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

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

Thomas Jansen13 Jan 2015Leave a comment


Written by Malcolm McNeill.

JOHN KIESCHNICK and MEIR SHAHAR, eds., India in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion, and Thought. Encounters with Asia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. viii, 352 pages. $65.00/£42.50. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4560-8.

This volume offers a range of insightful approaches to China’s reception of Indian culture, collectively characterizing this process as one of appropriation and adaptation. The essays are separated into three sections: Indian Mythology and the Chinese Imagination maps narrative formats and divine protagonists from beyond the traditional Buddhist pantheon, who permeated China’s popular imagination and canonical apocrypha; the critical reexaminations of the histories of institutions and lineages in India in Chinese Imagining of the Past attest the merits of rigorous historiography in the analysis of problematic hagiographic texts and archaeological data; finally, the section Chinese Rethinking of Indian Buddhism includes three contributions that in turn address the metaphysical, ethical, and lexical aspects of this trans-cultural encounter. The volume offers a forceful corrective to the reductive paradigms of conquest and transformation, which characterized the scholarship of the previous generation. (1) Instead we are confronted with complex and at times conflicted reactions to the tangible and imagined aspects of Indian culture from various strata of Chinese society.

Indian Mythology and the Chinese Imagination

Victor H. Mair’s “Transformation as Imagination in Medieval Popular Buddhist Literature” illustrates the role of the Transformation Texts genre, bianwen 變文, in the Chinese literary imagination. Mair explores the impact of Buddhist ontology in expanding the creative possibilities of Six Dynasties and Tang literature. Notions of emptiness, śūnyatā (kong 空), and the illusory, māyā (moye 摩耶), are argued to have expanded the notion of reality beyond the empirical. Similarly, transformations as manifestation of the Buddha’s divine capabilities facilitated the explicit inclusion of creative constructions in literary output. Writing was thus liberated from a prior universal requirement for evidential justification, paving the way for later developments in Chinese fiction.

In “Indian Mythology and the Chinese Imagination: Nezha, Nalakuūbara, and Kṛṣṇa,” Meir Shahar, one of the editors of the volume, maps how Chinese narratives have appropriated and amalgamated the distinct deities of Nalakuūbara, and Kṛṣṇa into the person of the Nezha. Shahar draws on a diverse range of sources: eighth century Tantric ritual texts, Song Buddhist and Hindu light relief sculpture, Yuan popular drama, and late Ming fiction. The conflation of Nalakuūbara, and Kṛṣṇa into the character of Nezha is not a question of accuracy or inaccuracy of transmission. Instead, this case study illustrates how Tantric Buddhism populated the Chinese pantheon with new models of efficacious divinity.

Bernard Faure’s essay “Indic Influences on Chinese Mythology: King Yama and his Acolytes as Gods of Destiny” explores the development of King Yama from an Indic god of destiny into an arbiter of posthumous judgement and an enforcer of mortality. Comparing Japanese and Chinese textual and iconographic records dating up to the tenth century, Faure reconstructs dual notions of Yama as god of destiny with agency over the living, and as arbiter of posthumous justice. Japanese Tantrism preserves Yama’s more demonic aspects, and a capacity to bestow longevity on the practitioner through their ritual supplication. While in Chinese transmission, Yama comes to sit at the apex of the Ten Kings of Hell, arbitrating over the deceased rather than bestowing favour upon the living. Thus, through the comparative analysis of distinct bodies of material from divergent East Asian traditions, Faure presents a useful paradigm for the exploration of divergence in Buddhist ritual practices and their attendant belief structures.

In the final essay in this section “Indian Myth Transformed in a Chinese Apocryphal Text: Two Stories on the Buddha’s Hidden Organ,” Nobuyoshi Yamabe carefully dissects two narratives from the Sūtra on the Ocean Like Samādhi of the Visualisation of the Buddha (Guanfo Sanmei Haijing 觀佛三昧海經). Yamabe’s analysis focuses on the phallic imagery in these stories as evidence of the probable origins of this apocryphal sūtra. Through comparative analysis within a nexus of other texts, and references to the broader visual culture of central Asia through extant sculpture, he argues such imagery indicates the text was an amalgamation of Hindu and Buddhist narratives. He surmises that this process occurred in a Central Asian context as the sexual mores of China proper would have prohibited such composition. However, the complex gender relations alluded to in the narratives are not addressed. Indian women are presented to the Chinese readers of this apocrypha as personifications of insatiable lust. In the second narrative their desires are only subdued when they are forced to endure continual intercourse with an astral projection of the Buddha, who demands ceaseless coitus beyond the capacities of even their exoticized appetites. Though this need not be the sole focus of research on this material, Yamabe’s essay would have benefitted from at least acknowledging the presence of sexual violence as a mechanism for conversion in this narrative. Undoubtedly, Yamabe’s essay indicates that the creation and reception of such narratives merit further scrutiny.

India in Chinese Imaginings of the Past

Shi Zhiru’s “From Bodily Relic to Dharma Relic Stūpa: Chinese Materialization of the Aśoka Legend in the Wuyue Period” explores two examples of Wuyue 吳越 kings’ appropriation and adaptation of Aśoka’s patronage of stūpas. First, the relocation of an artifact believed to be an original Aśoka stūpa from Minzhou 閩州 to the Wuyue capital at Hangzhou 杭州 in 916 by King Qian Liu 錢鏐 (852-932, r. 907-932) is shown to have underscored a transfer of temporal authority. Second, Shi analyses the construction and dissemination of 84,000 stūpas by King Qian Chu 錢俶 (929-988, r. 947-978) in the mid-tenth century. This projected a legitimizing narrative of Buddhist kingship by explicitly emulating Aśoka. These processes are convincingly argued to have offered Wuyue religio-political authority independent of the changing imperial centers in the north. One of Shi’s most significant observations is the identification of the recurrent dissemination stūpas containing text as a simulacrum of the Buddha’s own relics. This appears to have been part of the material culture of kingship across East Asia, attested through comparison of Wuyue with the practices of Japanese Empress Kōken 孝謙天皇 (718-770) in the eight century.

“‘Ancestral Transmission’ in Chinese Budhist Monasteries: The Example of the Shaolin Temple” by Ye Derong explores the adaptation of the Chinese kinship structure to the formal construction of lineage in monastic environments. Ye is conspicuously the only author to endorse the earlier paradigm of a Chinese transformation of Buddhism, rather than the more post-modern approaches of other scholars who focus on narratives of appropriation and adaptation (p. 110). While the focus on the single site of Shaolin as a case offers rich and interesting data on the historic populations and the physical and institutional structure of the site, the wealth of epigraphic material and list of buildings referred to are very sparsely cited.

The late John McRae, to whom this volume is dedicated, sadly passed away prior to its publication. McRae’s essay “The Hagiography of Bodhidharma: Reconstructing the Origins of Chinese Chan Buddhism” is on one level a reappraisal of the earliest textual record of Bodhidharma, Record of the Monasteries of Luoyang (Luoyang Qielan ji 洛陽伽藍記). At another it is a defense of historiographic method in the analysis of hagiography, deliberately juxtaposed with the earlier writings of Bernard Faure (2). As McRae points out, Faure drew heavily on cultural theorists of the 20th century to underscore his discussion of this source, explicitly critiquing an historical approach to hagiography for a perceived desire to reconstruct cohesive narratives from disparate materials. By contrast, McRae stresses the merits of sustained examination of original source material over reliance on contemporary theorists. He treats structures of religious belief and their embodiment in hagiography as specific to their period and place of creation, but subject to continual appropriation and reimagining in their subsequent transmission. Examining attitudes to the relative merits of different religious practices in other narratives from the Luoyang Qielan ji, McRae contextualizes the hagiography of Bodhidharma within the religious worldview of the text, showing that sūtra recitation and seated meditation had exclusive currency in the generation of merit. However, Faure’s writings were themselves important correctives to the teleological histories of authors such as Hu Shih, and exceptionalist narratives from D.T. Suzuki. The continued relevance of Faure’s appraisal of these authors, two to three decades after publication, is evident where McRae explicitly distinguishes himself from them in outlining his approach.

Chinese Rethinking of Indian Buddhism

Robert H. Sharf’s “Is Nirvāṇa the Same as Insentience? Chinese Struggles with an Indian Buddhist Ideal” provides a highly relevant and readily transferable methodology for the study of pre-modern Buddhist thought. His approach explicitly rejects the presumption that a rational post-enlightenment perspective offers a higher vantage point than that of the historic authors with whose thought we engage. Sources from pre-modern India and China are thereby treated as meaningful commentaries on the nature of the human mind, and the complex problems faced in understanding cognitive processes. The ensuing analysis explores Indian and Chinese debates over the states of enlightenment, nirvāṇa, and the cessation of cognition, nirodha. As both were rendered into Chinese as extinction (mie 滅), these terms have been implicitly homogenised by the mechanics of translation. However, Sharf goes on to explore the continued relevance of these concepts in Tang dynasty Chan, exemplifying the philosophical and intellectual complexity with which Chinese clerics continued Indian debates over issues that still vex us today.

In “Karma and the Bonds of Kinship in Medieval Daoism: Reconciling the Irreconcilable,” Christine Mollier focuses on the problems arising from conflicting systems of eschatology between Buddhism and the earliest institutional forms of Daoism: the Way of the Celestial Masters (Tianshi Dao 天師道) and Lingbao 靈寶 Daoism. Central to this discussion is the distinction between individual personhood as the subject of Buddhism’s system of karmic repercussions, and the distributed nexus of relational personhood across lineage and kinship that had governed Chinese ethics prior to the arrival of notions of karma. Through meticulous analysis of the texts of each tradition Mollier succinctly juxtaposes their alternative negotiations of this conflict. The Celestial Masters are shown to reject the notion of karmic reciprocity in favor of rewards and punishments transmitted across generations. Contrastingly, the Lingbao assimilation of karmic notions of reciprocity resulted in what Mollier terms “Māhāyanist Daoism” (p. 179).

Stephen R. Bokenkamp’s contribution “This Foreign Religion of Ours: Lingbao Views of the Buddhist Tradition” addresses the impact of Buddhism on the conception of language and time in the Lingbao scriptures. These texts adapt and appropriate notions of time and space so vast as to be essentially infinite. Bokenkamp argues Lingbao adherents sought not to parallel but to supplant the numinous aura of authority Buddhist sūtras derived from their foreign origins in sacred Indic scripts. Bokenkamp focuses not on competing and overlapping soteriological claims of Lingbao and Buddhist texts. Instead he presents a compelling argument for the power of writing in medieval Chinese religion: a vehicle for the creation of meaning independent of specific semantic content.

Malcolm McNeill
School of African and Oriental Studies, University of London

(1) Erik Zürcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1972; Kenneth Chen, The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1973.

(2) Bernard Faure, “Bodhidharma as Textual and Religious Paradigm.” History of Religions 25, no. 3 (1986): 187-98; ———. Chan Insights and Oversights: An Epistemological Critique of the Chan Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

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