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China and India: Ancient cultural relations

Last year, Amartya Sen had an article in New York Review of Books on the 2000 year old relation between China and India. Now on the occasion of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s upcoming visit to New Delhi in March, China Daily has an article on the same topic, acknowledging the cultural imports from India.

China was thus linked culturally to India, via its adoption and transformation of Mahayana Buddhism (of the “Large Vehicle,” as opposed to Hinayana Buddhism of the “Small Vehicle,” which spread from Sri Lanka to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia). Both were already pursuing their “wider Asian interests” then, as they dominated the philosophical and cultural psyche of Asia. This “civilization dialogue” between China and India (and through China to the rest of Confucianist Asia) could be seen in three aspects of Chinese civilization: architecture and temple-building, sculpture (in China’s famous “temple caves”), and paintings and creative arts.

The teachings of Gautama Buddha indeed added flavour to Chinese civilization. Buddhism “with Chinese characteristics” had in fact helped galvanize Chinese civilization, as was built up to an apogee (of Chinese culture and civilization) during the Tang Dynasty. The Tang was also at the zenith of Chinese art and culture in its millennium-old history, and India and Buddhism have undoubtedly contributed to China’s cultural apogee.

Although Buddhism was first introduced to the Chinese courts during the Han Dynasty, the religion only pervaded Chinese society and culture progressively, as Buddhist concepts and philosophy were infused into a fast-developing and affluent Chinese society, with its own inherent characteristics and personality. [Cultural factors bind China and India]

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