Meir Shahar and John Kieschnick, eds.India in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion, and Thought

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014

by Luke Thompson on February 11, 2015

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In India in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion, and Thought (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), eleven scholars (including editors John Kieschnick and Meir Shahar) examine the Chinese reception of Indian ideas and myth, and address Chinese attempts to recreate India within the central kingdom.  Beginning with Victor Mair’s argument that it was Buddhist theories about reality that allowed fiction to flourish in China, and ending with Stephen R. Bokenkamp’s study of celestial scripts that Daoists created in response to the appearance of Sanskrit and the Devanāgarī script in China, the volume focuses primarily on the fourth to tenth centuries but addresses dynamics that were at play both before and after this six-century period.

While many previous studies that address the impact of India on China do so by focusing on the Chinese transformation of Buddhism and on the degree to which Chinese Buddhism retained this or that Indian feature, this volume differs in that it looks at the influence of Indian thought (particularly religious thought and myths) beyond the confines of Buddhism proper.  Meir Shahar and Bernard Faure’s respective contributions are good examples of this, as they demonstrate that some of the Indian deities and demons who came to China with Tantric Buddhism exchanged their Buddhist robes for Daoist ones, or escaped into the wider world of Chinese religious thought and practice.  Another central theme of the book is the way in which Chinese turned to Indian models for religious and political ends, or, in other cases, attempted to recreate India within China.  Shi Zhiru, for example, explains how a tenth-century king of Wuyue sought to manufacture and distribute 84,000 stūpas, a clear emulation of the great Indian king Aśoka.

In addition to the aforementioned scholars, the volume contains chapters by Yamabe Nobuyoshi, Ye Derong, the late John R. McRae, Robert H. Sharf, and Christine Mollier.  This book will be of particular interest to those wanting to learn more about Indian myth in East Asia, the Chinese reception of Indian ideas and symbols, the interaction between Daoism and Buddhism, the adapting of Buddhist monasticism to Chinese familial organization, Bodhidharma, the influence of Buddhism on Chinese literature, and the Chinese response to Buddhist doctrinal dilemmas.

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