Skip navigation and go to main content

The Meeting of Civilizations: Indian Influences in China

It was appalling to read the article A Chinese woman's hidden attitudes towards Indians. What did Indians ever do to deserve such scorn from that Chinese woman? Did Indians ever invade China's capital, rape its people, burn its grand palaces and loot its treasures? No, Europeans did. And yet many Chinese go out of their way to favor Europeans while treating Indians with disrespect.

So many East Asians today deny the contributions to their own lives made by darker-skinned peoples from ancient civilizations, and instead give specially favorable treatment to Europeans, the latecomers as far as cultural exports to East Asia is concerned.

These attitudes may not be unique to East Asia. A Thai man gave accounts of similar attitudes in his country. Despite the fact that Indian mythology, writing, architecture and science have been imported into Thai culture since antiquity, today's Thais despise dark-skinned Indians, whom they see as cunning merchants. Many Thais worship the white standard of beauty they see in the U.S.-dominated media. There is a Thai saying: "Between a snake and an Indian, strike the Indian first." Ironically, this Thai disdain for Indians co-exists with the big and beautiful wall mural dedicated to the Indian epic Ramayana in the Thai royal palace and the numerous glittering and grand figures from Hindu mythology that guard the palace compound.

In this article, we pay tribute to Indian contributions to Chinese civilization in the hope that people who have despised their darker-skinned neighbors can learn to see them as fellow humans who deserve equal consideration and respect.

1. Buddhism

Buddhism first came to China from India via Central Asia in the 1st century A.D. As interest in Buddhism grew, there was a great demand for Buddhist texts to be translated from Indian languages into Chinese. This led to the arrival of translators from Central Asia and India. 1

Hundreds of Indian religious teachers went to China between the first to the twelfth century.2 They left China some 3,000 scriptures translated from Sanskrit into Chinese.2 One well-known Buddhist missionary is Gunavarman, a prince of Kashmir who reached Nanjing in AD 431; another famous 5th century Indian expatriate is Buddhabhadra, who lived the remainder of his life in China.2

More than two centuries later, South India sent esteemed teacher Bodhiruci to China. A Chinese envoy came to the Chalukya court in AD 692 to invite Bodhiruci to China. The monk reached China in AD 693 by sea and translated Sanskrit works. 2

Another famous Indian monk who taught in China was Prajna, who became one of two Buddhist masters at Ximing Temple in the late 8th century/early 9th century Chinese capital. (present-day Xi'an) The other Buddhist master at Ximing during Prajna's time was the Chinese Huiguo (Hui-kuo). Huiguo himself was the disciple of an Indian master Amogavajra.3

One of the last outstanding Indian teachers in China was Dharmadeva of Nalanda. He was received by the Chinese Emperor in AD 973.2

1.1.The Scriptures

According to historical records, from the end of Han Dynasty until the end of Song Dynasty, i.e. in the space of 1,000 years from the 2nd to the 12th century A.D, there had been more than 150 scholars who were frontline participants in the gigantic undertaking of translating the Tripitakas into Chinese. History books detail the contributions of 70 monk-scholars from India.4

Among these were Subhakarasimha, an Indian master of esoteric Buddhism who worked in China during the Tang Dynasty. He arrived in the Chinese capital in 716, when he was already 79. Subhakarasimha translated the Mahavairocana Sutra and other scriptures, gaining the favor of Emperor Xuanzong. Chinese Chan master Yi Xing became a student of Subhakarasimha. 5.

Four years after Subhakarasimha's arrival, another Indian monk Vajrabodhi and his student Amoghavajra also came to China, where they made selective translations of the Sarvatathagatatattvasamgraha. These three Indian masters are considered the founders of the Zhenyan Sect (a Chinese form of Vajray─üna Buddhism, which would be known in Japan as Shingon) The Indian religion grew in prestige over the next few decades, eventually diplacing the indigenous Taoism as the religion of the Chinese elite during Amoghavajra's lifetime. Amoghavajra's Chinese disciples Hanguang and Huiguo carried on his legacy.5.

1.2. The Mythology of Chinese Chan Buddhism and Da Mo (Bodhidharma)

Bodhidharma (Damo to the Chinese; Daruma to the Japanese), the 28th patriarch of Indian Buddhism, is traditionally considered the first patriarch of the Chinese Chan Buddhist lineage.6 He was a son of the king of Kanchi in southern India.2 After his father's death, Bodhidharma went to Prajnatara, the 27th Indian patriarch in succession from Buddha, and asked to be ordained as a monk.7

Following Prajnatara's suggestion, Bodhidharma went to China and eventually arrived at the Shaolin monastery in about 526.7 His first Chinese disciple Huike became the second patriarch of the Chinese Chan Buddhist lineage. In Zen mythology, Bodhidharma sat meditating facing a cave wall near the temple for nine years, ignoring the many monks who came to seek his teaching. According to legend, Bodhidharma finally took his first disciple when Huike cut off his own arm, showing Bodhidharma he understood the impermanence of the material world. Since then, the monks of Shaolin have always saluted the Buddha with only one arm.

The historical origins of Chan are obscured by mythology, and some scholars have argued that Bodhidharma might not be an actual person but an amalgation of several historical figures.8 Chan Buddhism itself developed from the meeting of Mahayana Buddhism and China's indigenous Taoism, and is arguably not the 'invention' of Bodhidharma, if he indeed existed, or any one individual for that matter.9 But the legends of Bodhidharma's long-lasting influence in China, even if not proven to be historically factual, speak to old China's positive perceptions of India's cultural contributions to the Chinese religious and cultural landscape.

1.3. The Legendary Origins of the Martial Arts of Shaolin

Although martial arts existed in China prior to the arrival of Bodhidharma, and monks at Shaolin were documented as practising martial arts before the time of Bodhidharma, the traditional attribution of Shaolin's martial arts to Bodhidharma has persisted as a popular legend.10

After Bodhidharma (Da Mo) came to the Shaolin monastery at the foot of the Songshan Mountains in north-central China, he taught the monks special breathing techniques and exercises to develop both their inner strength and their ability to defend themselves in the remote and often dangerous mountainous area in which they lived. The exercises were supposed to help the monks withstand the long periods of meditation he introduced from his Chan (Zen) school of Buddhism. Based on these exercises introduced by Bodhidharma, the Shaolin monks gradually developed a sophisticated fighting system known as Shaolin Martial Arts.11 One of the Shaolin sword forms is Shaolin Damo Jian (Shaolin Bodhidharma Sword), attributed to Damo Zushi (the patriarch Bodhidarma)12.

The legend of Bodhidharma as the originator of Shaolin kungfu been discounted by several 20th century martial arts historians13. However, the Bodhidharma-Shaolin legend, regardless of its veracity, attests to the place of India and Indians in China's mythology.

2. Chinese Mythical Figures of Indian Origin

Two of the most beloved personalities of Chinese mythology were derived from Indian mythical figures.

2.1.Sun Wukong

The character of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King made famous in the Chinese classic Journey to the West, bears similarities to Hanuman or Anjaneya, the Monkey God of the Hindu epic Ramayana.14

The 2 characters share many traits such as the skill of becoming gigantic or very tiny, the ability to assume any form, and a magical staff that the monkey can shrink to the size of a toothpick and hide in his ear.

2.2 Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara)

Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is known as Guanyin Pusa to the Chinese, Kannon Bosatsu to the Japanese, and Chenrezig to the Tibetans. In India, Japan and Tibet, he is a male figure, but the Chinese often visualize the deity in female form.15

3. Flow of Material Culture and Ideas

3.1 Cotton Cultivation

Early Chinese records mention that cotton had been brought in from India. Various dates have been given for the beginning of cotton cultivation in China, but it is generally agreed that the cultivation of cotton was introduced from India.16

3.2. Chinese Words of Indian Origin

Due to the translation of Buddhist scriptures, large numbers of Sanskrit loanwords found their way into the Chinese language during ancient times.17 Common words include:

moli - jasmine, from Sanskirt mallika

chan - meditation, from Sanskrit dhyana


  1. Buddhism in East Asia (on
  3. Wikipedia entry on Huiguo
  4. Huang Xinchuan, "A Cultural Envoy between China and India", IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF XUANZANG: TAN YUN-SHAN AND INDIA, ed. Tan Chung
  5. Subhakarasimha
    Encyclopedia of Religion entry on Zhenyan
  6. Wikipedia entry on Zen
  7. The Teaching of Bodhidharma
  8. Wikipedia entry on Zen
  9. Wikipedia entry on Zen
  10. Wikipedia entry on Shaolin Martial Arts
  13. Wikipedia entry on Shaolin Martial Arts
  16. Sidney Shapiro, Jews in Old China, p81
  17. Chinese loan words on Wikipedia