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Cultural factors bind China and India
Eric Teo Chu CheowChina Daily  Updated: 2005-02-24 06:42

The buzz today is over the rise of China and India in the big global power shift, as witnessed during the recent Davos World Economic Forum. The two Asian giants' rise is being reflected in the international arena. India is seeking a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, while China has been invited to attend the G-7 Finance Ministers' Meeting in London, after its first invitation to a similar rendezvous in Washington last autumn.

In a speech to launch the Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore's Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said, "As China and India grow, they will inevitably loom larger on each other's radar screens. Economic growth will give Beijing and New Delhi the resources to pursue wider strategic interests across the Asian continent."

But in fact, historical and cultural ties between China and India had already flourished between the first and 10th centuries AD, thanks to the arrival of Buddhism in China (and then in Japan, Korea and Viet Nam) via the Silk Road, that links India to China. This cultural dimension helped shape Chinese civilization from the Han Dynasty all the way to the Sui and Tang dynasties, the latter being considered the apogee, as well as then the decline, of Buddhism in China.

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.

Mary Treagar, a renowned specialist of Chinese art and fellow of the British Academy, wrote in her thesis on "Chinese Art": "Just as Buddhist narrative traditions enriched the literary culture of China, so Buddhist traditions of iconography, temple and tomb building, and painting on scrolls and walls, opened up new possibilities for artistic culture in China. In sculpture and painting, Buddhist iconography was adopted and adapted to fit in with native systems of belief, while the Buddhist temple became the model for all temples, Taoist and Confucian."

Nowhere was Buddhism's impact better felt in architecture than in temple-building, where classic temple compounds of the Chang'an period (7th century China) clearly followed Buddhist lines. But thanks to Chinese ingenuity, the Indian stupa became progressively transformed from its original monolithic structure to a tiered pagoda - true Sino-Buddhist architectural originality. Pagodas then evolved into seven-storey monuments, given that "seven" was the auspicious number during the Tang Dynasty.

This concept of a Buddhist temple complex-cum-pagoda could be best seen in Mount Wutai's Foguangsi Hall, as well as the magnificent Horyuji Temple in Nara, Japan, which was built strictly and preserved along the lines of Chang'an period temples.

Narrative Buddhist paintings received Chinese input during the Tang period, when still rich of Buddhist iconographic art (of the Sui period) gave way to "a rupture of activity" in painting under the Tang. The narration of Buddhist paradise was merged with down-to-earth scenes of daily and court life and done in brilliant colours, thus merging the real and the supernatural in Chinese philosophy; Either pure landscapes or imbued with religious subjects, these large compositions were the start of a rich tradition in Chinese painting.

To decorate Buddhist temples, hanging scrolls were introduced to complement hand scrolls, and Chinese calligraphy, which "accompanied" painting, then made their distinct mark on mural rolls as well.

China and India have "met" and held dialogue with each other for more than a thousand years through Buddhism and the Silk Road. This historical "civilization dialogue" was then extended (thanks to China) to Japan and the rest of East or Confucianist Asia.

As the two Asian giants normalize relations and co-ordinate their strategies in "unifying" Asia, probably high on the agenda of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's upcoming visit to New Delhi in March, China and India should not forget their historical links and dialogues, which bound them together in the first millennium AD.

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