India in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion, and Thought

India in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion, and Thought

India in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion, and Thought

India in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion, and Thought


India and China dominate the Asian continent but are separated by formidable geographic barriers and language differences. For many centuries, most of the information that passed between the two lands came through Silk Route intermediaries in lieu of first-person encounters--leaving considerable room for invention. From their introduction to Indian culture in the first centuries C.E., Chinese thinkers, writers, artists, and architects imitated India within their own borders, giving Indian images and ideas new forms and adapting them to their own culture. Yet India's impact on China has not been greatly researched or well understood.

India in the Chinese Imagination takes a new look at the ways the Chinese embedded India in diverse artifacts of Chinese religious, cultural, artistic, and material life in the premodern era. Leading Asian studies scholars explore the place of Indian myths and storytelling in Chinese literature, how Chinese authors integrated Indian history into their conception of the political and religious past, and the philosophical relationships between Indian Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, and Daoism. This multifaceted volume, illustrated with over a dozen works of art, reveals the depth and subtlety of the encounter between India and China, shedding light on what it means to imagine another culture--and why it matters.

Contributors: Stephen R. Bokenkamp, Bernard Faure, John Kieschnick, Victor H. Mair, John R. McRae, Christine Mollier, Meir Shahar, Robert H. Sharf, Nobuyoshi Yamabe, Ye Derong, Shi Zhiru.


Liu Songnian’s (ca. 1155–1218) Arhat is considered a masterpiece of Chinese portraiture (Figure 1). the renowned court painter depicted in it an Indian Buddhist saint (arhat) as he had imagined him to appear. Liu likely never met an Indian in person. in order to render one he merely exaggerated the facial features the Chinese had long associated with foreigners from the west: prominent nose, bushy eyebrows, bulging eyes, and a bearded chin. He even furnished his fanciful Indian subject with pirate- like earrings. the whimsical effect notwithstanding, Liu’s arhat is deeply moving. Gazelles grazing at his feet and gibbons frolicking overhead, the Indian saint is in complete harmony with the surrounding nature. His concentrated gaze is directed far into space— or into the recess of his own soul. Having shed all worldly concerns, he has achieved transcendence.

Liu’s Arhat might furnish a convenient introduction to the twin aspects of this book: the Indian impact on the Chinese creative imagination and the Chinese imaginings of India. Beginning in the first century ce, the Buddhist faith brought to China Indian saints and gods, demons and ghouls that were to change forever the Chinese mental landscape. the Buddhist arhats (Chinese: luohan), for example, became a favorite topic of Chinese fiction and visual arts, celebrated in statues, paintings, and novels down to modern times. At the same time, the Buddhist influx of Indian philosophy and mythology, art and material culture led inquisitive Chinese minds to ponder their source. For almost two millennia, Chinese thinkers and novelists, artists and architects have been recreating India within their own borders. Paintings such as Liu Songnian’s reveal to us India and its inhabitants as fancied by the Chinese: India in the Chinese imagination.

India’s impact on Chinese civilization has been the subject of intensive research. Generations of scholars have revealed to us the indebtedness of Chinese culture to Indian precedents. Beginning in the first centuries ce, India contributed— largely through the vehicle of Buddhism— to all aspects of Chinese religious, cultural, artistic, and material life. Chinese notions of transcendence had been radically transformed by the Buddhist notion of liberation, just as the Chinese heavens and hells had been populated by gods and demons of Indian . . .

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