the great T'sang dynasty flourished in China and King Harshavardhana ruled over in North India. Hsuang-Tsang took a degree of Master of the Law at Nalanda University and finally became vice-principal of the university».
His book the Si-Yu-Ki or the Record of the Western Kingdom (meaning India), makes fascinating reading. He tells us of the system of the university where the five branches of knowledge were taught. 1. Grammar 2. Science of Arts and Crafts 3. Medicine 4. Logic and 5. Philosophy. Hsuan-Tsang was particularly struck by the love of learning of the Indian people. Many Indian classics have been preserved in Chinese translation relating not only to Buddhism but also to Hinduism, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, etc. There are supposed to be 8,00 such works in the Sung-pao collection in China. Tibet is also full of them. There used to be frequent co-operation between Indian, Chinese and Tibetan scholars. A notable instance of this co-operation, still extant, is a Sanskrit-Tibetan-Chinese dictionary of Buddhist technical terms. This dates from the ninth century and is named the ‘Mahavyutpatti.’
Soon after Hsuan-Tsang's death in China, yet another famous pilgrim made the journey to India — I-tsing (or Yi-tsing). He also studied at Nalanda University for a long time and carried back several hundred Sanskrit texts. He refers to India as the West (Si-fang), but he tells us that it was known as Aryadesha — arya means noble, and desha region — the noble region. It is so called because men of noble character appear there successively, and people all praise the land by that name. It is also called the Madhyadesha - the middle land, for it is in the center of a hundred myriads of countries.
Yet Chinese culture had some influence on India. The gabled roofs of houses on the western coast of India show a Chinese influence, as do the temples and houses in the Himalayan regions. Some Chinese influence is noted on Gupta coins. The use of a certain kind of silk (china-msuka) in India, different kinds of fruits including pears (cinaraja-putra), peaches (cinani), and lichis, the technique of fishing in the backwaters, and the porcelain industry all owe something to Chinese influence. Indians also learned the art of papermaking from China.