China: Made in India!

Sino-Indian relations may today be mired in diplomatic battle strategies of the String of Pearls, yet, India was once the pearl piece in China, whether it be in their Buddhism, Taoism, martial arts or ancient sciences

By Satya Datta

IN the film 36 Chambers of Shaolin, when the young trainee tries to launch an assault on the head of the temple, the latter is sitting in yogic meditation. As the young rebel approaches, The Master breathes out sharply, and the young rebel crashes to the ground, completely taken aback.

Shaolin is the highest temple of martial arts. There we see The Master sitting in yogic meditation in Padmasana, or the Lotus Posture. His weapon against the approaching rebel is his breath, acquired through years of Pranayam, the Indian science of breath control. So what is so Chinese about Shaolin? Or is it just all Indian? 

In many ways, yes. Though India will take decades to become, economically as well as geo-politically, what China is today, it remains a fact that much of China’s vital showpieces, Buddhism, Taoism, martial arts, the sciences had migrated from India. And there was much respect for India in ancient and medieval China, just for this very reason. 

Globally and historically the two of the very oldest civilisations are India and China, with the mighty Himalaya standing tall in between them. It is a curious fact that Chinese culture, though so distinctive, all-pervasive and compulsive, could not influence India, even if some Chinese philosophers did came to India during Kushan Empire, it could not leave any lasting marks behind. But the influence of India on China however is irrefutable. It is not merely in religion that India influenced China, but in most subjects that go to make up their national culture.

The Chinese derided the tribes living to their North as “Hun slaves,” and the tribes living to the North-West as “barbarians,” while the Japanese were denominated by them as the “Dwarf Pirates.” But their attitude towards India was different. India was known to them by a number of names, not one of which was disdainful. She was called Hsin Tu, the Kingdom of the Hindus, or Ti Yu, the Western Land; to Buddhists she was Fu Kuo, the Land of the Buddhas.


The first records of contact between China and India were written during the 2nd century BCE. Buddhism was transmitted from India to China in the 1st century CE (AD 1 to AD 100 according to the Julian calendar). Trade relations via the Silk Road acted as an economic contact between India and China. However, China and India have also had some contact before the spread of Buddhism. 

The cultural relations between India and China can be traced back to very early times. There are numerous references about China in Sanskrit literature. In Mahabharata there is a reference of presents being brought by the Chinese at the Rajasuya Yajna of the Pandavas; also, the Arthasastra and Manusmriti mention China. Some scholars point out that the Chinese word for lion, Shih, used long before the Chin dynasty, was derived from the Sanskrit word, Simha. 

Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate, writes in the Times of India: “It is not often realised that even such a central term in Chinese culture as “Mandarin” is derived from a Sanskrit word, namely Mantri, which went from India to China via Malaya.”

It is probable that there was a link between India and China even before the birth of Buddha; certain similarities between pre-Buddhist Indians and pre-Confucian Chinese go to reinforce that theory. According to Hindus, the world sprang from the union of Purusha and Prakriti, the Male and Female Principles; the ancient Chinese writers thought the same — they called them Yang and Yin. Mountains were worshipped in both the countries; what the Himalaya have been to Hindus that Mount Tai has been to the Celestials.


China is the country with the largest population of Buddhists. It is said that Asoka’s missionaries had gone to China. We do know as a matter of historical fact that in 67 AD the Emperor Ming Ti received Kashyapamadanya from India, who bore with him presents of images and sculptures. Since then, the intercourse between the two countries continued uninterrupted till at least the eighth century.

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 India. Hundreds of Indian religious teachers went to China between the first to the twelfth century. 

They left China some with 3,000 scriptures translated from Sanskrit into Chinese. Among the well-known Buddhist missionaries are Gunavarmanm, a prince of Kashmir, Buddhabhadra, Prajna and so forth. A monk named Bodhiruci reached China in AD 693 by sea and translated Sanskrit works. 


A scripture called Dhanurveda contains references to Indian martial arts. Around 3rd century BC, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali taught how to meditate single-mindedly on points located inside one’s body, which was later used in martial arts, while various mudra (finger movements) were taught in Hinduism and Yogacara Buddhism. These elements of yoga, as well as finger movements in the Nataraj dance, were later incorporated into various martial arts. 

The first monk who preached Buddhism in China was Buddhabhadra, simply called Batuo by the Chinese. Batuo’s first Chinese disciples, Huiguang and Sengchou, both had exceptional martial arts skills. Sengchou’s skill with the tin staff is even documented in the Chinese Buddhist canon. 

After Buddhabadra, another Indian monk, Bhodhidharma simply called Damo by the Chinese, came to Shaolin in 527 AD. His Chinese disciple, Huike, was also a highly trained martial arts expert. There are indications that these first three Chinese Shaolin monks, Huiguang, Sengchou and Huike, may have been military men before entering the monastic life.

Some popular stories consider Bhodhidharma as the founder of Shaolin kung fu. The idea of Bodhidharma influencing Shaolin boxing is based on a qigong manual written during the 17th century.It reads: “Around 520 AD, a Buddhist monk from India named Bodhidharma (Da Mo) came to the Shaolin monastery at the foot of the Songshan mountains in north-central China.

To help the monks withstand the long periods of meditation he introduced his Chan (Zen) school of Buddhism, Bodhidharma 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. These areas were famous for attacks by the Mongolian Brigands and ravagers.” 


Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev says “The word ‘Zen’ comes from the Sanskrit word “Dhyan.” Gautama the Buddha taught Dhyan. Bodhidharma carried Dhyan to China, where it became Chan. This Chan went further down into Far East Asian countries, where it became Zen.”

Yoga has had an enormous influence on all forms of Indian spirituality, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism and later on Sufism etc. Indeed, Zen (Chinese accepted form of Buddhism) is a specific form of Yoga’s dhyana or ‘transcendental meditation’ and the word Zen (like the Chinese chan) is a simple phonetic development from Sanskrit dhyana.

To help monks withstand the long periods of meditation, Bodhidharma introduced his Chan (Zen) school of Buddhism

Bhogar was a South Indian by birth, who became a siddha purusha under the guidance of Kalanginaathar. It is said that as per the last wishes of his guru, Bhogar proceeded to China to spread the knowledge of siddha sciences. (Strangely enough, his journey is said to have been made with the aid of an aircraft,)

Lao Tse   the founder of Taoism (5th century B.C.) was the first Chinese to propound the theory of duality of matter   the male Yang and female Yin   which conforms to the Siddha concept of Shiva-Shakti or positive-negative forces. This very same concept was first revealed by the adi-siddhar Agasthya Rishi, whose period is as old as the Vedas, which have been conservatively dated at 3500 B.C.

The emergence of Lao Tse with his theory of duality of matter and the journey of Bhogar to China seem to have taken place about the same time and it is even possible that Bhogar himself went under the name of Lao Tse in China, like another Siddharishi Sriramadevar, who was known as Yacob in Arabia.

This seems likely considering that: before Lao Tse the concept of duality of matter finds no mention in any Chinese treatise.


Some of the most loved personalities of Chinese mythology were supposed to have the connection with the Indian mythical figures. For instance, Sun Wukong: the Monkey King made famous in the Chinese classic Journey to the West, bears similarities to Hanuman or Anjaneya of the Hindu epic Ramayana. The two characters share many traits such as the skill of becoming gigantic or very tiny, and the ability to assume any form, just like the ability of Lord Hanuman as the possessor of Asta Siddhi Nava Nidhi.

Again, Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion is known as Guan Shr Yin Pusa to the Chinese, Kannon Bosatsu to the Japanese, and Chenrezig to the Tibetans. In India, She is one of the Forms of Maa Durga.

Indian art also reached China, mainly through Central Asia. In painting, India influenced China considerably. From the Chin dynasty to the Tang dynasty there was a continuous interrelation between the two countries, and Indian paintings went to China in great numbers and influenced Chinese artists. Monks and their retinues and traders brought Buddha statues, models of Hindu temples, and other objects of art to China. 

Fa-hsien made drawings of images whilst at Tamralipiti. Hsuan-Tsang returned with several golden and sandalwood figures of the Buddha; and Hui-Lun with a model of the Nalanda Mahavihara. Wang Huan-ts’e, who went to India several times, collected many drawings of Buddhist images, including a copy of the Buddha image at Bodhgaya; this was deposited at the Imperial Palace and served as a model of the image in Ko-ngai-see temple. 

The most famous icon of East Asian Buddhism known as the “Udayana” image was reported to have been brought by Indians. However, this influx of Indian art was incidental and intermittent and was destined to be absorbed by Chinese art. This combination resulted in a Buddhist art of exceptional beauty.

One of the most famous caves is Ch’ien-fo-tung, “Caves of the Thousand Buddhas.” These caves were painted throughout with murals, and were frequently furnished with numerous Buddha statues and sculptured scenes from the Jatakas. Many other caves were initiated in the reign of Toba Wei Emperor, T’ai Wu. Some also contain images of Hindu deities, such as Shiva on Nandi and Vishnu on Garuda.

Chinese drama assimilated Indian.  The twelfth century provides the first known record of the performance of a play, a Buddhist miracle-play called Mu-lien Rescues his Mother based on an episode in the Indian epic, the Mahabharata. The subject matter of the Buddhist adaptation of the story, in which Maudgalyayana (Mu-lien in Chinese) rescues the mother from hell, occurs in a Tun-Huang Pien Wen. Significantly, the play was first performed at the Northern Sung capital by professionals before a religious festival.

The Chinese did not regard music as an art to be cultivated outside the temples and theatres. Indian music had displaced Chinese music in the seventh century as according to Chinese writers, Buddhists who reached China from India started the practice of chanting of the Buddhist texts. Hence, Indian melody was introduced into Chinese.

Indian music was so popular in China that Emperor Kao-Tsu (581-595) tried unsuccessfully to proscribe it by an Imperial decree. His successor Yang-ti was also very fond of Indian music. In Chinese annals, references are found to visiting Indian musicians, who reached China from India. By the end of the sixth century, Indian music had been given state recognition. During the T’ang period, Indian music was quite popular, especially the famous Rainbow Garment Dance melody.


Nalanda was established in the fifth century AD in Bihar, India. It trained students in Buddhist Studies, fine arts, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, politics and the art of war.

The centre had eight separate compounds, ten temples, meditation halls, classrooms, lakes and parks. It had a nine-story library where monks meticulously copied books and documents so that individual scholars could have their own collections. It had dormitories for students, perhaps a first for an educational institution, housing 10,000 students in the school’s heydey and providing accommodation for 2,000 professors.

Chinese travellers Hiuen Tsang (b. 604) and I Ching (635-713), were both students at Nalanda University. 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 practised there. He found Indians “high-minded, upright and honourable”. Hiuen Tsang wrote the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, an account of his journey to India, which later inspired Wu Chen’s Ming dynasty’s novel Journey to the West. Indeed, the Chinese were mesmerised by the dedication of Indians for study.


In modern day acupuncture lore, there is recounted a legend that the discovery of the vital bodily points began within India as a result of combative research studies undertaken by the Indian Kshatriya warriors in order to discover the vital (and deadly) points of the body which could be struck during hand-to-hand encounters.

It is said that they experimented upon prisoners by piercing their bodies with the iron and stone “needles’ called Suci daggers. This Chinese legend reflects and complements the traditional Indian account of its origins, where it is said that in the aftermath of battles it was noticed that sometimes therapeutic effects arose from superficial arrow or dagger wounds incurred by the Kshatriya in battle.

The Marma energy points, developed in India, profoundly affect the body, mind and spirit and facilitate deepest levels of healing

Also, Marma points are an important element of Ayurveda’s healing power. Developed in India centuries ago, these energy points profoundly affect the body, mind and spirit and facilitate the deepest levels of healing. Prana is the current of energy that infuses every cell within the body thru energy meridian; this may be similar to the Acupressure and Acupuncture treatment.

In Korean academics, students are correctly told that acupuncture originated in India. Chinese medicine was influenced by Ayurveda, and similarities include the extensive use of natural herbs.

According to Terence Duke “ Many Buddhists were familiar with the extensive knowledge of surgery common to Indian medicine and this aided them both in spreading the teachings and in their practice of diagnosis and therapy. The surgical technique was almost unknown within China prior to the arrival of Buddhism.” 

The renowned Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna is said to have translated at least two traditional works dealing with healing and medicines in the first century of our era. A section of his Maha-Prajnaparamita Sutra is quoted by the Chinese monk I-Tsing in his commentary upon the five winds (Chinese: Wu Fung; Japanese: Gofu). This description enables us to see that the breath Hatha Yoga termed prana is, in fact, forming only part of a wider system known in Buddhism.” 

The T’ang emperors patronised Indian thaumaturges (Tantric Yogis) who were believed to possess secret methods of rejuvenation. Wang Hsuan-Chao, who returned to India after the death of King Harsha had been charged by the Chinese Emperor in 664 to bring back Indian medicines and physicians. 

Considering that Indian medicine, especially operative surgery, was highly developed for the time, it is not surprising that the Chinese, like the Arabs, were captivated by Indian medical skills and drugs. Cataract surgery was known to the Indian physician Sushruta (3rd century CE). In India, the surgery was performed with a special tool called the Jabamukhi Salaka, a curved needle used to loosen the lens and push the cataract out of the field of vision. The eye would later be soaked with warm butter and bandaged. 


There is also some evidence that works on Indian astronomy were in circulation in China well before the T’ang period. In the annuals of the Sui dynasty, numerous Chinese translations of Indian mathematical and astronomical works are mentioned, such as Po-lo-men Suan Fa (The Hindu Arithmetical rules) and Po-lo-men Suan King. 

These works have vanished, and it is impossible to assess the degree of their influence on Chinese sciences. However, there is definite evidence of Indian influence on Chinese astronomy and calendar studies during the T’ang dynasty. In 684 one of the members of the Gautama school, Lo presented a calendar, Kuang-tse-li, which has been in use for three years, to Empress Wu. Later, in 718, another member of the school, Hsi-ta (Siddhartha), presented to the Emperor a calendar, Chiu-che-li, which was almost a direct translation of an Indian calendar, Navagraha Siddhanta of Varahamihira and which is still preserved in the T’ang period collection. 

It was in use for four years. In 729 Siddhartha compiled a treatise based on this calendar which is the greatest known collection of ancient Chinese astronomical writings. This was the first time that a zero symbol appeared in a Chinese text, but, even more important, this work also contained a table of sines, which were typically Indian. I-hsing (682-727) was associated with the Kumara school and was much influenced by Indian astronomy. Indian influence can also be seen in the nine planets he introduced into his calendar, Ta-yen-li. 

The nine planets included the sun, the moon, five known planets, and two new planets, Rahu and Ketu, by which the Indian astronomers represented the ascending and descending nodes of the moon. The table of sines from the Indian mathematician Aryabhata was translated into Chinese astronomical and mathematical treatise of the Kaiyuan era. Gautama Siddha who was born in Chang’an had his family roots in India. He introduced the Indian numerals including 0, and also the Indian Navagraha calendar to China. 

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